Before he knew better, Jim Voltz never would have taken whistlers for a prickly bunch. It just doesn’t jibe with the lip musician’s classically jolly image: strolling down the city sidewalk, chin high and elbows thrust out, tipping his fedora to passers-by as he tootles an old-timey melody. But then again, most whistlers never had to fill out a Jim Voltz questionnaire.
Four years ago, the Dupont Circle resident went on his second voyage to Louisburg, N.C., for the annual International Whistler’s Convention, the country’s foremost gathering of top-flight puckerers and their fans. Voltz had recently started studying the history and culture of the art, and he brought along a survey so he could do some primary research. Though most of the questions tended toward the innocuous, one of them managed to raise some whistlers’ eyebrows. The gist: Do you suffer from attention-deficit disorder (ADD)?
“People were like, ‘You think whistling is a disease?’” recalls Voltz, 47. “I was just trying to find the truth, exploring the subject. But it raised some hackles.”
Voltz, who himself has attention-deficit disorder, spent a good part of his day trying to soothe insulted whistlers. But he also shook hands with plenty of conventioneers who, like him, always wondered if there was any correlation between the antic condition and their beloved pastime. The results of his small test seemed to confirm it: Of the 30 or so whistlers who responded, about a third said they were also ADD sufferers.
If he were asking his question today, Voltz would probably apply a more delicate touch. As the world’s pre-eminent whistling historian, he’s become well-aware of the art’s age-old association with disease. Combing through old news archives for any mention of whistling, he discovered this bit of newspaper commentary from the late 19th century: “[Whistling] amounts to a disease, which has not obtained sufficient attention from the medical faculty. Whistlers differ as stars differ from one another, but we never heard one who could whistle equal to three pieceworths of bamboo or a pennyworth of perforated tin.” He also found this 1883 report on the deterioration of a famous tenor: “[He] has been shut up in an asylum, incurably mad over his pet hobby, whistling.”
To Voltz, however, whistling isn’t so much a disease as a strange but enjoyable compulsion—just like his drive to piece together and preserve the history of the art. He strikes up conversations with immigrant cabbies to learn more about whistling customs in their native countries. “In Jamaica,” he says, “one of the worst things a woman can do is whistle in front of a man….But there are whistling competitions in rural areas.” He knocks on embassy doors with questions about whistling folklore. “There are Ukrainian customs that involve whistling, but not around money or food,” he learned during a visit to the U.S.–Ukraine Foundation on 15th Street NW. “If you whistle around money, you go bankrupt. If you whistle around food, it goes bad.”
And, of course, he hits up his acquaintances for odd whistling tidbits whenever possible. “A friend of mine is a horse trader in Middleburg, Va.,” Voltz says, “and they use whistling to get horses to pee.”
To date, Voltz has amassed 28 boxes of whistling recordings, ephemera, and memorabilia. He has pounds of whistling sheet music, boxes of rare 78s from the whistling vogue of the ’30s and ’40s, about 20 statues of whistling boys (he’s found only three whistling girls), antique advertisements that feature whistling, and dozens of old wax-cylinder recordings and canisters of 16mm film that he doesn’t even have the equipment to play. Because the collection is too large for his modest efficiency, he keeps most of the stuff at his sister’s home in Rockville. He hopes that someday it will all become the English-speaking world’s most significant sociohistorical survey on the art of whistling.
Though there have been a number of books written on how to whistle, most whistling research, Voltz says, winds up in scholarly journals as part of say, a linguistics study. Voltz cares more about whistling’s cultural importance, as evinced by his research categories: “Whistling in Advertising,” “Whistling in Movies,” “Whistling and Crime,” and so forth.
“I love the fact that it’s kind of unexplored,” he explains. “There’s a lot there, but it hasn’t been put together.”
Voltz became fascinated with whistling as a child growing up near Buffalo, N.Y., back when he and his father would whistle songs together. “They were corny old songs, like ‘Tell Me Why,’” he recalls. “It was stuff he would’ve sung in harmony when he was in the Air Force.”
Those duets with Dad are some of Voltz’s fondest memories—and one reason he’s made a pastime of combing obituaries for remembrances of deceased whistlers. Whistling, notes Voltz, is mentioned in obituaries more often than anywhere else in the newspaper. “To me, it shows the larger reality of whistling, that it’s not something that people pay much attention to,” he says. “It’s very personal. I noticed it a couple years ago, and it doesn’t change: ‘We always knew when he was nearby because we could hear him whistling.’ It’s all very sweet.”
Take, for example, an obituary for retired firefighter Richard Colemier, which appeared in Minnesota’s St. Paul Pioneer Press this past April. An acquaintance described him as “our whistling friend”: “You always knew when Richard was coming into the building.”
Voltz spends a good chunk of his time outside his job as a legal analyst with BlueCross BlueShield—as well as a good portion of his salary—tracking down such ephemera. He’s traveled to Cambridge, Mass., to peruse Victorian-era theater pamphlets that feature whistlers and to the University of Chicago to research the history of what was, until its recent disbandment, the only whistling choir in the country.
His expertise proved invaluable to filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, who used Voltz as a commentator in Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling, their Spellbound-esque documentary about a handful of eccentric professional whistlers who converge on Louisburg for the 2004 competition. The film, which was warmly received at the Silverdocs AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival in Silver Spring last month, intertwines whistling history with the lives and performances of its competitors. Most of the film’s still images came from Voltz’s collection.
A few years ago, Voltz received a call from a fact-checker at Reader’s Digest who was trying to verify items in an article on whistling. The fact-checker had been referred to Voltz by someone at the Library of Congress. Voltz told the fact-checker he couldn’t help: The author of the article had gotten many of her facts from an anonymous Voltz, so he would basically be verifying his own material.
Voltz’s only serious fact-checking competition is Mitch Hider, a 66-year-old professional singer and whistler who lives in Oregon. Hider started researching whistling back in the ’70s, long before he met Voltz, who began five years ago. “I looked at it from a folklore, historical, sociological point of view, as well as a performer,” recalls Hider, who was a reporter for 20 years and now runs a one-day whistling seminar in Louisburg every year. His research was haphazard, and, like Voltz, he found it more enjoyable that way.
“I immediately saw it as a large story,” says Hider. “I put together kind of an anthology years ago and tried to interest some publishers. There didn’t seem to be any interest.”
But the history of whistling isn’t something that should be ignored, Voltz says. It provides a lens onto the complexities of race, class, and gender. Slaves, for instance, were prohibited from whistling on some plantations, as part of an effort to force them to abandon their African traditions. A news report from 1900 detailed a proposal for a whistling prohibition in the streetcars of St. Louis: “Not even the negroes, as fond as they are of whistling, impose their mouths upon the public in the street cars.”
An 1899 essay argued that a woman who whistles is like a “dancing bear….The point is not whether the thing is done well or ill—the wonder is that it should be done at all.” Voltz’s firsthand research corroborates the old-guard perception that whistling does not become a lady. “People tell me, ‘My grandmother was so ashamed of me when I whistled,’” he says. “Some say they whistled to be rebellious.”
And at least one antiquated whistling ordinance is still on the books around here—in Greenbelt, Md., where whistling “loud enough for someone 50 feet away to hear it” is against the law between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Voltz works hard at wrapping his head around such phenomena, including the old saw that says it’s bad luck for an actor to whistle onstage. His theory: Centuries ago, stagehands often worked primarily as sailors. At sea, they used whistling signals to direct other shipmates to drop sail. Voltz surmises they may have used whistling signals to change sets, too. “If [an actor] whistled onstage,” says Voltz, “he could be hit in the head with a scrim.” Hence the bad luck.
“I don’t know that to be confirmed,” he admits, “but it would make sense.”
But then there’s the completely inexplicable. When Voltz was growing up upstate, local folklore dictated that homosexuals were incapable of whistling—a head-scratcher for the young Voltz, who somehow managed to be gay and whistle proficiently at the same time. The older he got and the farther he traveled from home, the more people’s assumptions seemed to run in the other direction: If you whistled, somehow that meant you were more likely to be gay.
Ah, “Whistling and Sexual Orientation”—another possible chapter for the great book of whistling Voltz has always meant to spin off from his collection. But that could be a long way off. For now, there are just too many whistling strangers to interrogate and too much whistling paraphernalia to acquire. When he’s done, he has promised to donate a lot of his stuff to the National Whistlers Museum in Louisburg, as well as the Library of Congress, though he may keep a “few sentimental items” for himself.
“Some people say it’s not worth the space it takes up,” he laughs. But as he talks, he has a note in his pocket detailing a conversation he recently had with a stranger at a movie theater. She told him about some college fraternities that use whistling codes, so he jotted it down. Later, he’ll figure out exactly where this tidbit fits into his ever-expanding whistling history.
“I really kind of love it,” he says. “Sometime maybe I’ll settle down and write it.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Carrie Devorah.