In American Heartland, Swiss Amish Carry On Yodeling Tradition
The Swiss Amish in the United States are keeping alive a vocal art passed down from their ancestors in Switzerland and eastern France. Both a symbol of identity and entertainment, yodeling was also a source of inspiration for American country music.
BERNE — At the gates of Berne, Indiana, where the cemented part of Highway 27 ends, horse-drawn carriages mix dangerously with trucks. Once there, parked outside Hilty's Dry Goods store, the only remaining noises are the horse hooves. Two different worlds share a common horizon: the Midwest.
The Amish are descendants of the Mennonites, Anabaptists who had to leave Europe to escape religious persecution after the Radical Reformation. They found a home in Adams County, where they established themselves as farmers, woodcrafters and workers.
Bill Hilty welcomes us in his shop, dimly lit by a single gaslight. "We sell boots, fabric, porcelain and stainless steel," he says. "My sister Emmy opened the shop in July 1964. She died of pancreatic cancer; we thought she had the flu. I worked with her for 19 and a half years, and I'm still learning every day.
"I always thought we came over here from Switzerland, but it might be that my family went to Alsace first," Hilty says. "My father, Pete, was born here in 1899. He married a German woman who spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, and they mingled Swiss and Pennsylvanian Dutch when they talked to each other."
And this is what makes the Amish community from Adams County so special. They protect their European cultural heritage by transmitting the language of their forebears, "Swiss" or "Swiss German," to the younger generations. Hilty's ancestors, who spoke the "Swiss-Swiss" (the Swiss German spoken in Switzerland at the time) wouldn't be able to understand the language he speaks himself nowadays, which is far too mixed up.
Hilty parks his only means of transport, a bike, near the haycock. Another cultural tradition that makes the Indiana Swiss Amish community especially proud is yodeling. Hilty learned how to yodel when he was little, alongside his brothers and sisters, by listening to their older siblings. The Amish usually yodel amongst themselves, away from the curious glances of foreigners.
"You can't really learn how to yodel," he explains. "You listen and try to reproduce what you've heard. When I was little, I used to yodel quite a bit. Then I had troubles with my tonsils. My throat kept hurting me. So I had them taken out, and you know later I kinda got back into it again."
After briefly clearing his throat, he's ready to give us a one-minute demonstration of this pure cultural heritage. Our heartfelt applause after his show makes him relax a little bit.
"You know, I'm 69," he says. "I've survived one heart attack. I don't practice yodeling very often now, though I try to teach it to my two grandchildren."
Too frivolous for some people
Linguist Chad Thompson of Indiana University published a study 20 years ago about how yodeling was passed down in the Indiana Amish community. According to Thompson, most of what he discovered then is still applicable today, especially the "ethnic sense of belonging" that yodeling represents.
To Thompson, there's a scale of "Swiss-ness" among Americans of Swiss origins. At the top are Swiss Americans — referred to by the Amish as "the English" — who are not Amish and who live in Berne. They mostly come from the Bernese Jura or the Emmental and think they are "more Swiss" than the Amish from Adams County, who in turn consider themselves "more Swiss" than the Amish living in Allen County.
Things get more complicated. "The Swiss Americans who are not Amish have stopped speaking Swiss, because it was considered inappropriate," Thompson says. "But they still yodel during the Swiss Days, several summer festivals that celebrate Swiss traditions. But the way they do it â€¦ it's showy, even kitschy sometimes. It's quite different from the yodeling of the Amish, who convey real authenticity."
Thompson says that another aspect of yodeling is its "expression of joy" that is closely connected to religion, though there may be various distinctions.
"Some Amish will refuse to yodel if they are accompanied by specific musical instruments, especially those that are deemed too modern," he says. "Others will find yodeling too frivolous and not religious enough. A bishop once told me that yodeling was a frivolous activity that should be avoided, because when practiced among young adults, it could pave the way for sexual intercourse before marriage."
Hospitality in the kitchen
Most of the Amish living in Adams County belong to the Old Order — the most traditional and conservative among Amish communities— a group that advocates staying as far away as possible from the modern world in day-to-day life. The Old Order's horse-drawn carriages (also called "buggies") aren't covered, unlike those owned by the Amish living in Allen County or in Pennsylvania.
The Wengerd family's hospitality contrasts sharply with the conservatism that characterizes the Old Order Amish community as a whole. Their farm is located at the far end of a small dirt road close to "Geneva" city, near the river.
The father, Levi, his wife, Liz, and three of their four children — Levi Jr., Rosa and Suzanne — welcome us with curiosity: "Do you speak Swiss? Can you read the Bible written in German? Can you yodel?"
Liz shows us a cookbook written by her late mother Elisabeth Coblenz (née Graber), a well-known food critic. Then she offers us a summer sausage made of deer meat, a local delicacy. After that, the whole family starts singing "Eismal Yodele."
"I remember yodeling at the age of 6 or 7, while going to the henhouse to fetch eggs," Levi says. "Now I prefer yodeling when I'm alone in the stables. Why do we yodel in the family? Because it brings us together."
Jimmie Rodgers and American yodeling
Yodeling also seems to have the power to unite people outside the Amish community. In his latest book on the subject, Dutch writer and DJ Bart Plantenga, a leader in the field, explains how this ancestral singing art, which was formerly used as a cry for help by French shepherds in the Alps, remains influential today. Yodeling has even influenced American country music.
"Take, for example, the four ambassadors of country music: Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Slim Whitman and Eddie Arnold," Plantenga says. "They all became famous thanks to yodeling. It allowed some of them to make their lyrics more meaningful and broaden the range of emotions. Yodeling can either express joy or elicit feelings of melancholy. It can either cheer up or bring down an audience."
Legend has it that Jimmie Rodgers, the father of American country music, met an Amish yodeling band on tour somewhere in the Midwest. A few months later — on Oct. 30, 1927 — he recorded his first version of "Blue Yodel," featuring a mixture of blues, European yodeling and African-American falsetto, an unnaturally or artificially high-pitched voice.
Even without concrete evidence, Plantenga strongly believes that yodeling came to Jimmie Rodgers as a "moving need to express his own doubts and grief."
U.S.-born Swiss singer Erika Stucki is one of the many modern artists who continue the tradition with her songs.
"Yodeling is fashionable nowadays," Plantenga says. "I receive at least two new requests for my yodeling training sessions every week. The young are fond of the old."