An Alpine Melody
It’s a sunny afternoon in Veneta, Oregon. The Hanson family’s backyard is illuminated by light streaming through the trees as siblings Daniel, Lisa, and Theresa cheerfully sing Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Their voices travel into the clear blue sky as the sun beams down on their smiling faces and sparkles the rhinestones on their matching Western outfits.
Daniel, 18, and his sisters Theresa, 20, and Lisa, 23, are the youngest in a family of nine talented Western singers who specialize in the art of yodeling. The siblings, who regularly perform in Oregon and beyond, have won numerous yodeling contests. “Yodeling brought a new dimension to our family and got the attention of audiences. As the children’s talent grew, they kept winning singing contests, becoming a more professional group in the last 13 years,” says the siblings’ father, Wayne Hanson.
The Hanson children’s passion for yodeling emerged when Lisa, Theresa, and Daniel were nine, seven, and five, respectively. The family was living in a region of Wisconsin known as Northwoods when a visiting relative from North Dakota loaned them a cassette tape titled “How to Yodel the Cowboy Way.” The cassette, which was co-produced by international yodeling champion Shirley Field and Western entertainer Rudy Robins, inspired the Hanson children to begin practicing yodeling every day. “You sound like a turkey at first,” Lisa laughs. “It takes a lot of practice.”
In yodeling, a high-pitched falsetto voice and a normal speaking voice, known as “chest voice,” are rapidly alternated to create the distinctive sound. Lisa says she and her siblings practiced “breaking their voices,” or alternating chest voice and falsetto, in their free time while riding bikes. “They really blossomed and decided to learn yodeling,” Wayne says.
Yodeler’s voices are known for their ability to carry over long distances and the singing style was originally used to communicate in mountain regions. When the Hansons lived in the woods of Wisconsin, from their property they could see only two other houses. But despite the relative isolation of their home, the Hanson’s neighbors were still able to hear the children’s yodeling. “Breaking the voice cuts through the air somehow,” Wayne says.
But not everyone can learn to yodel easily—or learn it at all. Wayne says it took his children approximately two years to become proficient yodelers. Speech therapists believe the ability to yodel depends on each individual’s nervous system. “All people have the same vocal chords, but it all depends on whether a person is able to coordinate their three systems on the neurological level,” says speech-language pathologist Nancy Mackay. “The three systems include breath support, vocal chords, and articulators [tongue, lips, teeth].” She points out that the systems also influence resonance, which determines the pitch range of an individual’s voice.
The Hansons often use yodeling as a background for their Western songs. The family has dedicated one room in their home as a place to play instruments, sing, and arrange songs together. The sight of almost 30 instruments and a wooden treble clef-shaped clock inevitably sets the musical mood for anyone who enters. Here, the Hanson children spend hours playing instruments that include the piano, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, drums, violin, accordion, trombone, and French horn. At the room’s entrance, the family keeps an additional singer: their five-year-old parakeet. “If you listen while we’re performing, you’ll hear Merry Bird,” says Lisa referring to the family’s chirping pet.
Since childhood the Hanson children have sung in church choirs and competed in musical contests such as the Oregon State Fair talent competition and the USA World Showcase in Las Vegas. In 2002, Theresa and Daniel won the Lane County Fair talent contest with a duet titled, “The Man in the Moon is a Yodeler.” In 2003 Lisa, who was then 14 years old, took second place in her age division with, “He Taught Me to Yodel,” at the Oregon State Fair. Both songs were written by Field. In 2006, Daniel won the Western Music Association Festival’s Youth International Yodeling Championship in New Mexico. As a family, the Hansons have performed at events such as the Pendleton Round-Up and the Lincoln County Fair.
The Hanson’s three youngest girls, Christa, Lisa, and Theresa, make up their own band called Seraphim. To date, they’ve released four CDs:
O God of Loveliness (2003), God Is Our Friend (2004), Hail, Queen of Heaven (2007), and A Seraphim Christmas (2010). “Their voices are so similar to each other that sometimes it’s hard to tell which girl is singing,” says David Phillips, choir director at St. Mary’s Church in Eugene and producer of the group’s CDs. He writes music for Seraphim and helps the girls with vocals and instrument arrangements. “The girls have a natural blend; the timbres of their voices match,” he says.
It has been suggested that yodeling originated as an imitation of alphorn music, which was played with a long wooden horn by Alpine herdsmen in Switzerland. It is known that yodeling was used in the Swiss Alps, the Austrian Tirol, and the mountain ranges of China, and has since reverberated across the mountainsides of the US, although yodeling has been heard less and less in recent years. The style enjoyed popularity in the 1930s and 1940s thanks to the “Mississippi Blue Yodeler,” Jimmie Rodgers, who is known as the Father of Country Music. Almost a century has passed since Rodgers yodeled, but the art has not disappeared.
Another Oregon singer from Albany, Lorenda Kropf, learned to yodel when she was eight years old. “Yodeling is a lost art and it’s fun to bring it back again,” says Kropf, who writes Gospel music and began performing professionally in 2009. Last year, she sang “Jesus Makes me Yodel” for a Pacific Gospel Music Association event at the Valley River Inn in Eugene. “Yodeling is unique style of singing, and it’s intriguing to people. I heard that people either like it or hate it. When I yodel, I feel happy inside,” says Kropf, who thinks yodeling tends to be a cheery, free sound. “It depends on the song you insert it in, but most of the time it’s bubbly and joyous. Music is the expression of what’s in people’s hearts.”
Although yodeling has become an all-but lost art, there are singers like the Hansons and Kropf who are working to revive it. They believe the singing technique can endure if it is learned, practiced, and passed on from generation to generation. “There are seasons in life, just like fashions and styles. I think it [yodeling] got lost for a while, but there are a lot of people like ourselves involved in keeping it alive and bringing it back to popularity,” Wayne says.