Since his stroke a year and a half ago, the right words don’t always come easily for Darrel Johnson.
But on Tuesday nights, the 82-year-old brings his binder full of lyrics to the Cottage Grove VFW, where he’s received with hugs and handshakes and a repeated inquiry: “When are you going to yodel?”
Johnson carries his collection of typed-out country western songs under his arm, the first page always his favorite, Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call.” That’s the page he takes with him when he’s called to the stage.
He starts with a burst of falsetto that rolls into a lower pitch, then quickly back up again: the rapid lilt of the practiced yodeler.
Yodelers such as Johnson, who sing the country western warble made popular in the 1930s and ’40s, are aging out of performing. “It is uncommon to hear it in Minnesota,” said former folklore professor James Leary, who wrote a book on yodeling and Swiss music in Wisconsin.
Thanks to the internet, however, younger people can still hear — and try to learn — the sounds of the yodel. When the video of 11-year-old Mason Ramsey yodeling in a Walmart went viral, it showed that yodeling fans “might be a shrinking audience, but it’ll always be there,” Leary said.
“I’m just a plain old country boy,” Johnson will say as he walks back to his table, through swaying couples on the VFW’s dance floor. Before taking a gulp of his brandy and 7Up, he’ll lean over to explain that cows drop their milk faster when you yodel at them — or at least they did when he taught himself to sing on his family’s farm near Viking, Minn.
Tucked in the middle of his music binder, Johnson keeps a handwritten list of songs for his next CD. He’s already recorded six — each one includes “Cattle Call.” He’s open to suggestions for his next release.
“But none of the new stuff,” Johnson said. “You can’t understand what the hell they are singing.”
Heaven’s door was open
Johnson can’t quite remember when he first started singing for an audience. He said he thinks it’s been about 15 or 20 years.
Before he started moonlighting as a musician, Johnson worked as a welder at Whirlpool for two decades, occasionally mowing lawns on the side. In 1978, he started his own landscaping business, one he’s still running today. He figures he’ll stop working when he’s 92 — in another 10 years.
Lou Dalton rolls her eyes when Johnson mentions his far-off retirement plan. The two met six years ago when Dalton offered three hours of housecleaning services as an auction item at the St. Paul Park VFW. Johnson’s winning bid of $25 led to a few weeks of back-and-forth phone calls to set up a day that would work for them both.
Dalton recalls a gruff voice and words along the lines of “Come clean my house or give me my money back.” Three hours turned into 12 hours, and then a crab dinner at a casino.
Now Dalton, 72, is his girlfriend and the two are still bickering about who paid for the meal on that first date.
They’ll both admit that some days, the only thing they can agree on is classic country music. And the fact that the Cottage Grove home they now share never did stay clean.
At the house, photos of Johnson and Iris, his wife of nearly 50 years, are covered in dust. She was killed in a car crash in 2006. He lets Hank Thompson’s song “Who Left the Door to Heaven Open” explain how he found Lou after six years without Iris.
“Someone must have known that I was lonely,” the song goes. “That’s why they sent you to me from above.”
They spend summer months making the rounds at the VFW, the bingo hall and casino, and the community center where they have lunch and play cards. Weekends may involve a party with friends, especially if a VFW meat raffle has crowned them with bratwursts.
Winter months are spent in Arizona, where the couple keeps a similar schedule designed around music jams and karaoke nights.
“The doctor told me to keep singing and dancing,” Johnson said. “So I am.”
‘A unique talent’
Variations of yodeling can be heard in many genres of contemporary music, said Leary, professor emeritus of folklore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “Yodeling in Dairyland: A History of Swiss Music in Wisconsin.”
Even so, hobby yodeling is a “rare thing,” said Norm Gwaltney, a self-proclaimed Indiana “yodelologist” who runs a website with yodeling lessons. “It’s a very niche skill.”
Johnson knows yodeling isn’t all that popular with younger generations, but he won’t go as far to say it’s a dying art. A couple of years ago, one of his two sons took yodeling lessons as a sort of gift for Johnson’s 80th birthday.
“It’s good for people to keep hearing it,” he said. “But not many people can do it.”
Les Blake, the lead singer of the Johnny No Cash Band, has performed at the Cottage Grove VFW for three years. He doesn’t know of a yodeler besides Johnson he could invite on stage with him.
“It’s a unique talent,” Blake said. “We miss him when he’s not here.”
Marianne Sager, 81, has known Johnson since they were teenagers. She’s the one who typed up many of the lyrics in his music binder and the one who bugged him to record his songs.
Most Tuesdays, she’s at the VFW, sitting next to Johnson when he’s not out on the dance floor or on stage.
“It’s fun to see him up here,” she said. “Now he should really make it into the big time.”