Bart Plantenga takes a global approach to Swiss “blues.”
If you buy only one yodeling book this year, it will probably be “Yodel in Hi-Fi,” written by Bart Plantenga.
His obsession with the minutia and meme of yodeling got worldwide publicity from an earlier book detailing the sound made when a low voice switches to high. This new book is nuanced and scholarly in a nonthreatening way. It has 335 pages of yodel information, yodeler biographies, a yodel filmography and a booklong list of “The secret influence of the yodel through time.”
This book is relentlessly upbeat. It is as if every glottal stop of the past century is documented, and it does make a reader step back for a few deep breaths. On the exhale, you might ask why in the world would the University of Wisconsin Press publish “Yodel in Hi-Fi, From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica” ($34.95)?
Plantenga — a native of Amsterdam who spent one year at UW-Madison in the early 1970s before getting a degree at the University of Michigan — can’t keep from tapping the dairy state for yodelia: Yodelers past and present are here, and there is yodeling diversity and yodeling authority, such as folklorist and UW-Madison professor Jim Leary, author of “Yodeling in Dairyland: A History of Swiss Music in Wisconsin.”
Plantenga “can really sling the language, he has a deep philosophical way of thinking that translates into something very readable,” Leary said. “There’s hilarious and zany stuff in there. He is brilliant but not an academic. He’s full of philosophical and artful meditations.”
UW Press acquisitions editor Raphael Kadushin met Plantenga in Amsterdam, making contact after hearing the author was working on a sequel to his “Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World.”
“People sometimes forget a part of our mission statement is to serve citizens of this state. There are huge Swiss and yodeling cultures here, and on that level [the sequel] was perfect for our list,” Kadushin said.
It also fit on the folklore, regional trade and popular culture lists.
“It’s a fun book. On another level this is one of the luxuries of being a university press. Our mission is to break even.”
Plantenga, 58, is a skilled and experienced writer on numerous topics, a popular disc jockey and freelance writer and translator. But yodeling has long captured his attention.
“I don’t know whether yodels seek me out or whether my brain has programmed my ears to scan everything from sirens to dog moans for yodeling,” he writes in the book.
He can define his yodelers but not his readers. “I thought, everyone from academics to hipsters to everything in between,” he said, “there is the traditional music angle, the classical music angle and the idea that yodeling straddles high culture.”
In describing the differences between German, Austrian and Swiss yodeling, for example, Plantenga described how the Swiss yodeling organization set up standards to meet threats “by the incursion of upbeat, fluffier, frolicsome, bubblier Austrian and more fun-loving German yodels.
“Not that there aren’t joyous Swiss yodels, they just are less common.”
To the Swiss, then, the yodel is the blues.
In the book, Madison and Wisconsin figure on several levels, as Plantenga goes to the community Troy Gardens to interview Hmong yodelers and writes fondly of Madison’s KG and the Ranger (Karen Gogolick and Rick Roltgen, accomplished musicians and award-winning yodelers). He travels to Monroe and New Glarus to take in concerts, beer and interviews. He traces long-gone yodeling families from Wisconsin (the Fraunfelder family, one of whom yodeled in Disney’s “Snow White” party scene as one of the dwarves). He cross-lists polka bands that played yodeling songs, traces the Wisconsin roots of the Fendermen and their “Mule Skinner Blues” and even finds news accounts of a state yodeler who died onstage.
That diversity doesn’t surprise Beth Zurbuchen, who leads the Swiss Center of North America in New Glarus, where yodeling is very much a part of today’s culture: “They know it is something in your soul, something in your heart.”
Nor does it surprise her that Plantenga has traced yodeling to cultures around the world.
“Three years ago, a young man from [South] Korea came [to New Glarus] specifically to meet famed yodeler Tony Zarag and to yodel with him,” said Zurbuchen. The visitor got his wish.