If you’ve been anywhere near the internet this week, you’re likely aware that a cherubic-faced, yodeling kid from Golconda, Illinois has officially become a viral sensation thanks to his rendition of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” performed in a local Walmart. Putting aside the adorable novelty of a cowboy-boot-wearing kid singing a forlorn country ballad in what looks like the hardware department, Mason Ramsey’s growing notoriety is well deserved for another reason: Yodeling is really hard.
The 10-year-old has actually already achieved some celebrity in his hometown, where he’s known for his Hank Williams covers. In fact, he’s such a fixture in the area that touring celebrities have invited him to perform when they’re in town. Ramsey has opened shows for Kenny Rogers, Gene Watson, and the Bellamy Brothers.
And for good reason. While carrying a tune to a karaoke machine can feel like a challenge for plenty of folks, singing a cappella (without instrumentation) and staying in tune is a feat. With yodeling, this is even harder, as the singing register can change quickly from high to low the entire way through.
This Is How You Yodel
A traditional style of singing, yodeling was once-upon-a-time employed by Alpine goat herders before it was adopted by 1950s cowboys. “Alpine yodeling began as a type of communication between folks who lived a valley apart,” writes Wylie Gustafson in How to Yodel: Lessons to Tickle Your Tonsils
The Austrian (and German and Swiss) vocal tradition found its way to American folk music as European immigrants landed in the U.S. through the first half of the 20th century. The extreme vocal-crack inflections of going from a low, “chest voice” register (as it’s called for men) to a high “head voice” register is the classic calling card of the yodeling style of singing.
To get that perfect yodel see-saw between registers, singers employ the larynx (aka the voice box) in a series of gymnastics. When air flows from the lungs, through the trachea, and vibrates the vocal folds — the flaps of mucous membrane which live on either side of the larynx — a vibration is produced that results in sound. A singer must then contract the muscles that affect the vocal folds to change the pitch of sound. Adept yodelers do this at a breakneck speed. “The art involves quickly toggling between the vocal and chest registers to make a sound that goes from high to low to high with distinct breaks between notes,” writes Jennifer Nlalewick in Smithsonian.
That, of course, can take quite a bit of practice. “A continuous transition from one register to another is a gentle process requiring a long time training,” J. Švec and J. Pešak wrote in a study called “Vocal Breaks from the Modal to the Falsetto Register.”
Although it can sound so pleasant it ought to be simple, to get it right, yodeling takes a lot of effort. Ramsey might be something of a protege, but he’s also got some serious chops.
With files from Mary von Aue.