A man may whistle and a man may sing
A man can do a thousand things
But a whistling woman and a crowing hen
May bring the Devil out of his den
When was the last time a man in a hat walked down your street whistling a merry tune? No, nor me. In fact, was there ever a time when people really whistled? I mean, whistled casually rather than as an entertainment? Maybe that image was more in the imagination – or absorbed from mid-century Hollywood or Elstree Studios films.
However, Charles Dickens in Pickwick Papers recounted “To the great horror of Mr John Smauker, Sam Weller began to whistle. ‘I beg your pardon Mr Weller’ said Mr John Smauker, agonised at the exceedingly ungenteel sound.”
Indeed, the stereotype I have in mind is of a cheery butcher’s boy or newspaper boy out on delivery, and of more genteel boys being warned not to lower their standards to such levels.
And those piercing whistles with the aid of fingers in the mouth? I used to have a friend who could split stones at a dozen paces with one of those.
And those wolf whistles – now generally frowned upon – aimed by workmen at a cutie walking by. Said cutie was supposed to smile, perhaps wave, or she’d be subject to rather less complimentary comments.
Whistling is actually a traditional language in La Gomera, one of the smaller Canary Islands, so much so that it is studied in schools to keep the language alive.
Did soldiers whistle? John Keegan Casey (1846 – 70) appears to think so in The Rising of the Moon commemorating the 1798 Irish uprising.
One more word for signal token, whistle up the marching tune
With your pike upon your shoulder at the rising of the moon.
Colonel Bogey and When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again also suggest a tradition when soldiers might have whistled a marching tune if unsure of the words.
Whistling has a long history in music hall and vaudeville. Here in Jersey a lady called Doreen Le Maistre did a ‘Whistle and Saw’ act during the Occupation. Ronnie Ronalde was a rather more famous star with yodelling and bird imitation among his other talents.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) gave us Whistle While You Work which went on to epitomise the British war effort a few years later.
There are many examples in popular music. Perhaps Otis Redding’s Sitting on the Dock of the Bay has one of the more memorable whistling passages.
But to conclude I give you Whistling Jack Smith aka Billy Moeller aka actor Coby Wells who was a Jersey resident for a while in the late 1970s and who was no mean cricketer who I played against on several occasions. He was the public face of the hit I was Kaiser Bill’s Batman – here is Billy.