(Soundbite of music)
CACKLE SISTERS: (Yodeling) Way out in Arizona in a town they call Winona where the folks you meet all know a thing or two. There's a lot of great ambition ...(unintelligible) life's mission to excel upon his (unintelligible) yodel-lay-de-hoo.
SCOTT SIMON, host:
There was a time when yodeling played on commercial radio as music, not some kind of joke. And when the Cackle Sisters yodeled, people turned the volume way up.
(Soundbite of yodeling)
CACKLE SISTERS: (Yodeling) In the evening in the cactus, he would get a lot of practice on his (imitates sound).
SIMON: Carolyn and Mary Jane DeZurick were two farm girls from Royalton, Minnesota, who perfected and raised the standard for all American yodelers as the Cackle Sisters. They appeared regularly on any number of radio shows including the Grand Ole Opry. The Cackle Sisters are among the many artists profiled in the Oxford American magazine's annual music issue. John Biguenet wrote that article and joins us now from the studios of member station WWNO in New Orleans.
John, thanks for being with us.
Mr. JOHN BIGUENET (Oxford American Magazine): Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: What was it about the Cackle Sisters that captured your attention?
Mr. BIGUENET: It was the kind of music for which I had absolutely no interest myself, and yet, as I looked at yodeling from about the late 1920s until the late 1960s, it was at the center of much American popular music. I was curious to find out why it was so important to Americans back then.
SIMON: Yodeling was at the center of a lot of American popular music, huh?
Mr. BIGUENET: In fact, in 1942, Franklin Roosevelt held a yodeling concert at the White House.
SIMON: Wasn't a lot of yodeling in their time performed by traveling minstrel shows, and these would be male singers in black face?
Mr. BIGUENET: That was the real shock of my research for me. Black-faced white performers presented yodeling as the music as Southern African-Americans. Jimmy Rogers, probably the most famous of all yodelers, in the year he became famous was in a traveling medicine show performing as the black-faced minstrel.
SIMON: And they were called the Cackle Sisters because...
Mr. BIGUENET: The Cackle Sisters actually was a later name that was attached to the DeZurick sisters. When they began to perform in the Ralston Purina companies, Checkerboard time radio programs, from about 1937 to 1941, it arose because they were expert at imitating barnyard animals.
SIMON: So chickens were a predictor of speciality or...
Mr. BIGUENET: In fact, in the old radio transcriptions that are still available of those shows--whenever they're introduced, they're asked a set of questions and they respond by cackling.
SIMON: Let's listen to a bit of their act for the Checkerboard Time radio show.
(Soundbite of radio program)
CACKLE SISTERS: (Cackling)
Unidentified Man #1: Oh, I get it. Friends, it the Cackle Sisters with one of your favorite old Southern breakdown, "Old Dan Tucker."
(Soundbite of music)
CACKLING SISTERS: (Singing) I come to town the other night, I hear the noise and a ...(unintelligible) fight. ...(Unintelligible) Old Dan Tucker's come to town. So get out'd the way, Old Dan Tucker. Get out'd the way of Old Dan Tucker. Get out'd the way of Old Dan Tucker. You're too late to get your supper. (Yodeling and cackling)
SIMON: I'd listen to that today.
Mr. BIGUENET: Well, my wife wouldn't. She made me work on this essay whenever she wasn't home.
SIMON: (Laughs) Keep the ear phones on. What do we know about the Cackle Sisters? I should call them by their real name--Shouldn't I?--come to think of it. Carolyn and Mary Jane DeZurick.
Mr. BIGUENET: It's a very long career. They performed as a duet starting in the 1930s. Eventually they retired having married professional musicians, had children. Carolyn, though, wanted to get back to work and she became the voice of the Sonja Henie Ice Review. Sonja Henie, the former Olympic star, skated to her yodeling for two seasons, in fact. Mary Jane rejoined the act, but then was in an automobile accident; retired. Another sister, Lorraine--another one of the DeZurick's joined for about a year, but that faded and Carolyn began to sing as a country and western singer with her husband's band, the Prairie Ramblers. It gets stranger later though.
Mr. BIGUENET: They were very successful; wound up on television in Chicago. And when polka became a sensation in Chicago, switched from singing cowboy songs to becoming the Polka Chips. And in ending her career in 1963, she brought together her whole history when she became the yodeling trademark of Busch Bavarian beer.
SIMON: What do you think Americans responded to about yodeling in the '30s and '40s in particular?
Mr. BIGUENET: Well, yodeling is about betweenness. The shriek, the falsetto drops into the bass register; there's a glottal stop in between that focuses on the betweenness of the sound. It begins to emerge at the very period where America is moving to urbanization, to the modern state and leaving behind its rural character. It may be a kind of nostalgia, in fact, for the barn and for the farm, for the natural world, that is disappearing into memory.
SIMON: Yodeling and cackling--are they similar or the same?
Mr. BIGUENET: The DeZurick sisters began by imitating animals around their farm, and they thought it was quite a joke, in fact. Little by little, because they're surrounded by Scandinavian immigrants, German immigrants on those farms, begin to practice yodeling as well. They're never very clear about where yodeling ends and animal imitations begin, and their songs sort of swoop between the two.
SIMON: And there is the mournful quality that it suggests, isn't there?
Mr. BIGUENET: It's always melancholy. There are some songs that are relatively happy yodeling songs, but it's in a very melancholy context. Perhaps living on a farm, living with the frequent death of the animals around you that you're imitating, changes the way you see the world.
SIMON: John, thanks very much.
Mr. BIGUENET: Oh, it's been my pleasure.
SIMON: John Biguenet writes about Mary Jane and Carolyn DeZurick in the upcoming issue of Oxford American magazine, their special music issue. You can hear more from the Cackling Sisters on our Web site, npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.