Whistle While You Smoke

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Feb 7, 1948 

Whistle While You Smoke 

An Irishman said a most peculiar thing to me the other day. As he refused to take a cigarette he said: “I’ve given them up. These wartime cigarettes skin your lips. That’s why you never hear anybody whistling nowadays.

“You can’t whistle properly if your lips are skinned. Soldiers used to whistle, but you never hear soldiers whistling today. It’s all on account of this wartime tobacco and its effect on the lips.”

I tested my lips with the tip of my tongue, and certainly they were dry. I tried to whistle, and, though I was able to make a noise rather like draught blowing through a keyhole, it was by no means musical.

I have, of course, been out of practice for between 50 and 60 years; and that, rather than the state of my lips, may have been the cause. But, as I reflected on the matter, it struck me that it was years since I had heard even a butcher’s boy whistle. “Why,?” I asked a friend, “is that? Is it wartime cigarettes and skinned lips?” “No,” he answered, “the explanation is simple. There are no longer any butcher’s boy.”

That, however, can hardly be accepted as a complete explanation of the decline and fall of whistling in the streets. There was a time when it was no more surprising to hear a boy whistling in the street than to hear a wren whistling even better in a hedge.

Boys were then proud of their musical talent and used to whistle not only for the production of melody but for the purpose of expressing enthusiasm in the gallery of the theatre or calling the attention of a friend seen a hundred yards ahead.

This last kind of whistling was performed either with two fingers stuck into each corner of the mouth or by inserting between the teeth a finger and thumb of one hand like the meeting claws of a crab and blowing a siren-like blast through them. I could never manage this kind of whistle, but had to stick to pure melody.

Oddly enough, one’s elders did not always like one’s whistling. I remember walking beside my uncle in the street one day and whistling at the full stretch of my lungs “Two Lovely Black eyes”—con amore and fortissimo, so to speak—when he looked down at me and said: “Where were you brought up? Don’t you know it’s bad manners to whistle in the street?”

Why it should be so I do not know, for whistling is one of the first accomplishments that distinguish a male from the female young. Among human beings, as among the birds, the male is a whistler, the female a non-whistler; and naturally a boy whistles to emphasise his manhood. Some girls do whistle it must be admitted; but proverbial wisdom has always disapproved of them. A popular rhyme tells us:

A whistling woman and a crowing hen

Are neither liked by God nor men.

Perhaps now that girls, like boys, have taken to smoking cigarettes a whistling woman will become even a greater rarity than she used to be.

Not that I really believe that cigarette smoking has anything to do with the matter. I am sure that the decline of whistling is due mainly to the modern dance band, which produces music not for the lips of the errand boy but for the feet of the lowest common denominator among dancers.

Let popular music get back to the tradition of the great days of “After the Ball is Over” and “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” and the young in the city streets will compete once more as melody makers with the thrushes and blackbirds of the country.

Cigarettes or no cigarettes, they will begin to warble like their grandfathers again as soon as music is restored to its ancient simplicity and sweetness, like that which 50 years ago accompanied such tender lines as

Bluebells I’ve gathered

Take them and be true:

When I’m a man

My plan

Will be to marry you. 

Why, the melody is so simple you could almost whistle it and smoke a cigarette at the same time.


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