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Not the Wilhelm Scream
April 27, 2012 11:45 PM   Subscribe

What Did The Rebel Yell Sound Like? (video): 'From the early 1900's through the 1940's, Civil War veterans were filmed, recorded and interviewed at reunions, parades, and other patriotic events where, as the century advanced, they came increasingly to seem like ambulatory trophies from some distant age of heroes.'
posted by the man of twists and turns (50 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
You mean it didn't sound like this?
posted by birdherder at 11:58 PM on April 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


I think there was a section about the notion of the lost "Rebel Yell" in Ken Burns' "Civil War", wasn't there? I think it included an old movie or audio clip of supposedly the "last living person" who was able to produce an authentic Rebel Yell.

A clip of that segment
posted by ShutterBun at 12:09 AM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Actually, it looks like the clip in the OP is pretty much exactly what I was thinking of. Whoo-whoo-WHOOOOOO!!!
posted by ShutterBun at 12:15 AM on April 28, 2012


It's hard to imagine, but at the time that was filmed the Civil War was about as far back in their past as WWII is to us today. Maybe 65 years?
posted by Kevin Street at 12:23 AM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


And then there's the story of historian Frank Tolbert, who in 1949 located one last veteran, Samuel Merrill Raney, who could perform the Yell:
"Can you do the Rebel yell?" Tolbert asked Samuel.

George Raney answered, "Papa can. But he best not."

Samuel waved his son silent. He spoke of the war and began to reminisce about his first action at the Battle of Murfreesboro. The cedar trees and cotton stalks set afire by the roaring cannon ... the band playing ... the charge. Abruptly the old veteran threw back his head and started yelling, "like an opera singer hitting almost impossibly high notes, ... as if a mountain lion and a coyote were crying in chorus." As the yell trailed off into convulsive coughs, George Raney ran to the well to fetch his father a dipper of water, while Tolbert headed for his car and the tape recorder.

"With this thing we can make a record of that yell," Tolbert explained. "I'll give you a record of it, and you can play it for people who want to hear a real Rebel yell. All I've got to do is plug in this switch and then you can start yelling again."

"We haven't got no electricity," said George Raney. "We never did tie on to REA [Rural Electrification Administration]."

"We could get into the car and drive to the nearest house that has electricity," suggested Tolbert.

"Best not," answered George firmly. "Papa don't ride in cars."

"Never do," agreed the old man. "Cars shake me up too much. Bother my kidneys."

"You come back later and bring a battery for that talking machine and he'll yell for you," George recommended.

A few days later Tolbert returned to Raney's farm armed with a battery-powered tape recorder. A big red hen was resting on Raney's rocking chair in the breezeway. Tolbert knocked on the bedroom door, but there was no answer.

"Mr. Raney, Mr. Raney!" he shouted.

George Raney suddenly appeared from the field, hurdled the wire fence, recognized Tolbert, and remorsefully informed him: "Papa died."
posted by Knappster at 12:27 AM on April 28, 2012 [31 favorites]


Make that 1950.
posted by Knappster at 12:28 AM on April 28, 2012


Even with our weapons and technology we are still scared apes.
We scream to bolster our fear and hopefully scare our enemies.
...just had to say that.
posted by quazichimp at 12:32 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


ambulatory trophies from some distant age of heroes

Well, these ex-confederates were defeated in war and paraded about, so I suppose that makes them trophies in the Roman sense.

Speaking of an age of heroes, here's Robert Blake, recipient of the Medal of Honor. Note his rank: "contraband"
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:32 AM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


More, more, more of this please.
posted by arcticseal at 12:38 AM on April 28, 2012


That was spectacular!
posted by moneyjane at 3:40 AM on April 28, 2012


sounds like coyotes yowling.
posted by H. Roark at 4:05 AM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


sounds like Curly Howard.
posted by scruss at 4:17 AM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sounds like a bunch of old men trying to imitate some animal. Hard to believe that was considered frightening.

But then again, I've heard all sorts of unearthy screaming in various horror and scifi movies, so yeah, a guy with single shot musket and wailful yell probably wouldn't faze me.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:30 AM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is definitely a bit in Burns' documentary about the Civil War, which, IIRC, features Shelby Foote quoting a Confederate soldier saying something along the lines of how one can only really do the Rebel Yell if one is hungry, far from home, and facing battle. Which, I guess, is a shorter way of saying Knapster's story.

Dammit, now I want to spend the rest of the day watching Burns' "Civil War".
posted by kalimac at 4:30 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, that video is all kinds of weird.

It's strange to think how the civil war and the 1930s/40s were within people's lifetimes, which in turn is within people's lifetimes today. Mike Wallace was born in 1918, for example.
posted by delmoi at 5:22 AM on April 28, 2012


In the recording of Aretha Franklin singing hymns in her father's church when she was 14, there was probably at least one parishioner present whose grandparent had been born a slave.
posted by Trurl at 6:10 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Probably there was a lot of variation from man to man. I always got the impression that to really hear it, you had to hear hundreds or thousands of men doing it while they are charging at you and/or shooting at you.
posted by rahnefan at 6:54 AM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I liked the humanness of it -- the guy whose teeth almost shot out, for example. The effect would have been from the huge mass of soldiers all yelling, not from an individual yell. I've heard large crowds make noise, and it's impressive; in the face of thousands of people screaming while charging I suspect my first impulse would be to crap my pants.
posted by Forktine at 7:21 AM on April 28, 2012


Sounds like a bunch of old men trying to imitate some animal. Hard to believe that was considered frightening.

I imagine the frightening aspect is less the sound of the yell than the fact that they're charging up to kill you.
posted by jimmythefish at 7:58 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I heard a theory that Mr. Edwards in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books was an ex-confederate soldier. He's the "wildcat from Tennessee" who wades neck-deep through a river in December to bring the girls Christmas presents from Santa, and who starts a brawl at the land claim office to make sure Pa gets to file on the claim he wants. He does some howl thing that might be a rebel yell. Also, in the book where they live in Kansas (in what's actually Indian Territory) - he clears off pretty quick at the end when government soldiers come to get rid of the white settlers, implying that he doesn't want to be around when Federal troops arrive. People who have taken up arms against the US government aren't eligible to file claims under the Homestead Act.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:00 AM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Hard to believe that was considered frightening

There was a psychology to it, I think. The confederates had the yell; by doing it, they showed unit cohesion. I don't know what the union soldiers had that they could yell back, but, assuming they didn't, they also knew they didn't.
posted by bugmuncher at 8:00 AM on April 28, 2012


Hard to believe that was considered frightening

I dunno, that little fellow who was waving his arms around scared me a little.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 8:39 AM on April 28, 2012


Finding it difficult to watch a bunch of white guys with confederate flags screaming without letting my feelings get in the way.
posted by compartment at 8:47 AM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Sounds like a bunch of old men trying to imitate some animal. Hard to believe that was considered frightening.

I imagine it's more intimidating when it's a few thousand young men with guns doing that.

(And then there's the comment section, ugh.)
posted by dirigibleman at 9:11 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


But then again, I've heard all sorts of unearthy screaming in various horror and scifi movies, so yeah, a guy with single shot musket and wailful yell probably wouldn't faze me.

Of course not, but if there's a few hundred of them sprinting toward you and all you've got is a single shot musket, you'd probably feel differently.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 9:15 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I believe the late Shelby Foote, commenting on the yell, recalls one needed an empty belly and, oh, the smell of cordite or something, to be authentic. So the veterans recorded yells have less then the desired effect. Also, I read somewhere the yell was most ominous when the solders were a bit off, charging, the roar off cannon fire....
posted by clavdivs at 9:23 AM on April 28, 2012


It is kinda amazing when you realize how short our histories actually are. I have a 92 year old relative I spend quite a bit of time with. She's told me stories about the Mexican War which she heard from her great-uncle who was a veteran of that war. Being only one degree removed from a Mexican War veteran is a strange feeling.

She's sat down and told stories of the depression and WWII to my ten year old niece. Described what it was like to drive across half the country in a Model T in the days before interstates and iPods and a video screen in the back seat. I'm hoping my niece will make it to 92 so she can easily impress some 10 year old in the year 2094 and tell them she knew someone who was in the Great Depression.

As for the rebel yell, imagine you're 17, in an era with no electronic mass media to provide pre-packaged frights for you, tired, malnourished, you've never been more than ten miles away from your family farm in Indiana and now you're somewhere in northern Virginia, and there's ten thousand men emerging from a forest, screeching like coyotes and coming straight for your position. Would definitely be time to change your blue woolen trousers if you had a spare in your knapsack.
posted by honestcoyote at 9:27 AM on April 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


My grandfather told me stories of seeing Civil War veterans marching in a July 4th parade, of seeing Houdini escape from a straightjacket while suspended high over the street and of catching a baseball tossed him by Honus Wagner. I have always found it stunning that when I was a kid that was still living history. Seeing film of these men brought back that feeling. Great stuff.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:50 AM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well that was interesting. Listening to it, the first thing I thought of was early Hollywood depictions of "Indian war whoops". Raises all kinds of questions for me: did Confederates pick this up from the Native Americans? Did Hollywood producers use the closest approximation of what a war cry sounds like and apply it to their depictions of Native Americans? Is it natural that watching this video fills me with the simultaneous urges to laugh derisively and smash a chair against a wall? Plenty to speculate about.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:57 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Where I come from that there's called hollerin' and you kids ought-ta quit that hollerin'.
posted by cmoj at 10:15 AM on April 28, 2012


Well that was interesting. Listening to it, the first thing I thought of was early Hollywood depictions of "Indian war whoops". Raises all kinds of questions for me: did Confederates pick this up from the Native Americans?

A lot of Confederate troops would have been the descendants of "Indian fighters" from the pre-Revolutionary period. Perhaps they would have picked it up that way?
posted by jonp72 at 12:12 PM on April 28, 2012


While I was living in Zuccotti Park last fall, I met an opera singer whose pet project was the Rebel Yell.

Being an opera singer positioned him pretty well to break down what one has to do to produce the sound. It's not just screaming/ululating at the top of your lungs, but rather a line that starts as a flat bass-note from your belly and slides swiftly up your body, increasing in volume and pitch, until you hit and hold (with some bravado) the top note, then letting that high note slide down a bit as you end the line.

It's an interesting if unremarkable sound on its own; however, if you can get a larger crowd doing to participate, that's when the real power gets unlocked. If you get enough people doing it, the sound is continuous, and you're ears are hearing A) a discordant mess of notes, thanks to the slow build from the bass register; B) a constant onslaught of the weird slide upward; and C) that loud, sustained high note, with the slide downward, which kind of collides with the beginning of the line.

For a few weeks, the opera singer would walk around camp and gather as many people as he could for a morning Rebel Yell skill-share. Thames Street, between Broadway and Church, is a block away from Zuccotti and was a perfect place to initially describe and perform the sound-- it was usually empty (except, incidentally, for the 30 NYPD scooters parked there) and is lined on either side by tall buildings, so the sound really keeps. Everyone would practice making the sound on their own for 15 minutes, with the opera singer giving pointers on breathing, pitch, etc.

Then, we'd hit the streets. It'd be about 10-15 of us usually, just walking around Lower Manhattan, Rebel Yelling our heads off. The idea was to teach the Rebel Yell to as many people as possible so we could use it at specific points during marches, where we'd have the number of voices necessary to really pull it off.

Of course, things got shut down in the park, which put an end to the skill-share. One of my biggest disappointments of OWS 1.0 was that we never had the opportunity to teach it to more people and never got to use it, full-force. Of course, 2.0 is on its way, so who knows ... I love the idea of a resurrected Rebel Yell happening right in the heart of Yankeedom :)
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 12:56 PM on April 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


A lot of Confederate troops would have been the descendants of "Indian fighters" from the pre-Revolutionary period. Perhaps they would have picked it up that way?

The Confederate soldiers who had previously seen military service with the US Army included a large number of soldiers who had been dispatched to various battles of the Seminole Wars, the Sioux Wars, and the Rogue River War. There were tons of military engagements between US Army troops and the troops of various indigenous nations between the 1840s and the 1860s, so at least some Confederate soldiers may have heard war-whoops firsthand.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:07 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love the idea of a resurrected Rebel Yell happening right in the heart of Yankeedom :)

And let's let Francis Fukuyama call it: history is officially over.

Jesus Christ, I can think of nothing less appropriate or fitting to the spirit of Occupy Wall Street than a Confederate war cry. Especially considering that you'd be so near to the site of the 1864 Confederate attack on New York.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:09 PM on April 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


They say you can find anything and see everything on the Internet now.

... and it's true!

Thanks, Smithsonian.
posted by Rash at 3:15 PM on April 28, 2012


That is outstanding, thank you for posting it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:41 PM on April 28, 2012


Jesus Christ, I can think of nothing less appropriate or fitting to the spirit of Occupy Wall Street than a Confederate war cry ....

A fair observation for sure and one I can empathize with. At the beginning of each session, the opera singer would preface with a little contextual overview not only of the Rebel Yell's folk history but also of who was doing the Yelling, namely Confederate soldiers. Then, we'd usually have break-out groups for ten minutes to talk about that legacy. Usually, people recognized that legacy and were excited to appropriate the Rebel Yell; and, the people of color there to learn it were excited to re-appropriate it and said it felt empowering (the feeling of empowerment was usually echoed by those who'd show up repeatedly, after having learned it ... doing the Rebel Yell is pretty exhilarating, and I'd guess that would pair well with feeling empowered). Plus, as a movement that relies on core beliefs like non-violence and Step Back, Step Up policy for involvement, no one participating felt that they were condoning or supporting Confederate policies (?), a point so obvious that I shouldn't even have to type it. So yeah, I think that co-opting a terribly physically affective battle cry from people who fought to defend slavery and instead putting it in the people's arsenal is very much in the OWS spirit and incredibly appropriate. Personally, I'd be delighted if OWS were to resurrect that sound and renew it as the Cry of the Ninety-Ni' or whatever. I mean, if a guiding spirit for OWS is reform or transformation, I don't see how reclaiming the Rebel Yell -- itself an improvised melange of hunting calls, Native American and European battle cries -- isn't appropriate, or at least symbolically consistent.

It's also helpful to think of the Rebel Yell as military tactic rather than Something Racist Southerns Talk About Wistfully or something. The Yell is an implement that has its own wonderful background predating the Civil War, and the fact that the Confederate Army is a part of that background shouldn't kill it-- it's just one stop-gap for the sound. History is very thin on battle cry sounds that not only helped a unit feel cohesive and together but also struck real fear into those on the opposing end. It's a special sound, and there's no reason why it's legacy has to end where it did.

... Especially considering that you'd be so near to the site of the 1864 Confederate attack on New York.

That's an impressively exact parallel to draw, but I'm not sure a Civil War history footnote -- a failed sabotage that amounted to, as your linked article states, "None of the room fires [catching] beyond burning some bed linen" -- plays into most people's symbolic consciousnesses? Especially for a geographic area so rich in social history?

Anyway, cool post on a very interesting and complicated bit of history.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 5:02 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, the (failed) Burning of New York is in my novel, so obviously it's higher on my radar than on most people's. I just thought the geographic juxtaposition made it particularly ironic in this case.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:52 PM on April 28, 2012


Maybe such a high-pitched sound coming from men was part of the issue - an unexpected pitch, to be sure, and in any other situation might sound like an unmanly scream, with one exception: instead of being an open "a" sound, the recorded instances seem to be closer to an "o" sound.

Is it culturally ingrained in the Western mind that the "a" sounds like a fear response, and the "o" sound is like a warning?

Perhaps someone who's studied the psychology of sound would be able to explain it better (well, almost certainly), but there seems to be a psychological, if not biological response to a high-pitched sound, indicating fear. Certainly one type of siren is an example--the rising pitch indicates a warning, then the pitch falls, and then rises again, getting your attention. However, in the case of the yell, it was meant to inspire fear in others, rather than say "I'm scared--just letting everybody within earshot know." It seems more intended to say, "unnatural and remarkably dangerous thing coming in your direction."
posted by datawrangler at 8:04 PM on April 28, 2012


It's hard to imagine, but at the time that was filmed the Civil War was about as far back in their past as WWII is to us today. Maybe 65 years?

Assuming 1939 as the latest possible year for "the 1930s," the clip was filmed a maximum of 74 years after the end of the Civil War in 1865, and a minimum of 73 years before this year.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:00 PM on April 28, 2012


I think it's scary, and it also doesn't sound that different from other battle cries. By definition, such a cry has to be an unusual noise.

Despite the thoughtful explanation, I'm still not down with the Yell being used at Occupy. That's just so ahistorical - some individuals may feel they have "re-appropriated" it, but many listeners, this one included, don't think the surgery to disconnect it from its original context has been a complete success.
posted by Miko at 9:53 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I kinda doubt there was a great deal of method and training about the Rebel Yell that somehow permeated the entire Confederate army. More likely recruits were simply told "run down this hill a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' like a bunch of wild Injuns."

But there are certain sounds you grow up hearing down here - or I did - that nobody named much, except to call it yelling or hollering. A zillion variations of yeeha or yeehaw or yahoo or yeehee or ah-ha, all high pitched, loud, and vaguely asinine (donkey-ish, that is).

And then there's this thing like Cash does near the end of "You're My Baby:"

1:35 (turn up speakers)
posted by rahnefan at 11:17 PM on April 28, 2012


If someone sneaks up on you and does that really loud, it will get you.
posted by rahnefan at 11:20 PM on April 28, 2012


I find it pretty scary, not goofy at all. It's the sound of people outside the normal bounds of control. Though I can't point to any sources, it also reminds me of descriptions and imitations of war cries in other cultures and times.
posted by Miko at 7:45 AM on April 29, 2012


There is probably a pretty excellent post on war cries/war whoops, and cross-cultural methods of verbal communication in preparation for and response to violence.

I remember seeing a few dash-cam videos of firefights involving police officers - a man's death cry is unmistakable and chilling. Even with no prior information of what was going to happen, I knew who made the noise, and what it signified. These war whoops sound like a conscious effort to replicate them.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:13 AM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, the (failed) Burning of New York is in my novel, so obviously it's higher on my radar than on most people's. I just thought the geographic juxtaposition made it particularly ironic in this case.

Interesting! Heh, well the analogy makes more sense now :) I was also going to point to the mitigating factor of the conspirators acting more or less on their own, which means that they wouldn't have had the manpower to actually execute the Rebell Yell. Still, point taken.

Yeah, there's a strong chance that Lower Manhattan might be the most historically fraught corner of America. Your comment made me think, "Gee, if the Rebel Yell is some kind of affront to the great-grandsons and granddaughters of NYC denizens, then I bet the great-great-great-grandsons and daughters of Algonquins are a bit more pissed." Honestly, I'm not surprised that some Confederate plot took place right down there.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 12:54 PM on April 29, 2012


She's sat down and told stories of the depression and WWII to my ten year old niece. Described what it was like to drive across half the country in a Model T in the days before interstates and iPods and a video screen in the back seat.

My grandmother told me a story once about hearing the newsboys on the street shouting about the sinking of the Titanic. She once saw Pavlova dance. My grandfather enrolled in the Navy when he was 16 to fight in the First World War. As Faulkner said, the past isn't dead; it isn't even past. My mother was recently in hospital after her hip replacement, and one of her roommates was a Chinese woman who was born in 1918. I was passionately curious about her story, but she didn't speak English and I didn't want to intrude on her family, where were there every day in force, bringing her treats and massaging her feet. She held court like a true matriarch.
posted by jokeefe at 2:50 PM on April 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Although, believe me, as a Texan I am no fan of the Confederacy, the best part of the video is someone calling, after the group yell, "Charge 'em, boys, charge 'em!"
posted by skbw at 5:48 AM on April 30, 2012


Sounds pretty damn racist to me.
posted by timdicator at 4:16 PM on May 2, 2012


My Dad has told me many stories of the Depression, the forties and fifties, to the point where they feel like recent history. But the oldest and strangest story I ever heard was when we visited my Mom's ancient, semi-mummified teacher in Vancouver, and she told us about the bright green sunsets when she was a girl. Apparently there was this volcano named Krakatoa that caused quite a fuss... I didn't know what to make of her story until years later, when I learned that the Krakatoa eruption happened in 1883. This had to have been in the later seventies, so the old woman must have been close to a hundred years old when she told us about it.
posted by Kevin Street at 7:45 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


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