“One morning I was putting up pots of flowers in Gamble Park,” says Gurganus, who’s in his seventh year with Jasper’s street department after a 28-year career with Marshall Durbin, “and I was near the walking track when this lady stopped and said, ‘I need you to be here every morning when I walk, and whistle that same tune for me.’
“Till this day, sometimes I’ll be working in the park and suddenly a voice from the track will say, ‘You’re not whistling my song!’”
Passersby who happen upon Gurganus’s whistling say it’s hard to forget. Also hard to describe, although “concert-quality” is one modifier that comes to mind. It has richness and volume, and an occasional run of trilling double-notes that sound as if he’s providing his own harmony.
He’s never had lessons, and he doesn’t read music. He credits his skill partly to DNA: he “picked it up” as a kid by listening to his father. And his son and daughter, both grown and 30-ish, learned it from him. “I can sing a little bit,” he says, “just enough to get by. Sometimes I’m asked to lead singing at church, but my voice is nowhere near as good as some people’s.”
Likewise, though much of Gurganus’s working day during spring and summer involves flowers, shrubs, and trees, he has no formal horticulture training. “It’s something I’ve learned as I went along,” he says, “with the help of Bob Webb, who showed me a lot of things as I was starting out.” (Webb, formerly head of the department, has since retired.)
There’s something about working with your hands in the wide open spaces that lends itself to spontaneously whistling a tune, Gurganus says. “I don’t give a lot of thought to it, but when I’m by myself, outside, I like to have something for my mind to do besides what I’m working on.”
Most people fill that need with an iPod and headphones, but Gurganus finds that whistling works just as well—and doesn’t require batteries, besides.
“It’s not something I have to be ‘in the mood for.’ Sometimes I’ll not be feeling so great, and after I’ve whistled a tune it seems like I actually feel better. It sort of pulls me through the rough spots. And if I ever go for a long period of time without whistling, one of my co-workers will say, ‘That’s not like you, Danny! How about whistling us a tune?’ And I’ll say, ‘All right, what do y’all want to hear?’”
His favorite songs for the purpose are from the country and gospel categories, he says. A few that come immediately to mind are “Farther Along,” “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” and “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
Passersby often ask him if he’s entered talent contests (he hasn’t). But one of the most encouraging comments came from a gentleman on Courthouse Square, a while back: “I was just whistling kind of low, and he came up and said to me, ‘Would you whistle for my wife, what you were whistling just a minute ago?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and when I was finished he said, ‘I tell you what, I’ve traveled all over the world and I’ve heard a lot of people whistle, but I’ve never heard anything like that.’ And I told him how much I appreciated that. It sure felt good.”
As it turns out, Danny isn’t the first Gurganus to attract interest from bystanders for his whistling skills. His father, as a young man, worked for Western Union, and one day was delivering a telegram to a Jasper radio station when one of its DJs heard the happy tune approaching and complimented Gurganus Sr. on it.
“Would you be willing to do some whistling for us, on the air?” the DJ asked. Danny’s father thought about it for a minute and replied, “Thank you, but I’d rather not.”
“He told me that story when I was still living at home,” Danny recalls. “And he said, ‘You know, I probably should have taken the opportunity, looking back. But I didn’t.”
Entertainment value aside, whistling is a skill that has a more practical use, as well: “When I was a kid and was in the woods with Daddy, hunting, we had a special whistle we used, to keep track of where one another was. And the same thing with my son and me when we hunt, now.”
Well-used whistling muscles also make for some above-average animal calls, he finds. One of his favorite memories from when his children were young is of sitting on the front porch with them at dusk, hearing a quail calling from the woods and responding to it until the bird gradually walked up into their yard, looking puzzled because there were no other quail to be seen.
But the art of serious whistling seems to have gone into eclipse, in recent years. It’s a far cry from the days when pro whistlers performed the TV theme songs for such popular programs as “Lassie” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” and movies like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” And Otis Redding’s recording of “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” included a whistled verse that became one of the hit song’s most distinctive features.
(Redding had planned to go back into the studio and replace the whistling with a new verse, according to a biography of the Macon, Ga., soul singer, but he died shortly afterward in the crash of his chartered plane.)
There may be a revival on the way, though. Not long ago, radio’s Billboard Top 40 included seven songs that feature whistling—by artists as diverse as Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, Jason Derulo, OneRepublic, and Britney Spears. Ryan Tedder, lead singer of OneRepublic, proclaimed the trend as no less than “a whistle revolution,” and Rolling Stone magazine compiled the 15 greatest moments in recorded whistling history.
As for Danny Gurganus, the Wheel of Time has come full circle, from his father’s opting out on a radio whistling experience, decades ago. Gurganus is scheduled to be featured sometime in November on WJLX Radio’s “Music from Home” show, that focuses on Alabama singers, songwriters, and musicians.