Willow Whistle


Billy Parker kicked aimlessly at the dusty path with his bare foot. “There’s nothing to do,” he complained. “The fish aren’t even biting today.”

“No luck?” questioned his grandfather who was sitting against an old tree stump whittling and whistling softly to himself.

Billy shook his head. “What are you doing, Grandfather?” he questioned.

“I’m making a willow whistle.”

“Would you show me how?” Billy asked, his eyes lighting up.

“Sure,” Grandfather answered. “When I was a boy I made dozens of these in all different sizes. But kids today don’t seem to make them anymore.”

“I guess they’re like me and just don’t know how, but I’d like to learn,” said Billy.

“Well, now,” said Grandfather, “all you need is a straight branch from a willow. This one came from the old tree hanging over the pool where you were fishing today. Let’s cut off a piece four inches long, making sure it’s smooth and free of leaf scars. It should be about as thick as your middle finger and a bit thinner at one end for the mouthpiece.”

“You mean I can make one right now?” asked Billy excitedly.

“Why not?” Grandfather said and winked. “The sap is running now and has softened the willow bark so it’s the best time to make a whistle.”

“Take this knife and whittle a thin, slanting slice off the thinner end and square the point off to make the mouthpiece,” Grandfather instructed.

Billy made a neat whittle and cut the point off nice and straight.

“Now,” Grandfather continued, “turn your stick over and make a notch through the bark one-half inch from the end of your stick opposite your whittle (Fig. 1).”

Then, Grandfather told Billy to make a circle cut just through the bark and about three inches from the mouthpiece end, being careful to cut no deeper than the bark. Next he showed Billy how to tap the bark gently on all sides with the knife to loosen it without cracking it (Fig. 2).

“The bark should twist off in one piece since the sap has made the inside of the bark slippery,” Grandfather explained.

Billy did as Grandfather instructed and the bark came off in a single piece.

“Fine, boy! Fine,” praised Grandfather. “Now you need a sound box.” He told Billy to lengthen the notch in his wood about an inch and deepen it to about half the thickness of the wood (Fig. 3).

“Next you need an air space to blow through,” Grandfather said. “So shave a thin, flat slice from the end of your notch to the mouthpiece end of the stick. Completely wet the stick all over and slip your bark cylinder back on. It won’t sound like a police whistle or make a loud blast either, but a willow whistle makes a soft, haunting sound like the song of a springtime bird.

“When I was a boy we tried to make them as small as we could. One time I made one only an inch long.”

Billy placed the whistle to his lips and blew, and a high, thin note sounded. He thought he had never heard anything so exciting.

“Thanks, Grandfather,” he said and ran off whistling like the Pied Piper.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jerry Harston