Where Are the Songs of Yesteryear?

By Roger M. Williams ’56

In memory that truly serves, my years at Amherst are swaddled in song. That doesn’t surprise me, even though I belonged to no musical group, played no instrument, did not even minor in music and didn’t welcome the advent of rock ’n’ roll.

When I mention such musical affinity to other Old Boys, it seldom surprises them either. Like me, they gave credence to Amherst’s reputation as “The Singing College,” and they had seemingly instinctive affection for what was known as the “Amherst Songbook.”

Singing at least a half dozen of those great old Songbook entries ranks high among the most valuable elements of “the golden haze of college days” (as “To the Fairest College” puts it). That’s pretty odd, if not plain quirky, considering all this institution has to offer, but after more than a half century, one accepts such feelings as personal truth.

At my 50th and 55th reunions, when the Zumbyes and the Bluestockings entertained our class, I therefore found it disconcerting that they sang nothing from the Songbook. And at last year’s Homecoming, none of those songs popped up at the bonfire or the postgame gathering. What, I wondered, is going on these days? Has The Singing College become The Silent College? 

Before I attempt to answer those questions, let me mention two particularly treasured memories of music at Amherst. One is singing, in fraternity barrooms, a sizeable range of The Songs on the too-frequent weekend nights when pals and I didn’t have dates. I pretty much learned how to harmonize (“over,” not the more difficult “under”) doing impromptu renditions of “The Senior Song” and my favorite, “The Little Three Medley.”

The second memory summons the Interfraternity Sing. Each year, choruses from the fraternities, and perhaps dorms, competed earnestly in College Hall. My “house” sang lovely, lilting madrigals and maybe an Amherst song. We practiced hard. Cleverly, too: We filled out our ranks with brothers who could not carry a tune but could mouth the words. We rewarded their efforts by dubbing them the Gloom Club.

And now? In brief, the Songbook lives. Evidence comes from students and the choral director alike. When I asked if The Singing College was all but extinct, Mallorie Chernin, director of the Choral Society since 1986, quickly pointed out that her choristers, if not the a cappella groups, perform their share of The Songs, especially at alumni gatherings.

But other students? The college encourages first-years to attend a session where the Songbook is presented and its entries demonstrated. Attendance, Chernin said, varies considerably. Spontaneous choruses of “Paige’s Horse” and the rest, as in the ’50s of my memory? Probably rare, she said. Rohan Mazumdar ’12 has taken it on himself to stir those ashes. He stages Songbook workshops in the dorms. He also wants to lead workshops for the football team.

I raised with Chernin the issue of rearranging The Songs in four parts and changing their unisex references, to let female students in on the fun. Chernin indicated that female-ready arrangements abound.

Chernin professed a strong affection for the grand old songs. “I will never abandon them, nor diminish their importance. I love them … for the pride in our institution they foster … and the sheer pleasure we [in the choral groups] derive from singing them.” I was moved, not just pleased.

The Choral Society’s archivist, Walker Boyle ’13, answered a question that has long puzzled me: Why were so many of The Songs written in the early 1900s? Because, he said, a college-wide sing of those years evolved into a contest for new student compositions—and who should emerge triumphant but J.S. Hamilton, Class of 1906, producer of “In This Blessed Old World,” “Good Days” and, of course, the ode to Lord Jeffery.

Boyle provided a thoughtful explanation for why enthusiasm for the Songbook among non-choral students has tailed off. For years after Amherst accepted women, a shortage of four-part arrangements, combined with sheer male tradition, kept female participation from gaining momentum. More basic explanations came from my classmate Jim Blackburn, whose deep and resonant voice graced the Glee Club: “Those songs are a little schmaltzy, which we kind of like but today’s young people generally don’t. And let’s face it: Students now have so many more things to distract them.”

Also, Blackburn and I agreed, there is this sobering fact: Today’s Amherst undegrads are even further in elapsed time from us than we were from  J.S. Hamilton! In our Amherst days, we would have dismissed as antediluvian the thought of doing many things the Class of 1906 did. Time does pass, and so, it seems, does song.