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5 College Singing at the Turn of the Century, 1890–­1910 College Singing and the Mystique of College Life A small number of students attended college at the end of the nineteenth century , yet college life captivated the attention of the general public. As the noted higher education historian John R. Thelin observed, editors and journalists in the 1890s paid greater attention to the unique character of college campuses. The college campus became a regular feature in national periodicals like ­ McClure’s, Century, Outlook, Atlantic Monthly, and the North Ameri­ can Review . The editors of these publications and others fed the public’s fascination with the college mystique and the unique qualities of undergraduate life. Colleges also inspired intense loyalty. From 1890 to 1910 many institutions adopted school colors and mascots. The first alma mater hymns and alumni magazines emerged.1 But it was the singing that most of­ten projected the essence, real and fanciful, of college life. In the early 1900s, Harvard’s literary magazine, the Harvard Advocate, described the excitement surrounding all things collegiate. “For some unexplained reason,” the writer expressed, “the general pub­lic seems to find the college man fascinating. It takes a deep concern in all his affairs—his athletics, his literary and social attainments, his pranks, and follies.”2 Although athletics eventually occupied center stage, the pub­ lic took note of college trends like singing and fashion. Even college fiction became a new popu­ lar form of literature. One of the more interesting observations of college singing was provided by an outsider, an Englishman, at the beginning of the twentieth century. In com- College Singing at the Turn of the Century, 1890–1910 117 menting on Ameri­ can college spirit, Robert Knox Risk, a graduate of the University of Glasgow, wrote about the exuberance of spirit at Yale. He observed campus night for the 1901 bicentennial. Nine thousand people, in­ clud­ ing five thousand graduates, gathered in the main quadrangle. “There were tableaux depicting the history of Yale,” he observed, “but the singing was the thing.” Impressed with a chorus of six hundred students, he wrote that they sang “word-­ perfect—­ a rare condition of student-­ singing.” The undergraduates and alumni sang a number of songs, in­ clud­ ing one that amused Risk, particularly the line “for God, for Country, and for Yale.” Risk made a number of singing related observations at other institutions that he visited. At all female Wellesley, he found that students enjoyed producing plays and festivals with elaborate pageantry. Clubs, in­ clud­ ing the glee club, the banjo club, and athletics, held significant interest for many of the Wellesley students. At Princeton, Risk noted that the first place one is taken to see on campus is Nassau Hall, “the ‘Old Nassau’ of the college songs,” he explained. He also observed that the eldest alumni of­ ten received the honor of leading the college yells. “The class spirit and the college patriotism, of which it forms a part,” Risk stated, “would still be much more potent and exuberant than the British gradu­ ate can readily conceive.” Suggesting that the institutions perhaps capitalized on this fondness, he noted that “the University takes excellent care that she is not forgotten by her children.” “The college spirit,” Risk offered, “like so many other things in the States, is organized.” Risk also noted, “the Ameri­can student is largely engrossed in the social side of college life” rather than academic honors. The social clubs of students of­ ten dominated the list of honors while “the ablest A.B. of the year passes absolutely without comment.” A printed listing of students highlighted his point. The yearbook description of one particular in­ di­ vidual began with the “Freshman Glee Club,” which came before other associations such as the “Athletic Committee ” and the “Social Committee,” he noted. Beyond singing and social clubs, athletics provided the other “burning interest” for students.3 Author Clayton Sedgwick Cooper, who traveled America for over ten years for his book Why Go To College?, wrote that college men were religious, though not in the conventional sense. College students did not crowd into religious meetings on campus. They did not describe others as “holy,” “saintly,” or “pious” with the intention of being complimentary. And, as Cooper hinted, “his [students ’] songs, also, are not usually devotional hymns.” Yet the undergraduate 15. Step singing, Lafayette College, ca. 1897. “Students singing on steps of Pardee Hall. A tradition that began in the 1890s, when students would...


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