Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2010


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A Century of Song

A Century of Song
A cappella is alive and well: no fewer than seven groups now raise their voices on campus. Photo of Co Co Beaux at Fall Weekend '10 by A. Vincent Scarano.

By Susan B. Kietzman '82

When jazz legend Wynton Marsalis told the graduates of the Class of 2001 to “sing — and make it a song with soul,” he couldn't have been addressing a more receptive audience.

Connecticut College students have been singing for a century, everything from meal graces and Christmas carols to a cappella concerts and Competitive Sing. The tunes and lyrics of their songs — dainty or boisterous, secular or spiritual, traditional or innovative — are as diverse as the singers themselves. Their voices tell stories and reveal dreams and, in the end, highlight hopefulness.

Marsalis told his listeners that “eternal optimism is unaffected by time.” The strong history of singing and song at Connecticut is sweet, melodic proof.

There's a college, there's a college
There's a college by the sea,
With the hill tops all around it
And a river on the lea;
Where the elm trees pipe with music,
And the sky is blue above,
Where life is at its fairest,
Filled with work and song and love.

While students undoubtedly crooned when they unpacked their bags that first fall of 1915, official song contests didn't make their debut until the 1920s. Competitive Sing, known as Compet Sing, was the ultimate choral challenge. Every member of each class was required to participate at the May event all four years. The students composed — and practiced, practiced, practiced — a class song and another song, wore white dresses, assembled on the steps of Palmer Library (later in Palmer Auditorium), and did their best to out-sing the three other classes to earn the coveted silver cup. Judges assessed them on the quality of their songs, their performance and their appearance.

Blues you get on Monday
When you haven't studied Sunday
And your classes roll around at nine or ten.
Blues you get on Friday
When you're looking not so tidy
And you're called upon by seven different men!

“We lamented the fact that we weren't a particularly talented class,” Roldah Northup Cameron '51 recalls. “And I had the worst voice in the whole world. I always hoped I stood next to someone who could sing, so she could cover me.”

Frances Steane Baldwin '55 says winning the competition in 1955 was a “very big deal. In fact, I think we won more than once — or at least we like to think we did. Although I can't take much credit since I was rejected by all the formal singing groups on campus.”

Rejected singers still had lots of opportunities to sing. Baldwin was a member of the Glee Club — affording her the chance to perform in Yale's famed Woolsey Hall — and the choir that sang in Harkness Chapel on Sunday nights. Cameron remembers Christmas caroling from dorm to dorm, standing around the dinner table in Thames Hall to sing grace, and serenading the moon on the wall between Harkness and Knowlton greens. “We found every excuse we could to stop studying,” she says. “It didn't take much.”

The first senior class started the tradition of moonlight singing on Nov. 18, 1919, when, according to Gertrude E. Noyes's “A History of Connecticut College,” they “suddenly felt an overpowering urge to sing to the full moon and invited the underclassmen to share in their orgy.” On at least one occasion in 1920, the dense New London fog obscured the moon and the class appointed a “Moonbearer” to carry a white Japanese lantern.

O C-O-M-E, come, when the moon begins to shine
You'll F-I-N-D, find the seniors all in a line;
To start this new tradition all classes gather near
To sing upon the stonewall each month from year to year.

Terry Taffinder Grosvenor '67 was involved in the singing community on a more formal level, co-writing the Junior Show “Would Hugh Believe It?” in 1966. The daughter of a professional singer, Grosvenor was a member of the Conn Chords, a female a cappella group still performing today, as well as the Five Tails, a rock band she formed with several Conn Chord members. Grosvenor, an artist and composer, started writing music at the College and says she “performed whenever I could. It was a pivotal point in my life.”

Helen of Troy was a woman of sense
She lived a life of opulence.
Greek men gave her pretty things
Furs and jewels and diamond rings;
Not because she'd read a book
Not because she'd learnt to cook
But for launching a thousand ships
With a pair of unchapped lips!

Much changed when men joined the campus in 1969, except the need to go on singing. While the Competitive Sing fell out of favor and practice around that time, the all-female a cappella groups the Shwiffs (originally the She-Wiffenpoofs, after Yale's all-male singing group, and then shortened to She-Wiffs and finally Shwiffs) and the Conn Chords prevailed. Nine years later, they were joined by the College's only all-male group, Co Co Beaux. According to the Oct. 12, 1982, issue of the College Voice, “Connecticut College's close harmony singing groups … are stronger and more versatile than ever. Over the past few weekends, they have been enthusiastically received by large audiences both on and off campus.”

Alan Cohen '83, the Co Co Beaux pitch at that time, says, “Athletics have always served as a way for people to make friends, but the singing groups are now serving that purpose as well.”

Hey camels, say camels, we're camels, too
Go camels, show, camels, what you can do
Move that puck and don't let 'em score
Show 'em what camels are for!

The singing groups at Connecticut College today include a chamber choir and the Unity Gospel Choir as well as three more a cappella groups: the Conn Artists, Vox Cameli and Williams Street Mix. Jenni Milton '11, a member of the Mix, says she wasn't aware of Compet Sing, but she knows all about singing competition. “In the fall, everyone is auditioning for the a cappella groups,” Milton says. “And everyone auditions for all of them, so you can have 40 people trying out for two parts. Sometimes the groups like the same candidate. When we want her, we bring her candy and are extra nice, so she'll join our group. It's like a sorority or fraternity rush.”

Connecticut College by the sea
Your men and women together praise thee
Arboretum, Fanning, and Harkness
There we grew, there we knew
Work, sharing, and joy.

Song credits: 1. Lyrics by Frederick H. Sykes, 1933 Connecticut College Song Book. 2. Class of 1951 original lyrics. 3. "A History of Connecticut College," p. 58. 4. Lyrics by Terry Taffinder Grosvenor '67. 5. Camel Fight Song by P. Youngholm. 6. Connecticut College Alma Mater.

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