Early Repertoire

The following history was generously written by Charles Buck ’69 and Robert Birge ’68 for inclusion in The Twentieth Century Project, the most complete compilation of Whiffenpoof history available, by Richard “Dog” Gould ’68.  Visit www.thetwentiethcenturyproject.com to purchase the two-volume set.


We can appreciate the earliest Whiffenpoof repertoire through a number of vintage recordings as well as written accounts.The 1915 recording of the Varsity Quartet (though a Glee Club unit, they were the core of the Whiffenpoofs of that year) is a remarkable source, not only for its age, but also for the quality of the singing and recording technology. Digitally re-mastered selections from this recording are included on the fourth CD of this set. Other than this recording, accounts of what Whiff groups actually sang during the first twenty years are rare, although the group’s close connection with the Glee Club implies a commonality of material. As if to emphasize the strength of this connection, the Glee Club issued a set of 78 rpm records in the mid-1940s that includes the full chorus singing The Whiffenpoof Song under the direction of Marshall Bartholomew. It was not until the 1960s that the Whiffenpoofs tapped significant numbers of singers who were not also members of the Glee Club.

A second historical source is the remarkable two-volume collection of Whiff Songs assembled in 1948 by Bill Oler ’45m, affectionately called the Whiff Blue Book. This collection of nearly two hundred arrangements includes all of the songs sung over the prior fifteen-year period, plus certain earlier selections characterized by Dudley Miller ’43, in his Foreword to Volume II, as having ‘special merit.’ What then did the Whiffs sing in their first twenty-five years and under what conditions? We know from contemporary accounts that groups before World War II performed songs we can classify in three broadly-defined groups:

1. College songs, whether sung at Yale or having Yale as their theme;

2. Songs with Negro roots; and

3. Vaudeville/Burlesque/Tin Pan Alley songs.

The earliest Whiff repertoire carried on the tradition of college songs, but of a more substantial kind, as the songs chosen in the 1915 recording show – Beta Theta Pi, Mother of Men, Wake, Freshmen,Wake and Bright College Years.The tradition of college songs was bolstered by the John Oxbridge Heald Prize, a competition held around the turn of the century for songs capturing the Yale spirit. Mother of Men was the first and only winner, in 1907.

Songs with Yale themes were augmented by traditional college songs, some with lyrics in Latin (Integer Vitae, Gaudeamus Igitur, and Amici), as well as by ballads drawn primarily from European sources (Mavourneen, Shall I, Wasting In Despair, Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes, Graceful and Easy, and Annie Laurie), and by assorted sea chanteys, drinking songs, and patriotic airs. Highly popular among these songs were yodels (Matin Bell) and whistling songs.These arrangements wereavailable in song books dating back a full fifty years prior to the first modern Yale song book in 1918 (in which The Whiffenpoof Song was first published), each book claiming to include songs popular on campus that had never been previously published.

Because songs drawn from Yale song books were the standard fare of the Whiffs until a repertoire of arrangements written specifically for the group could accumulate, the Whiffenpoofs of the 1910s and 1920s could rightly be considered an extension of the Glee Club. Basil Duke Henning ’32, former Whiff, professor of history at Yale, and namesake of the Duke’s Men singing group, commented on this connection in a ‘Yale Reports’ radio broadcast on March 9, 1958, in answer to a question about whether the purpose of early singing groups was singing for fun:

Oh, entirely .We would meet each Monday night at a table at Mory’s and sing to amuse ourselves, then we would go out, if the weather was fine, and serenade the Freshmen. At that time we were also singing entirely songs out of the Yale song book; we had none of the fancier arrangements that have come into being since.We would sometimes go to girlscolleges and serenade, but there again, we were singing pretty standard stuff: And I doubt very much if my group could – it certainly didn’t – sing the kind of thing you now hear in the fifties – a song like this, for example [excerpt from Bermuda Buggy Ride – 1952 Whiffenpoofs], or the even more elaborate arrangement Summertime (excerpt from Summertime – 1952 Whiffenpoofs).

Along with the college and popular songs, the repertoire relied heavily on Negro songs in arrangements that range from evocations of a peculiarly American folk heritage to race parodies that are offensive to modern sensibilities, but which were the stock in trade of minstrel shows from the 19th century and of their successor, vaudeville. Negro dialect played an important part in these settings and themes were often racy. Songs like Kentucky Babe appear relatively innocuous, while songs like Get You a Kitchen Mechanic, Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, and Tear It Down play on racial stereotypes that were commonly accepted at the time.

Related but wholly different in spirit were Negro spirituals, sung by both the Whiffenpoofs and the Glee Club. Marshall Bartholomew was instrumental in bringing these songs to light; his De Old Ark’s a Moverin’ and Humble were arrangements sung by the Whiffenpoofs exemplifying the most haunting essence of this musical tradition.Two songs of a similar nature appear on the 1915 Whiff recording, Roll Dem Bones and When Pa, the latter an original composition by Elmore McNeill Bostwick, Glee Club president and Whiffenpoof.

In the 1930s the traditional college repertoire began to share the spotlight with a newer, but not necessarily current, type of music: vaudeville and burlesque.These settings exhibited a nostalgic character that hearkened back to innocent times before World War I.The settings were cast in barbershop style and the lyrics concentrated on romance, but of a quaint kind that, even in those days,must have seemed almost camp. Examples of this type (which are seemingly obliged to begin with the word ‘Down’) include: Down By the Old Mill Stream, 1910; Down in the Old Cherry Orchard, 1907; Down Among the Sheltering Palms, 1915; and Way Down in My Heart, 1904.

Not all songs sung by the early Whiffenpoofs fell into these categories, however. One notable exception, Velia, comes directly from operetta – a now famous work by Franz Lehar, The Merry Widow, that premiered in New York in 1907, only two years before the founding of the group. The following letter from James Howard to Marshall Bartholomew validates the importance of this song and explains its revival for the fiftieth anniversary reunion.

I’m glad to know that this year’s Whiffenpoofs are such a good group. That encourages me to push a request about which I wrote to George Vaill some time ago, that the 1959 Whiffenpoofs revive, at least for the anniversary celebration, two or three of ‘the songs we love so well’ which have entirely dropped out of sight. Two are arrangements of mine, one made originally for the Growlers at their request: The Sleepy Canal from Miss Hook of Holland; and Velia from The Merry Widow. Both were great favorites at Whiffenpoof gatherings in 1909. The third is Dudley Buck’s arrangement of Annie Laurie, which was sung by the Glee Club in 1908-09, I think, and which our quartet, who later became the Whiffenpoofs, sang the following year wherever we went.

Another song with surprising roots is Mavourneen.Together with Shall I,Wasting, this was one of the two songs celebrated in the 1909 Whiffenpoof Song lyrics as ‘the songs we love so well.’

Now assumed by all to be a traditional Irish ballad, Mavourneen is, in fact, the tag for Barney O’Flynn from Babes in Toyland, written by Victor Herbert only six years earlier in 1903.Together, Velia and Mavourneen show a different, more contemporary aspect of the Whiffenpoof repertoire, influenced by the musical theatre of the day and promptly transforming new songs into classics.

Perhaps the truest indication of the character and variety of singing that took place in the early years is the report given by Carl Lohmann to James Howard, who had been unable to attend the 30th anniversary party in 1939 (See v1.1939). Here is one founding father recounting the evening’s festivities to another, drawing on a perspective informed by years of service as the Secretary of the University.

The party was a good one, no speeches, an abundance of sentiment and constant song. About 115 came. . . Thanks to Basil Henning’s skillful job as master of ceremonies, we carried on for several hours singing just one song at a time. Many old favorites (and some new to me) come up for air. Tommy Hewes whistled The Yellow Bird in perfect pitch. Beebe produced a ballad in the original Icelandic – magnificent. Later came Songs of Araby. Johnny Winterbotham did Joe Cawthorne’s story of capturing the Whiffenpoof in Cawthorne dialect. Lanny Ross was on hand, there were three or four yodelers. Paul Sterrett 28 produced a symphonic ensemble from a ukulele; the Howard twins played the piano; Pres Bush’s quartet (Bush 17, Kimball 22, Dole 23, Spofford 24) shared first honors of the evening with the present undergraduate Whiffenpoofs. About half past eleven we moved to Mory’s where the party was still going with a couple of quartets in each room when Hewes and Roome came home with me at about two in the morning.We wish you could have been there.

Although vintage Whiff groups did not perform with ukuleles, the use of whistling and yodeling is authentic and represents a tradition that carried forward past World War II.

There is, moreover, no mystery about how well the earliest Whiff groups sang. Ironically, we can authenticate the quality of singing from the group’s founding until the late 1920s in a way that is not possible for groups from the 1930s, there being only one surviving recording of a group between 1931 and 1942. Specifically:

1909 Bartholomew and members of the original Whiffs testify to the talents of the original singers (ie, those in the Varsity Quartet). 24

1913 None other than Cole Porter recalls that, unlike the Glee Club, his 1913 Whiffenpoof group was respectable. ‘I was in the choir, and what a rotten choir it was, and the Glee Club.That was rotten too.Yes, I was a Whiffenpoof, and we were reasonably good.’ 25

1915, 1927, and 1928 Recordings reproduced in this set demonstrate the skill of these groups.The attention to blend is obvious, even with only four voices singing, as in their 1915 recording. [NOTE Future professional singer and radio star Lanny Ross sang in both the 1927 and 1928 groups.]

These recordings are not just a valuable historical source; they document a true ‘golden age’ that can now be appreciated with the assistance of audio technology. In fact, the recording of The Whiffenpoof Song from 1928 rivals the performance of any of the modern groups.