The Part-Learning Tradition

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.

Into the history of music at turn-of-the-century Yale enters an individual with an unexpected, but crucial background. Bill Hillman was an itinerant barber and letter carrier born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1872 who made his way to New Haven in 1902. FW (Fritz) Wiggin, president of the Glee Club, later recalled his experience in 1903-04 with Hillman:

He had his own colored quartette and they indeed had power and volume. It was a treat to hear them do verse and chorus of the church anthem Jerusalem replete with close harmony

Wiggin goes on to describe Hillman’s ‘quick true ear’ and how he taught Wiggin and other Yale students the parts of several songs that became popular:

There came from him the familiar version of June, A Youth One Day in a Garden. . .as well as other so-called coon songs which used to be rendered at concerts by what was called the University Quartet.

[Note: The term ‘coon song,’ offensive today, refers to a tradition of Black American (or black-face) song that pervaded the popular American musical culture of the time, including at Yale.]

Marshall Bartholomew personally recalls Hillman during his own undergraduate years at Yale. He corroborates Hillman’s musical talent and influence, and attributes to him the introduction to Yale of And When the Leaves, recorded by the Whiffenpoofs of 1927. Philip H Collins ’08, a member of the Growlers, recalls that ’Zekial Saw the Wheel was taught to his group by Bill Hillman and was ‘since dressed up and sung by the Glee Club or the Whiffs or both.’ 13

In a letter to Bartholomew, Meade Minnigerod describes his contact with Hillman beginning in 1906:

My first contact with him was in Freshman Year when I was in the Apollo Glee Club, and was chosen for the Quartet. We went to Goat Fowler’s room in the Hutch on Crown St. and there was Hillman to teach us some songs. He lined us up and then in each guy’s ear, line by line of the song, he sang each part of the harmony with words. When we had one line of the song down pat he went on to the next. Naturally his rhythm and phasing of the words were exactly the same for each part, which made for excellent timing by the quartets he instructed. 14

Minnigerode’s recollection, hearkening back to a time several years before the founding of the Whiffenpoofs, documents the introduction of songs new to Yale. It also details a singing style characteristic of the Varsity Quartet and of the Whiffenpoofs, who sprang from that group in 1909.