On a crisp, quiet evening in early fall, a group of students gathers beneath an enormous oak tree near the center of campus. The year is 1904, and these fresh-faced young people have returned to the sleepy little town of Ann Arbor for another year of classes, parties and football games. The Wolverines would finish 10-0 that year, capping the season off with a decisive victory over the University of Chicago.
As the students light a bonfire, they begin to sing the University’s alma mater, “The Yellow and Blue.” Splitting into four-part harmony, their voices rise with the smoke of the fire into the highest branches of the mighty oak tree above them. As the last chord fades away, a feeling of optimism and good cheer spreads through the group as its members eagerly look forward to the coming school year.
Today, this lonely oak tree is no longer the site of such gatherings. Dubbed the Tappan Oak after the University’s first president, the tree still towers over campus on a small strip of grass on the west side of Hatcher Graduate Library. Though thousands of students pass beneath it every year, none stop to sing the University’s alma mater as in days of old.
The Tappan Oak is testament to a time without iPods, when singing was an integral part of campus life. In the early 19th century, faculty and students started composing school songs to honor the University. What began as a handful of pieces grew into an enormous repertoire of University fight songs, hymns, nostalgic songs and comic ditties collected in a series of songbooks that continued to expand into the post-World War II era.
THE BIG THREE BOOKS
Like the Tappan Oak, this treasure trove of songs lies all but forgotten to the larger student body. Yet the music has managed to live on, thanks to a few groups devoted to performing Michigan songs and preserving them for posterity.
“We think of ourselves in the Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs as sort of the custodians of these pieces,” said Paul Rardin, the director of the Men’s Glee Club and an associate professor of choral conducting in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
Series of Michigan songbooks serve as relics of a bygone era. The earliest of these books, “Songs of the Yellow and Blue,” was first published in 1889. The small, teal-colored volume contains the earliest Michigan songs, including the University’s alma mater.
Two other important songs contained in this first songbook are a pair of Glee Club favorites. The valiant “Laudes Atque Carmina” (“Songs and Praises”), which opens every Men’s Glee Club concert, is a Latin hymn of praise to the University. The reverent “Goddess of the Inland Seas” places the University on par with ancient Greece.
“ ‘Goddess of the Inland Seas’ was composed in the late 1880s by a faculty member, and of course the faculty members back then were all well versed in the classics,” said Carl Smith, a retired CPA who serves as faculty adviser for the Men’s Glee Club. “You have to remember that this university was founded on the classics, and it just added and expanded from that.”
In 1904, the University released a new, expanded songbook titled simply “The Michigan University Song Book.” Among the songs included was a four-part arrangement of Louis Elbel’s famous march, “The Victors.” Composed for the 1898 football team, Elbel’s iconic piece was given lyrics in 1904 when the Men’s Glee Club added it to its repertoire.
“Michigan’s Favorite College Songs,” the most comprehensive volume to date and the last of the three main volumes, was published in 1913. The new songbook was the first to feature the fight song “Varsity,” which the Michigan Marching Band still performs at football games. The book also featured new numbers from the Michigan Union Operas.
Beginning in 1908, an all-male group known as the Mimes began writing and performing comic operas in order to raise money to build the Michigan Union. The group continued performing new works through the mid-’50s, when the Mimes opened up to women and became the campus Broadway musical troupe known as “Michigan Union Shows, Ko-Eds, Too,” or MUSKET.
“Those were big events on campus,” Smith said of the Michigan Union Operas. “Some of them were large enough that they toured to New York, Chicago and Detroit. … They were, in many cases, farces or plays on current (events regarding) faculty, students, activities and happenings at the University.”
These three historical songbooks — compiled in 1889, 1904 and 1913 — represent a golden age of Michigan songs. Although two more songbooks were arranged in 1967 and 1990, only a smattering of newly composed songs were added.
“There was obviously a need for these songbooks and lots of songs to fill them because there was so much singing going on,” Rardin said. “These are the ones that have been handed down to us and we love them.”
Smith, who sang second tenor in the Men’s Glee Club during the mid-’60s, is a Michigan songbook aficionado. He has made it his mission to collect every edition of the three historical songbooks.
Along with Rardin, Smith recently co-edited a new songbook — “Sing to the Colors” — that was released earlier this year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Men’s Glee Club. The handsome hardcover volume is the product of a year and a half of research, compiling, editing and notating. As an added bonus, the book contains a small “pocket songbook,” which offers the guitar chords, melodies and lyrics for several Michigan songbook favorites.
“With this one tiny little article that we could stuff nicely in the back cover, we were able to include a great many pieces,” Rardin said. “The pocket songbook takes care of our longing to sort of return to the day when you would have needed to carry around your songbook to the football game or to the tailgate or to the dorm meeting.”
A SNAPSHOT OF TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY MICHIGAN
Rardin’s remark reveals how popular singing was on campus around the turn of the century and into the ’40s. Michigan songs and recreational singing were an essential part of social life, and were deeply ingrained in the residential and Greek communities.
“The fraternity and sorority systems were extremely strong,” Smith said. “(Members) had to dress for dinner, and they brought their songbooks to dinner. They would go around the table every night and somebody would lead the group in song. You didn’t have the Internet, you didn’t have TV. Back in the teens and ’20s basically all you had were parties. I imagine that (they would sing) after football games, before football games and at concerts.”
“It was just a totally different environment,” he added. “It’s hard to imagine U of M with a third or a quarter as many students as we have today and no North Campus and no Michigan Stadium — you played football at Ferry Field or Regents Field.”
Though students today may claim to be die-hard Wolverine fans, their devotion is different from that of early University students. While present-day fans may claim to know the lyrics of “The Victors” by heart, students of the early 20th century could sing an extra set of lyrics to this march that are rarely heard today. Moreover, early University students had dozens more chants and fight songs at their disposal to cheer on their team.
“I love this place today in 2010, but these folks back then must have loved it an awful lot because they generated all these songs to sing about it,” Rardin said. “I think they’re wonderful for modeling loyalty to the University. Having a high-profile athletics program as we do here, some of that’s built in.”
“It’s easy to feel a certain sense of allegiance,” he continued. “But I think for people to feel it on an artistic level rather than on an athletic level is very moving to me — the idea that we could express loyalty to the University through music.”
The Michigan songs serve as windows onto this long-gone era. By reading the lyrics, one can get a sense of how students lived during the first half of the 20th century, as well as how different campus was then.
“Some of the songs reveal places that are no longer there that are interesting: Joe’s and The Orient, the P-Bell, which I think was called the Pretzel Bell,” Smith said. “These were watering holes that don’t exist anymore. And I think those are fun references to hear and think, ‘Wait a minute – I wonder where that building was,’ or, ‘I wonder what that’s a reference to.’ That can, I hope, spark some curiosity about campus as it used to be.”
Many of those songs serve as a kind of map of early campus, describing University buildings that stand today, and many that have long since disappeared. The bittersweet “Michigan Goodbye” from the 1909 Michigan Union Opera “Koanzaland” gives a nostalgic picture of campus: “Farewell to you, old State Street / And so long Tappan Hall / Good bye to you, dear Barbour gym / Library chimes and all.”
“The Bum Army” from the 1910 opera “Crimson Chest” makes several references to social events and practices of the time. The song mentions an event known as the “Junior Hop,” or “J-Hop” for short. This popular school dance was held annually by the junior class beginning in 1872.
“The Bum Army” praises the beauty of the “Ypsi girls” and “Ypsilanti maids.” Smith explained that at the time, Eastern Michigan University was a “normal college” meant only for education students. Because students at normal colleges were predominantly female, Ypsilanti was an ideal place for a University of Michigan man to find a date on Saturday night.
WHERE DID THEY GO?
Yet just as these places and events faded away with the passing of time, so too did the tradition of singing Michigan songs. Today, only the Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs and the Michigan Marching Band keep the flame of Michigan music burning through regular performances of pieces from the songbooks.
There is no single explanation as to why Michigan songs are no longer a part of campus life. In organizing the latest songbook, however, the editors drew some conclusions from their research.
“These books used to be published every 10 years up to the 1920s and ’30s,” said Gavin Bidelman, a 2007 ‘U’ alum.
He went on to explain that as the years passed, the books were published less and less frequently, in an “exponential decline.”
A doctoral candidate at Purdue, Bidelman transferred vocal scores from the original songbooks into a computer to be printed into the latest edition.
“It’s probably due to the dying interest in performance,” he said. “People used to sit around pianos and sing at holidays, and I don’t think anybody does that anymore. It’s a different time — a difference in era.”
Smith pointed to an emergence of popular new forms of media, including the radio, phonograph and television, as competition with the performance of Michigan songs. With the ability to listen to music on records or over the airwaves, Smith argued that live performance at home or in the dorm lost its importance.
Perhaps the most significant factor leading to the demise of Michigan music, Smith said, was the second world war.
“You had a tremendous change on campus during World War II and focus really for the total war effort,” he said. “Most major research campuses of any large size turned their total effort to providing officers and other specialized training for the war effort.”
Smith said that following the war, the University exploded in size, leading to an entirely new way of life on campus.
“I can only guess (it was the) sheer size of the institution, change in the atmosphere of students from pre-World War II to post-World War II, influx of G.I.s needing jobs, less partying and more down-to-work,” Smith said.
“(A University education) became more expensive, though nowhere near as expensive as it has been over the last four years,” Smith added. “But still, a real change in atmosphere — new buildings, just a sheer expansion in research, more focus and attention on academics.”
With a larger and more career-oriented student body, the traditions of the past, including Michigan songs, became lost in the shuffle of campus life. According to Smith, students no longer had time to learn fight songs or University hymns.
WHY NOT TODAY?
Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, the Michigan songbooks have yet to make an entrance into contemporary student life. Thanks to groups like the Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs, however, the tradition of writing new Michigan songs has not been wiped away forever. In fact, Rardin recently wrote a song entitled “Michigan Remembers” for the newest edition of the songbook.
“The words get to you every time because it’s a beautiful, beautiful song,” said LSA junior Matthew Griffith, who serves as the public relations manager of the Men’s Glee Club. “The imagery of it reminds you of a fall semester in Ann Arbor.”
“I think a lot of times we kind of take for granted our college experience. We focus on work and getting things done. We forget about how unique and beautiful the college experience is.”
Although a handful of students, alumni and faculty are still devoted to preserving and expanding the Michigan songbook, Rardin believes it is unlikely that the Michigan songs will ever gain the mainstream appeal on campus that they once had.
“I hate to sound pessimistic, but I think it’s a tall order,” he said. “Singing is so specialized now. Now the view is that singing is something you do if you’re a music major or if you go to church or synagogue.”
While it is improbable that the University will ever see a renaissance of Michigan music, Griffith hopes that the Michigan songbook will garner some interest among 21st-century students.
“It would make my heart warm to have students know these songs,” he said. “Do I see them being as popular as they were in the past? No … but I think that there is still an interest in these songs.”
In spite of the songs’ archaic references and old-fashioned language, there is much in the Michigan songbook to which students can relate. While it may be difficult to imagine a modern frat boy in a bow tie and tails singing “Goddess of the Inland Sea,” it’s less of a stretch to picture him holding a red cup and belting “The Friar’s Song”: “Drink! Drink! Joy rules the day, / Who will have thought of the ’morrow?”
The lyrics to Michigan songs also reveal similarities between turn-of-the-century students and those of today. The 1904 song “Blue Book Man” shows that blue books have been a source of worry and distress for over 100 years, as does 1918’s “Bluebook Blues”: “Never miss’d a test or got below a ‘B’ / Finished the semester with a Bluebook labeled ‘E!’ ”
Another shocking similarity can be found in the ditty “A Faithful Pipe to Smoke” from the 1908 opera “Culture”: “Yet even such misfortunes / To freshblown hopes will lead, / If a fellow draws his troubles / In a pipeful of the weed.” While “weed” is probably in reference to pipe tobacco, one can’t help chuckling at how pertinent this line is to the a certain hobby of many students today.
Although there is much for current students to relate to in the Michigan songs, these gems are in jeopardy of being lost forever. Even if the glee clubs and the marching band preserve some remnant of these songs, their fate lies, ultimately, in the hands of modern-day students.
Students may never again sit around their dorm, fraternity or sorority to sing one of the rousing choruses from the Michigan songbooks. But one can still hold on to the hope that one day, the students of the University will once again gather around the Tappan Oak to join in the words of the alma mater: “Sing to the colors that float in the light; / Hurrah for the Yellow and Blue!”