Not a note has changed in “The Whiffenpoof Song” since 1909. True, over the years, members of the historic Yale Whiffenpoofs a cappella group have added new songs and arrangements to their repertoire, but their emphasis on the true, vintage tunes remains the same.
The Whiffs will take the stage in celebration of their centennial Saturday, donning their signature white gloves and bow ties just as they did 100 years ago when the group was founded. And when they invite their alumni on stage — as is customary before embarking on the eponymous Whiffenpoof song — they will sing and celebrate one of the University’s longest-standing traditions.
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“We are conscious of preserving history,” current Whiffenpoof Elliot Watts ’09 said. “We enjoy the songs that we sing, and it’s not as if we are biting our lips, doing it as if to preserve the music for the sake of it.”
The Whiffenpoofs began as a casual group that visited Mory’s once a week to sing and drink, but the last century has garnered Yale’s most exclusive all-male singing troupe substantial fame and prestige. Although the group is one of the few relics of Yale’s storied past — having survived wars, campus protests and political upheaval — it has also, inevitably, adapted with the times. The group has a tour bus outfitted with flat-screen TVs, for example, and members take semesters off from school to accommodate a world tour.
Even Mory’s, their first home, has temporarily shut its doors. Yet one thing remains the same: the music.
“I think the reason it survived so long is that music survives,” said William Oler ’45, a former Whiffenpoof member. “I don’t think the Whiffs’ music is classic in any kind of a way — but their notion of harmony is.”
‘Steeped in Tradition’
Those harmonies have, however, faced several disruptions over the decades, some of which threatened the very existence of the group. In 1943, Oler said, all Whiffenpoof members went off to war and the group temporarily disappeared from campus. The group emerged again in February of 1944, joining the informal singing group the Spizzwinks(?).
The Spizzwinks(?) revived the Whiffenpoofs at a time when Yale’s campus — then all-male — was in flux, as Elis left for and returned from the war in Europe, Oler said.
In the aftermath of World War I, the Whiffs ascended once more and continued to dominate Yale’s a cappella scene. (The entire Spizzwinks(?) class was inducted into the Whiffs as trustees.)
Larned Professor Emeritus of History and Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 noted that the group faced many challenges during the 20th century. Such challenges, he said, would have made it impossible for the Whiffenpoofs to even think about performing around the world.
“Before the Second World War you didn’t have transatlantic aviation and then you had the terrible depression in the ’30s and the difficulties of reconstructing Europe,” he said. “They were all affected by that.”
Without the means to jet-set around the world, the group maintained a relatively low profile off campus during the ’50s and ’60s. Although the music was always high-quality, the singing group performed in relaxed, social settings just for the fun of it, said former Whiffenpoof Dennis Cross ’65, who is also president of the group’s Active Trustees.
“It was more for fun,” Cross said. “We weren’t trying to make a lot of money; we just wanted to keep ourselves together.”
But in the 1980s, feminist groups on campus sought to change the face of the all-male a cappella group, demanding that they admit women and modernize with the times. Alan Miles ’87, a former member, recalled how torn his group felt when faced with pressure to go co-ed.
“It was a very tricky time for us because the ’80s were very politicized and the school was much more male-dominated, making a lot of us politically sympathetic,” he said. “Senior societies were all being boycotted, but on the other hand, it mattered more musically with our all-male sound.”
Inevitably, the decision was not up to the singers but to the alumni who own and fund the Whiffenpoofs, Miles said. They made a decision: The Whiffs would maintain their male-only status, retaining a major element of the Whiffs’ tradition.
Singing under the influence
While the group still sings to the tune of old-time Yale, its original nesting spot may disappear from New Haven’s landscape. Due to a decline in Mory’s clientele that led to its temporary closing, the Whiffs have found themselves homeless on Monday nights, when they usually perform at the historic eatery.
“It’s really terrible,” Watts said. “Recent groups didn’t necessarily enjoy going to Mory’s because the whole experience became repetitive, but we had a blast every Monday drinking the cups and fellowship-ing together.”
Miles said he and other Whiff alumni lament the passing of another Yale institution, especially one that was so instrumental to their group.
“It makes me a little bit sad but things change,” he said.
While Whiff alumni interviewed recalled the popularity and well-attended nature of their Mory’s performances, current members said they must begin look elsewhere to fill the hole in their weekly schedule. The group is currently in the process of figuring out what they are going to do without Mory’s, Whiffenpoof Casey Breves ’09 said. It may mean spending more time away from the Elm City, he added.
“We’re looking into different options,” Breves said “When the group started it defined the experience, but now we have a busy concert schedule.”
Whiffenpoof alumnus Linus Travers ’58 remarked that Mory’s could have been any eatery that filled their basic requirements: free food, drink and tunes.
“It could have been in, I don’t know, Naples,” he said. “I guess you have to start with alcohol, but the building itself was not the crucial part — it was the singing together.”
Change has come to the Whiffs
On a wintry evening in January 1909, five Yalies sat at their weekly Mory’s get-together — filled with mutton chops and beers — and turned Rudyard Kipling’s “Gentlemen-Rankers” poem into the mantra of an institution.
“To the tables down at Mory’s, to the place where Louis dwells,
To the dear old Temple Bar we love so well,
Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled, with their glasses raised on high,
And the magic of their singing casts its spell.”
And in the moment of revelry, the Whiffs layed out rules — including a seven-member limit — to be set in stone: “This Constitution shall not be amended,” they wrote.
Yet today, with 14 members, their intense touring schedule and an altogether more professional existence, the Whiffs have clearly strayed from their founding document and redefined their image. Now, the group goes on a lengthy world tour every summer, current Whiffenpoofs Business Manager James Warlick ’09 said.
“A large way in which we have evolved is that we now tour 17 weeks out of the year,” he said. “Older alumni always tell me, ‘When we were Whiffs we would just get together on Mondays and drink.’ ”
And beyond just traveling around the world, the group now charges “steep rates” for their performances, Travers said — a departure from earlier years when the Whiffs performed purely for enjoyment.
Having graduated over 20 years ago, Miles said he marvels at the number of Whiffs who choose to take a semester or entire year off in order to tour.
“It kind of amazes me that the guys take a year off now because I somehow managed to graduate with honors and the whole bit,” he said. “It puzzles me a bit what’s going on now.”
The decision to forgo a year of college is not an easy one to make. Breves said he took a long time to consider the time commitment, but ultimately decided to take the year off.
Though the Whiffs have a reputation for their trips around the world, Warlick noted that within the past decade, the group has become more conscious of reaching out to the community.
“We have done a lot to reach out to other organizations such as performing at a concert where we raised thousands of dollars for an organization called High Hopes,” he said. “We’re using this famous name to do some good as well.”
‘Unity Across Generations’
“Fifty years ago there wasn’t much competition for entertainment on campus,” Warlick said. “These days Yale is so diverse and that presents some challenges to us; however, we’ve decided to embrace anachronism and turn it into a unique aspect of Yale.”
Despite the changes the group has undergone, their commitment to tradition links the present Whiffs to their predecessors, Breves said. The Whiffenpoofs’ various alumni reunions, including the one this weekend, are testaments to the longevity and livelihood of Yale’s oldest a cappella group, he added.
“It’s great to see all the groups coming back from the ’40s and ’50s,” Breves said. “It just shows that being a part of this group impacts people for a long time.”
Remarked Linus: “There is something about that act that I can’t explain, but it manifested itself in that senior year when we bonded while singing great arrangements. You can’t get that pure joy as a football player or anything else.”
Allan Atherton ’58, a former member, still sings with his alumni group, and even performed at Bill Clinton’s LAW ’73 first inaugural ball. He said he remembers singing at the Whiffenpoofs’ 50th reunion and thinking that he wanted to be at the 100th.
“One of the most memorable things,” Atherton said, “is how singing in the Whiffs keeps you young.”
Esther Zuckerman contributed reporting.