On a hot Sunday afternoon in 1945, 17-year-old Kemerer Edwards ’49 hurried across Old Campus. He stood at a staggering 6-foot-4, his brown hair waving in the August breeze over handsome cheekbones as he entered Dwight Hall for a start-of-the-year mixer.
Girls from Smith, Wellesley and New Haven squeezed through the crowd, coquettishly introducing themselves to the hundreds of new Yale freshmen. Edwards dressed sharply in a new J. Press shirt and khaki pants and was ready to impress. The short commute to these women’s colleges would be only a small price to pay for a date. And so, Edwards readily outstretched his hand. “I’m Kem, pleasure to meet you,” he said.
But conversations were eventually cut short, as eyes turned from Edwards and the rest of his classmates to the dashingly mysterious men who stepped on stage. Uniformly outfitted in black tails and white shirts, the men began singing as the pitch pipe nodded his head. In perfect harmony, they sang.
“Seems like old times, having you to walk with.
Seems like old times, having you to talk with.”
The singers looked out at the girls in the crowd as though they were singing just for them.
“Just like old times, staying up for hours,
Making dreams come true, doing things we used to do.
Seems like old times, being here with you.”
It was unsettling, hearing “Seems Like Old Times” in this very new time for all of the freshmen. For that moment, the ephemerality of Yale became all too real, as Edwards and his young classmates toyed with the idea that one day, Yale would be only a distant memory, and their spell of invincibility would one day fade into mortality.
But the girls’ applause slapped them back to reality. For now, Edwards was sure of one thing — he wanted to be the center of the girls’ starry-eyed admiration, currently directed at the suave men in tails before them. It was simple, really: Edwards and his classmates wanted to be them, and the women wanted to be with them. They were the popular men on campus. They were the Whiffenpoofs.
“All the young ladies were swooning — what prospects that held!” Edwards, now 84, exclaims to me with a wide grin from across the table at Willoughby’s. He laughs, gently adjusting his new hearing aid as if his own exclamation had been unexpectedly loud. “I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do.”
Yet there was no singing dessert, no rush, no auditions. Instead, Edwards readily joined the Freshman Glee Club, the most prestigious first-year singing group, and shortly after was asked to join the one of the singing groups — as they were then called — the Spizzwinks(?). Previous Whiffenpoofs, such as Bob Johnson ’42, whom Edwards would later meet, tended to be parts of self-formed octets and quartets that had made themselves well known.
Back in Dwight Hall, Edwards felt his World War II draft card in his wallet — 4F, so his conscription was unlikely — and hoped that in two years, he might join the ranks of the elite.
“[The Whiffs] knew who could sing and who was fun to be with,” Edwards tells me. “It was a simple process … you were really just asked to come sing with the group.”
It’s not that simple anymore.
It’s sticky and hot as overwhelmed students pack into Payne Whitney Gymnasium for Camp Yale’s Freshman Extracurricular Bazaar. Freshmen have a minute to compose themselves as they walk down the stairs, preparing to be bombarded by every registered club, from the cultural houses to the publications to the political groups. Before they arrive at the tables, the freshmen are accosted by people in matching T-shirts who ask if they can sing.
“I had to face the inevitable ‘Do you sing?!’ to which I replied ‘Um … yup … I guess … but I’ve only done —’ I quickly learned to save my breath, to just say yes, take the flyer and keep walking,” Max Pommier ’14, a member of the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, said. “I ended up joining the SOBs, still wide-eyed and clutching the bazaar flyers, exhilarated but quite confused.”
Pommier’s experience is characteristic of many of the freshmen who spend a majority of their Yale career with these a cappella groups. The bazaar represents the beginning of a cappella rush, a process guided by over 50 rules and regulations that lasts nearly all of September. The Singing Group Council at Yale controls the rules and disciplinary actions during rush, mandating in their lengthy rulebook that “singing at all freshperson functions, including the Fresh Person Conference, FOOT, Harvest, Cultural Connections, the Orientation for International Students, and Freshman Dinners and Picnics will be regulated by the Council.”
“I’ve heard that the reason why these rush rules exist is because these groups used to do crazy things for the rushees,” says Nate Barnett ’14, a member of the Spizzwinks(?). “This might just be rush lore, but there are rumors that groups once took rushees to Vegas and put them on yachts.”
A cappella hopefuls then audition for groups and get assigned one to three rush meals — and at least one is guaranteed by the Singing Group Council. To accommodate rush meal schedules that sometimes include three lunches and three dinners, some group members decide to upgrade to the unlimited meal plan.
Rush trudges on, and groups put on their Singing Desserts, during which they put on a concert for potential rushees. Unless they are explicitly extended an invitation from the performing group, other groups are strictly prohibited from attending.
The successful auditioners get a callback, which includes yet another rush meal. Pre-taps and “kill calls” — in which a group notifies a rushee whether or not they will be tapped — are common and regulated by the Singing Group Council.
Despite these regulations, rush can get dirty.
“Pretty much every group does ‘sketch walks’ … where they [illegally] contact the rushees before tap night, typically after they’ve been pre-tapped, and meet with them outside of rush meal times,” said an a cappella member who requested anonymity to protect groups that had violated SGC regulations.
This desire to attract the best group members can be mentally draining, said McKay Nield ’13, a member of Mixed Company and a future Whiffenpoof. He recalled witnessing rush managers break down into tears one year after a particularly hectic rush. “Everyone’s so preoccupied with impressing each other during those few weeks that I think genuine human connection and fun is sometimes lost in the mess of it all,” he added. “Those are the moments when a cappella is a lot less glamorous than world travel and CD-making.”
Despite the pressure and competition, most people end up where they want and with the group that makes them feel most comfortable. Stephen Feigenbaum ’12, for example, said he chose to become a member of The Baker’s Dozen because of their emphasis on friendship and social life. Even then, Jeremy Weiss ’15, a member of the Spizzwinks(?), said he was sad to have to discontinue some of the friendships he made during rush after the process was over.
“Once the tap process is over, that’s the most liberating feeling,” future Whiffenpoof and The Baker’s Dozen member Brad Travis ‘13 said. “We got through the process.”
Sixty-four years ago, and two and a half years after first hearing the Whiffenpoofs sing, Edwards sat reading under the dim light of room 729 in Jonathan Edwards College. Varsity Glee Club practice was over, and Edwards was deep into his English homework.
He had no reason to believe that this day would be extraordinary. But it would be.
Just outside, the 1948 Whiffenpoofs excitedly burst through the JE gate by York Street, into Edwards’ entryway, now entryway D. They sprinted up toward Edward’s second-floor single, and immediately started banging on his door.
“It wasn’t a campus-wide tap night, and you had no idea whether you were going to be tapped or not,” Edwards recounts, eyes widening as he recalled the moment. “When they burst in, I knew who they were and what it was all about.”
Are you with us? they yelled. Oh, yes, yes! Kem yelled back.
“We didn’t do the cup and song back then, not like they do now [during tap night],” Edwards recalls. “After, we went to Mory’s and drank and sang — I didn’t get any more of my work done, of course.”
That grand night at Mory’s, toasting with Green cups and Ballantine’s scotch, Edwards united with the three other basses in his tap class. He had already sung in the Glee Club with one of them, Richard Mapes ’49. Another, David Lippincott ’49, the late American composer and lyricist, would eventually write the famous song “Daddy was a Yale Man,” which is still performed today.
“David wrote a lot of songs; he was a natural,” Edwards praised him. “They had to take him in.”
“The other bass, Ted King ’49, had a car and a place up in Cape Cod where we could go for retreats,” Edwards recalls. “It wasn’t known how well he could sing, but these were good things — beautiful singing was not a hallmark of the Whiffenpoofs in the early days.”
Connor Fay ’51, a freshman when Edwards was tapped, had always idolized Edwards, whose bass voice was as vibrant as his personality. In another two years, Fay would be quietly working an evening shift in the Glee Club office when his Whiffenpoof dream would be fulfilled by receiving the unexpected, glorious tap. Later that night, I received a call from Fay, who revealed more of the materialistic criteria in Whiffenpoofs’ selection criteria.
“In my time, we made our own criteria,” Fay tells me over the phone, his voice raspy and low. “First was if they could hold their liquor well, second was if they could be a good representative of the University, and third was if they were good singers.”
For now, though, as a joyous evening in Mory’s turned to a hazy night and Edwards’ revelry came to an end, he returned to JE room 729, not as Kemener Edwards, but as Kemener Edwards, Whiffenpoof class of 1949. And that was it — initiation and celebration all accomplished in one joyful breeze.
It’s drizzling on Old Campus as the clock strikes 10 on Sept. 21. Whim ’n Rhythm, the all-female senior a cappella group, begins to sing as 200 singers stand behind the High Street Gate, faces painted, goblets filled with alcohol, anxious to sprint to tap their new members. It seems like everyone is there, from residential college deans to college freshmen, enticed by the commotion. As the broom drops and the gate opens, battle cries of a cappella groups are heard ringing through campus. This is tap night.
The freshmen knew this was coming. They’ve been heavily courted for weeks,ready to join the groups that have spent a month explaining how awesome they are. Suddenly, they’re part of a new world.
“It all starts with rush,” Barnett said. “You just put your heart and soul into rush as a rushee and you have to believe there was a reason for you. The second you get in the group, you go on retreat, and it’s amazing. The group just takes you in. You start to get more involved, you start rehearsing right away, you’re always working towards something.”
While a cappella used to be about singing with your friends, today, groups focus more on the sound of the music and executing complex arrangements. Most groups have three big on-campus concerts during the year: Singing Dessert, Family Weekend, and Jam. When they aren’t directly preparing for these events, groups typically rehearse six or seven hours a week and have one or two gigs that take at least three hours.
“Gigs take up a lot of time. We once drove to Princeton, N.J., and Maine during the same weekend. Fourteen hours in a car for two 60-minute concerts is pretty insane,” Nield said. “You better like your group, because you spend a lot of time together.”
This time commitment is the minimum for most members. Music directors will dedicate more time to the group to choose concerts, run rehearsals and shape the group’s arrangements. Current Spizzwinks(?) music director Boyd Jackson ’13 says that his role is about four extra hours a week.
Tour managers organize the tours for the group, book gigs, choose hotels and plan social events on tours. Rush managers control the rush process for the group, organizing rush meals, or as Bolt described it: “[We] make sure everyone else in the group stays sane.”
When preparing for big concerts like Jam, groups like Mixed Company and the Spizzwinks(?) rehearse every day for at least three hours a day. People in the group are designated to be in charge of humor and gags in the show, an integral part of the gigs.
While these are the typical ways in which Yale a cappella groups perform for an audience, some groups strive for more. Last Saturday, members from Yale’s Out of the Blue stood as part of a shoe formation. The spotlight flooded the stage, blinding them as they huddled together hopefully. The booming voice of the MC broke the silence:
“And the winners of the ICCA semifinals are Out of the Blue from Yale University!”
Out of the Blue was now ranked the best a cappella group in the Northeast semifinal of the International Championships of A Cappella (ICCA), a first for the group. While most a cappella groups at Yale don’t compete on the college circuit, or at all, Out of the Blue decided to enter a different a cappella world.
“There are 10 people in my tap class, and this year we all decided that we wanted to compete,” Thomas Dec ’13, Out of the Blue business manager, said. “We’re very in tune with the a cappella community outside of Yale.”
Out of the Blue changed their rehearsal style to accommodate the competition, even rehearsing over break trying to learn a new song between quarterfinals and semifinals. Even though they are accustomed to learning new songs — they change their repertoire entirely every two years — the competition shapes their practices differently.
“ICCA makes us a more technical group,” Dec said. “We need to make sure every note, every dynamic is spot on. We even have to rehearse choreography, which is completely new for us.”
This level of technicality is not exclusive to groups that compete.
“The emphasis in rehearsals is largely on blend and creating a more uniform sound as an ensemble,” David Lim ’13, a member of the Spizzwinks(?), said. “To this end, we spend a good amount of time discussing and working on things like phrasing, dynamics and more abstract things, like the significance and feel of a particular song.”
From traditional Yale a cappella gigs like Jam to the new competitions, singers at Yale have a variety of opportunities to showcase their hard work.
“A lot changed,” the former Whiffenpoof Bob Johnson ’42, now 93, says over the phone. He pauses a bit, letting this obvious yet powerful statement fill the silence.
It was September, and with the war long over, students who had served anywhere from one to four years in the army began trickling back on campus. Johnson’s stint as a Whiffenpoof was over, and like most other singing group members, he did not pursue a musical career. Instead, he first served in the army for four years, took a job at an engineering company and then went into finance.
Edwards, part of the 25 percent of his class who were not not drafted or enlisted, was still on campus as a JE senior. JE and Timothy Dwight were no longer the two civilian colleges, and military training on campus slowed down. In 50 years’ time, Johnson and Edwards, along with with Johnson’s brother Coddy Johnson ’39 and his friend Stowe Phelps ’39, would form an alumni group called the SLOT — Seems Like Old Times — Group.
But in the meantime, it was Edwards’ turn to be part of the big men on campus, the same men who courted all the girls at the freshman mixer that seemed an eternity ago. He’d head to the short rehearsals every few days in the still-standing lounge in Berkeley’s basement after swimming practice, having enough time to manage singing, academics and a varsity sport. Rehearsal wasn’t as much about singing as it was about pure friendship and fun.
“We talked about girls, not singing,” Edwards says. “There was some talk about our singing, but mostly in relation to what it meant for us socially — to get gigs up at Smith and Wellesley.”
Every Monday night after rehearsal, they headed to Mory’s not to sing, but to socialize over beers and martinis. For once, the Whiffenpoofs were joyfully together and gloriously whole. Just a few years ago in the midst of war, conscription decimated the Whiffenpoofs to a single member. When singers sweetly reunited from service, they picked up where they had left off, many of whom had already met during their first term at Yale a couple of years earlier. The war made the Whiffenpoof classes in this era the closest classes in a cappella history. Edwards, like many others, was content just to breathe the Yale air, to be with everyone without fear of unexpected conscription. This was enough.
“It was a lot more laid-back, with no drama between group members,” Edwards says. “That was the whole point — we were good friends. But I don’t think singing was insular either in our time.”
“I don’t know what you mean by stress and a cappella,” Fay later adds, as though shocked to imagine the same in the two sentence.
Indeed, there was no reason to panic or overwork. Major gigs in Edwards’ time, including the first Whiffs television appearance, on the “Kay Kyser Kollege of Musical Knowledge Show” in 1949 — in which they sung one song — were in relaxed environments. Gigs were paid little to nothing, with representing Yale, community service, and, of course, girls and dates as primary motivations of traveling performances.
“A cappella was just one of those other things that we were able to do,” Edwards reminisces, who remembers a time when the Whiffenpoofs went to Sarah Lawrence and he danced with a girl he would later see again 40 years later at a JE fellows’ dinner.
When Edwards’ graduation approached in June, the Whiffenpoofs didn’t say goodbye. There was no need to. Immediately after Commencement, half of the Whiffenpoofs went to Virginia to sing at the wedding of another Whiffenpoof, Bill Wagner ’49. Even when Edwards took his first job at Pan American World Airways, he met fellow Whiffenpoof Prescott Bush ’44, brother of former President George H.W. Bush ’48. The end of their time singing together at Yale was filled by a timeless legacy of brotherhood.
“I have so much to say about what a cappella singing has meant to me in my life that I don’t how to convey it in a reasonable amount of words,” Johnson wrote in a single-line email before calling.
But back in Willoughby’s, Edwards decided to give it a try.
“How about this? Singing goes on and on and on, just as good things should,” Edwards declares, offering up wisdom from the oldest living generation of Yale a cappella singers. “I hope this will be true for a cappella today.”
In most extracurricular activities, Yalies make friends. In a cappella, the members insist, they also join a family.
Where time on campus is spent rehearsing and performing for their friends, a cappella tour takes them skydiving in New Zealand, walking to the West Bank, driving six hours to see the Taj Mahal, sitting at a rotating restaurant of a tower in Iceland, sailing through the fjords of Norway, riding tut-tuts in Thailand, and performing in the world’s most lavish hotel in Dubai.
Despite the glitz and glamour of tours, some feel that the culture is limiting because of the heavy time commitment.
“You are going to have to forgo other opportunities you might have engaged in otherwise, and it’s a huge trade-off,” Barnett said. “I know people whose only extracurricular is a cappella … [they] feel that in order to devote the kind of time they want to to academics, they can only really do one thing with that level of commitment. I know these same people love the fact that it removes the need to maintain a group of friends because you just have one.”
“It’s super insular,” Bolt added. “We spend so much time together, and that’s great. I love everyone in a cappella, but you don’t want to be around people who do the exact same thing as you all the time.”
Despite these reservations, the a cappella social scene is lively and large. With over 250 people involved, the community is different than most at Yale. Groups almost unanimously have nothing but positive things to say, constantly referring to themselves as “families.” Many choose to live with someone from their group later on in their Yale careers — the BDs and SOBs even maintained houses for years, with residents only from their groups.
Some groups even take the time to attempt to visit every member’s hometown. The Spizzwinks(?) go to every person in the group’s hometown before graduation, taking them all over the United States — from Denver, Colo., to Duluth, Minn. “[The hometown performances] are some of the most electrifying and awesome concerts that we give every year,” Andy Berry ’13, a current Spizzwink(?) and future Whiffenpoof music director said. “I think that almost all Yalies are kind of ‘hometown heroes,’ and at the risk of sounding like a cheeseball, you can really feel the love from the audience during these concerts.”
The huge time commitment to the groups is ultimately worth it, according to every a cappella member interviewed. There was no question in their minds that this was more than just a commitment at Yale — it’s for the rest of their lives.
“Spizzwinks(?) for life is a very real thing,” Barnett explained. “We have alumni that come back to jams that are 80 years old. This is a lifetime commitment, and we know that.”
For some, it already has been.
On brisk Saturday morning in Chevy Chase, Md., the family of a member of the 1951 Whiffenpoofs, who had just passed away, prepares for his funeral service. All over the country, several alumni of the Whiffenpoofs skip over their tails hanging in their closets and carefully pack black suits and ties into their suitcases.
Fay, the former pitchpipe of the 1951 Whiffenpoofs, flew up on short notice from North Carolina. Another 1951 member flew in from Virginia, and a third from Florida. Another nine, ranging from the class of 1950 to the class of 2010, made the journey as well. Some of them hadn’t even met the man who was being honored.
“Singing at each other’s funerals is a wonderful way to remember someone,” Edwards describes, who is planning a group to sing at a funeral on Saturday. “It’s better than sending flowers, weeping and mourning — it’s a joyful way to celebrate someone’s life.”
Fay steps into the reception just in time, reuniting with his friends who, once upon a lifetime, stood scared when held at gunpoint on a Brazilian tour, laughed themselves breathless together, and skipped all their classes just to sing. Their shared love for a cappella was strong, but it was their loyalty to each other that brought a cappella past graduation and to reunions, weddings and now the ever-frequent funerals.
Standing in a semicircle, the 12 Whiffenpoofs gather on stage and prepare to sing their spiritual “Steal Away,” arranged by Marshall Bartholomew 1909, the director of the Yale Glee Club 91 years ago.
“It goes like a little like this,” Edwards whispers, eyes glossy with the sweet nostalgia of almost a hundred years.
“Steal away … steal away …
Steal away to Jesus,
Steal away home.
I ain’t got long to stay here.”
At the reception, the Whiffenpoofs speak their final farewell in the song’s closing A-flat major third, the last ethereal chord that’s held one beat too long and released one beat too soon.
“This is one of the best things we do,” Edwards says, gazing through the glass wall of Willoughby’s to his old room in JE, where it all began almost 70 years ago. “This, right here, is lifelong.”