Saving First-Year Sing: Some Further Notes

From Benjamin Locke

Last August, preparing the Class of 2013 for First-Year Sing, choral conductor Benjamin Locke gave a talk about the history of the event, in which the first-years gather on the Rosse Hall steps to sing "Philander Chase," "Ninety-Nine," "The Thrill," and "Kokosing Farewell." Here are some excerpts from his talk, which drew on The Kenyon Book, compiled by William B. Bodine, Kenyon College: Its First Century, by George Franklin Smythe, and Kenyon College: Its Third Half Century, by Thomas Boardman Greenslade.

I was quite surprised to uncover that the first musically oriented ritual was called "Bore Day," or alternatively, "Boring the Seniors," which was chronicled as early as 1864. Apparently once the members of the senior class had completed their final examinations, each senior in turn was forced to stand on the steps of Rosse while a band of freshmen, wearing sandwich-boards that listed less-than-laudable events in the seniors' personal histories, would sing a bore-song that "held [the senior] up to contempt or loathing for his unspeakable ineptitude of mind and behavior, or for the vileness and atrocities which characterized his life." These songs became so rude and scurrilous that the ritual died out in 1879 due to general disapproval.

Another event that might have been a possible forerunner [of First-Year Sing] was "Pajama Parade Night" in the 1920s, where freshmen were forced to crawl in a line in front of Old Kenyon while singing a song entitled "The Freshman Ditty," which went like this:

There is a hell for freshmen, and there they all must go;
There to repent their many sins, and lead a life of woe.

Again, this practice seemed to have been too short-lived, and certainly too far from the steps of Rosse Hall, to be a credible predecessor to the First-Year Sing.

I finally enlisted the help of Lisa Schott, director of alumni and parent programs, and Tom Stamp, college historian and keeper of Kenyoniana, who put me in touch with just enough living alumni that I was able to determine with some certainty that the First-Year Sing was created by Frank Bailey, acting president of Kenyon in 1956, between the terms of Gordon Keith Chalmers and Franze Edward Lund, as a way of introducing first-year students more deliberately into the traditions and lore of the College.

Orientation programs from that era show that Paul Schwartz, Kenyon's first professor of music, and later Frank Lendrim, the second, taught these four Kenyon songs to the entering students, utilizing three or four intensive rehearsals before mounting the steps of Rosse for the actual Sing.

Women first came to the College in 1969, but since they were technically students of the so-called Coordinate College, they were told that the Sing was only for Kenyon men; thus, they were only allowed to come and listen to the men sing the songs on the steps of Rosse. Happily, this chauvinistic effrontery only lasted a single year.

The practice of faculty leadership continued until Dr. Lendrim left Kenyon to take a position at William and Mary College in the mid-1970s, after which the leadership of the Sing becomes very murky. The only information in the College archives is a series of three photographs in which first-year students are being directed by an upperclassman who was holding a sheet of music in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.

The absence of faculty leadership, combined with an increased presence of upperclass students on campus during Orientation activities in the 1970s, created a situation in which negative behaviors became more and more evident. When I arrived at Kenyon in 1984, I knew nothing about the First-Year Sing or its downward trend; in fact, I witnessed a rehearsal led by the then-Harcourt Parish organist and a subsequent public Sing that was remarkably serene. Since I was eager to establish my presence as the new choir director, I volunteered to teach the songs the following year.

What I did not know was that in the previous year the Sing, which typically took place after the all-college picnic, was marred by upperclass students who carried food products to the Sing and threw them at the first-year students. As a result of this, the deans decided to move the Sing to a new day and time and did not inform the upperclass students of the change, and this was the anomalous and innocuous Sing I had witnessed in 1984.

I was thus totally unprepared for the roiling waves of delayed anger that were waiting to be unleashed in the fall of 1985. I recall rehearsing the first-year students in this very hall [Peirce], and through the open windows behind me, a low and ominous hum emanated from the masses assembled in front of Rosse Hall. When we made the trek over to the steps I felt as though I was leading 400 hobbits to the gates of Mordor. The second I turned my back on the crowd to lead the Sing, I was hit by a beer can thrown from somewhere in the middle of the mob. Though seriously outnumbered, the fledgling Class of 1989 persevered.

Whatever we tried to do in the ensuing years could not overcome the desire on the part of the students to “give better than they got” in this event. The deplorable actions of upperclass students escalated to the point that in 1989 the administration felt that Kenyon could no longer in good conscience sponsor the First-Year Sing. I dutifully taught the Kenyon songs to the Class of 1993 that year, but the entire College was informed that the public portion of the Sing was canceled.

However, upon the conclusion of our final rehearsal at the convening dinner, a first-year student named Kelley Wilder stood up on a table right here in Peirce Hall, defying the authority of all the faculty and deans in attendance, and announced she was not going to be the first freshman in decades not to sing the Kenyon songs on the steps of Rosse. The entire class roared its approval and headed for the double doors to the left where I was standing. I had to make the choice of either being trampled to death or joining the revolution, and my presence here today gives testament to my decision. We all followed Kelley across Ransom Green and triumphantly reinstated relative civility to the First-Year Sing, effectively preserving the tradition for thousands of students over the past twenty years.

Your collective introduction to Kenyon is not complete until you sing four Kenyon songs on the steps of Rosse. For the first time since 1983, the Sing will occur on the same day as the all-campus picnic. But we are not stupid: you will sing before any food is served.

From Kelley Wilder '03

Wilder, who is now a senior research fellow in photographic history at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, remembers her own role in the saving of Sing in somewhat less heroic terms. She shared her recollections in an e-mail last November. Some excerpts follow.

When we arrived early for cross country training, there was a chance to get to know the other athletes, [including] upperclassmen and women. Our cross country captains (who were no doubt looking forward to heckling us a bit) were very disappointed that rumor had it that the Sing wouldn't take place, so in the course of some very long runs when I had very little breath to answer but much time to listen, the importance of the Sing was impressed on me.

When the others arrived for their first week in the dorms, our RAs sat us down and told us of the proposed cancellation, and we on the second floor of McBride agreed all together that we would, on cue, stand up and go do our Sing on the steps of Rosse as all other classes had done. We were assured that all the other halls were going to do this as well, and that everyone would follow.

During the dinner and the welcome, the whispering intensified, because we all knew what was coming, the moment when we had agreed to get up and defy the cancellation. There was, as I remember, quite a lot of neighborly negotiation going on—"go on, if you stand up, I will; no, you do it and I'll follow you; no, we need to stand up together," etc.

And then it just happened. There was a moment of silence when no one did anything, and, yes, I did then just stand up on the table and sort of signal that now we'd go outside and do our Sing. (I think I just said, "Well, shall we go outside now?" or something equally lame.) You have to understand that I had been given sworn assurances from my neighbors at the table that they would follow if I did such a thing. And I believed that everyone else had been instructed to go out and sing on the steps anyway. So there wasn't much to be lost, and my role was really more organizational than proclamational. If I hadn't done it, I'm sure one of my classmates would have. It was fun to stand on the table, though only in retrospect, as I suspect at the time it was rather scary!

We were all quite tense about [the insurrection]—a political action, and we'd only been there, what, two days or something! We were probably all terrified of getting thrown out of the College for being rabble-rousers!