Something has been bothering me of late—something that sort of gets under the skin. The ear is cocked, the eye is sharp and the nose points quiveringly, but the fact remains that what should be a very definite part of college life has seemingly disappeared, leaving behind it only a tattered remnant of the glory that was the tenor and the grandeur that was the bass. For the art of merry song and harmony, mellowed perhaps by a keg or two of beer, is definitely on the wane at Virginia.
No longer do we hear of a Saturday night, floating above the stately trees that line the Lawn, the sound of "Carry Me Back," with that superb seventh in the tenor on the third note of the third line. Nor do we hear those sentimental barbershop songs of old—"Honey," "I Want a Girl," "A Bicycle Built for Two" and the dozens of others that our fathers sang but which we, evidently, have never learned. Somehow or other, singing has become a lost art at Virginia. The sounds of revelry by night consist mainly of the clank of beer cans as they bounce off the sidewalk, and the ten thousand voices singing acclaim have been replaced by ten thousand dull, sickening thuds as ten thousand drunks fall heavily to the barroom floor. Even "Sweet Adeline," perennial favorite of untold hundreds of whiskey tenors, is seldom heard above the clashing discords of modern Virginia's Saturday nights.
The Glee Club (adv.), only recently climbing into the limelight that it so justly deserves, is the sole musical organization at the University which has tried to cultivate a love of singing in the dormant vocal chords of a swing-crazy student body. Two years ago, during their annual final meeting and beer party, the Glee Club suddenly adjourned to the Rotunda steps to regale themselves with a brief song or two. And there, under a shimmering moon and mingling with the proverbial purple shadows of the Lawn, the sweetly lusty tones of "Sweet Adeline" resounded from pillar to pillar and rolled majestically down the moon-lit greensward in an ever increasing swell of tenor and bass. The door along the Lawn were flung open and little clusters of figures merged together in the dusk to listen. Students who had been cramming for exams in the Library laid down their books and joined the small crowd of onlookers who were slowly gathering around the steps. The Glee Club, inspired by this unexpected audience, went through almost its entire repertoire, and for over an hour the merry sound of song broke into the sombre atmosphere of study and provided a delightful respite to exam-worried students.
But when September rolled around again, whatever inspiration the merry song of that June night might have sparked and died. The student body had once again lapsed into the noisy clamor of the Cavalier and the Riviera. The inimitable Tin Can Quartet began its insidious campaign to ferret out the talent that lay hidden in the dormant vocal cords of ten thousand voices. Concert after concert found the Tin Can Quartet stealing the show from under the collective noses of Brahms, Palestrina and Sibelius. Cabell Hall, up to its eaves in a milling dance-week-end crowd, echoed and re-echoed with the mad applause that greeted the Quartet in its first home appearance. By the time they had answered three encores they had run out of songs, and the four of them trooped off the stage in amazed bewilderment. Perhaps, after all, they had succeeded in awakening a real interest in the old-fashioned close harmony that was so dear to the hearts of the old-timers.
But it wasn't until June that another song-fest took place at the University. The students had shown themselves willing and eager to listen to a good quartet, but they balked in no uncertain terms when it came to singing themselves. So it was that the dreary winter months dragged on to the accompaniment of the ever-clanking beer cans and screeching automobile tires.
On Saturday nights of Finals, however, a minor miracle took place. Gathered in and around a certain room on East Lawn were a goodly number of dark conspirators; six members of the class of 1912 had slipped away from their comrades, bearing with them a huge Mason jar containing a mint julep, and were on their way to join the group lurking in the shadows of East Lawn. Three members of the Tin Can Quartet, a dozen members of the Glee Club, past and present, and an odd assortment of dates waited expectantly as the six alumni approached. And then, a short five minutes later—ah, shades of the mighty Caruso!—it had been a long year—the soft, harmonious tones of "Sweet Adeline" once again rolled up and down the Lawn. The same moon shimmered through the trees and the same purple shadows mingled with the ghostly figures that stood grouped beneath a stately oak. A prominent and dignified New York attorney gazed up at the stars and hit notes of which he had never before believed himself capable. A notorious "big business man" drowned the sorrows of a troubled world in his Mason jar and gazed down at the green sod beneath his feet, rumbling a potent bass that seemed to mingle with the very roots of the mighty oak which towered above him.
For three hours the singing continued. They sang every song that ever graced a barbershop of old. Juleps were plentiful and so were first tenors—happy coincidence. But finally, at four o'clock in the morning, and when voices were so hoarse that anything above a whisper was an effort, the small crowd began to break up. The six alumni, their eyes tired but shining, stumbled wearily across the Lawn, speaking in reverent tones of the song-fests that used to be so common and now are so rare. The others, lingering for a brief moment over the dregs, said good-night and went their separate ways. The Lawn was once again cloaked in silence.
That brief taste of what used to be makes it all the harder to stomach the change that has taken place. The kegs of beer and the well-mixed juleps have given way to hard liquor of a variety that would discourage even a Tibbet from singing. The tenors have given way to blondes and the basses to brunettes; song has been replaced by sex and the movies; and good quartets are about as hard to find as a glass of milk in a fraternity house. In the old days almost every house boasted its own quartet; today it is hard to find two boys in the same house who won't flat on that high note at the end of the first line of the "Good Old Song." Listen to the man on your left the next time it is sung in a group—and wince.
But the day will come, I like to believe, when this fast-stepping college generation will crack under the strain and feel the need of a soothing melody. They will finally heed the call of harmony's restful retreat and they will slip from beneath the steering wheels of their high-powered roadsters, forsake the cold bottle for the friendly keg and once again lift their voices in song.
"In the evening, by the moonlight,
You can hear those banjos ringing.
In the evening, by the moonlight,
You can hear those darkies singing.
How the old folks would enjoy it—
They would sit all night and listen,
As we sang in the evening, by the moonlight.