AC Voice

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The Singing College

Image by Jerrey Roberts

Image by Jerrey Roberts

(Anna Seward)— Despite the very real problems Amherst faces today, I think it’s clear we’re a lot better off than we were a hundred years ago. A lot has changed since then: the college admitted women in 1975, on-campus fraternities were banned in 1984, and under the term of President Tony Marx, diversity became a corner stone of the Amherst college experience. Successful or not, there have been great administrative and student efforts to take the all white “boys’ club” out of Amherst life. It’s difficult then, to reckon ourselves with any sort of old school tradition at Amherst. It’s hard to be proud of our genocidal mascot, it’s hard to love the history of destroying and capturing our Sabrina, it’s hard to sing the college songs.

I’m the president of Women’s Chorus, the all-female group within Choral Society that was founded in 1979, the same year the Sabrinas were founded. When Amherst became coeducational there were only two groups considered “choral society”—aka directed by a paid conductor and not a cappella: Glee Club and the Freshman Glee Club. From all accounts, the Glee Club was basically another frat. The music mattered much less than the wild parties they threw. When our current conductor Mallorie Chernin took over, there was an outrage among many (though not all) alumni and current students. A woman conducting their precious men’s chorus? Quelle horreur. But when the college pushed for the abolition of Glee Club as women were admitted to the college, Chernin pushed back and instead helped form the Concert Choir (a mixed choir, already there when Chernin took her place) and Women’s Chorus and at the same time fostered a very real change within Glee Club itself. Glee Club now is very far from a fraternity culture and regularly has events (both performances and informal parties) with other Choral Society groups.

This is the kind of transformation I think all Amherst traditions should go through. I don’t think everything from the “glory days” of racism and misogyny should be stripped away without explanation. A prime example of this would be the fraternities. I don’t personally agree with the idea of fraternities in general, but it’s hard to say for sure about Amherst frats when I don’t really know what went down with Psi Upsilon. President Marx only wrote a very vague condemnation in an all school email that it was due to a “serious violation involving the leadership and members of the off-campus fraternity Psi Upsilon.” I’ve certainly heard the rumors, but if it is true that hazing involved non-consensual taping of other couples having sex, isn’t that something we should have talked about in 2010? If we’d taken that opportunity to discuss consent (or general hazing or whatever serious violation Psi Upsilon members committed) wouldn’t that have made us a stronger campus?

So every year I sing the college songs. And I love them. I really do. They’re silly little songs and every homecoming concert we welcome Choral Society alums of all ages to the stage who frequently tear up singing “Lord Jeffrey Amherst.” They would be an Amherst tradition that “works” for me, except for the several lines that make me cringe, and cringe a lot. Most of the college songs were written for contests called “Interclass Sings,” that challenged groups to both perform and compose the best college songs beginning in 1903. These contests were what really made Amherst College “the singing college.” Over half of the student body participated, and they were incredibly popular in the community. It’s these competitions that spawned our most popular college songs today. Therefore, these hundred year old songs have very little to do with our current campus culture.

By far the worst offender is “Lord Jeffrey Amherst.” “Lord Jeff,” as it’s affectionately known, is not our alma mater, but considering it’s popularity it might as well be. This is mostly due to the wide range of the harmony in the chorus (trying to sing this a little tipsy at a choral society party is no joke if you’re a soprano) and the movements and gestures to go along with the song that have been with us for decades. If you’ve heard the song you should already know the problematic line just as every time we teach freshman there’s always a slight murmuring as it’s learned: “To the Frenchman and the Indians he didn’t do a thing.”

The real historical figure Jeffery Amherst was the British commander in chief in North America during Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, in which tribes from the Great Lakes, Illinois Country, and Ohio Country rebelled against British policies toward the end of the French and Indian War. In fact, it was because of his policies that the Native American tribes rebelled in the first place. In a letter in July of that year, Colonel Bouquet writes to Amherst, suggesting that the smallpox that has broken out at Fort Pitt be used as a biological weapon against the Native Americans. Amherst approves and further urges him “to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.”

Whether you think Lord Jeff should continue to be our mascot, whether you are bothered listening to the college song, we must all acknowledge that Lord Jeff did indeed do a “thing” to the Indians. He was a racist, he committed genocide, and in a college song we have glorified him. That’s not something any of us should be comfortable with. The composer of the song undoubtedly knew Amherst had committed these crimes. He wrote the line undoubtedly as a joke, but genocide isn’t one.

The song should not only hurt Native American students, it should hurt all of us. But Lord Jeff is a part of our history as a college and not something we can or should try to push out of thought, out of mind. In a recent Facebook thread among choral society singers and alums a compromise was reached. Not singing the song altogether would certainly remove the implication we accept this lyric as a “joke” but it would also remove us from any responsibility. We cannot rewrite the history of oppression at Amherst, but by becoming more aware of it we will hopefully have more respect for the people the song marginalizes.

Certainly, this is a stopgap. The Glee Club 150th Celebration is in 2015 and will feature a beautiful collection of the college songs. Hopefully this will re-ignite interest in our history as the “singing college” and encourage new additions to our musical history, including new college songs themselves. It’s not easy to create new traditions, but it’s crucial if we want to fully bring our college into our modern world.

Many thanks to Nancy Yun Tang, Walker Boyle, and Mallorie Chernin for inspiring and helping with this article. A very much-abridged version of this post will appear in the program for the Choral Society Homecoming 2013 Concert.

About annacse

wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment

3 comments on “The Singing College

  1. JH Noble
    October 20, 2013

    I was in the Glee Club from Fall of ’84 to Spring of ’89 (the “five-year” plan), singing for the first year under Bill McCorkle and then with Mallorie Chernin for the remainder. My recollection is that while there was some disappointment in the Glee Club when Bill did not get the Choral Society directorship, there was no sense of “outrage,” and any lingering feelings were obliterated the moment Mallorie took over. We always felt Mallorie understood and supported the Glee Club, and she inspired us to sing our hearts out for her (by the way, we were 70-80 voices strong in those years – and had an amazing tour to the USSR and Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1990).

    As to “wild Glee Club parties”, I can only speak to the years I was there, but the only Glee Club “parties” I remember were Rocket Fuel nights; once per semester we spent perhaps an hour together after a Thursday rehearsal, inspired by a batch of that incredibly vile concoction. This was a Club event, not publicized to the campus, and the worst part (to any poor passerby) was the gradual replacement of technique with enthusiasm (and perhaps volume).

    Finally, it is my distinct recollection that I read in The Student during my undergraduate years that J.S. Hamilton (’06) did state that he intended both the song “Lord Jeffrey Amherst” and the specific line “To the Frenchman and the Indians he didn’t do a thing” to be understood sarcastically, and not factually. Genocide is indeed not a joke, but any light reading through even Wikipedia concerning Lord Jeff, the French and Indian War, and particularly the Raid on Deerfield will show both the complexities of the situation and the reasons why colonists in the Pioneer Valley would look upon General Amherst as a hero (Amherst College was named after the Town of Amherst, which was named after the man). To reduce this all to “genocide is bad, mmmkay?” does disservice to a first-class liberal arts education.

    Ms. Seward, your experiences and reactions are your experiences and reactions, and I would never dare suggest you should feel otherwise; there are plenty of alumni who have all kinds of reservations about Amherst and its traditions. I would, however, argue that your understanding of the intent of “Lord Jeff” as “ha ha, isn’t genocide funny?” is off; if anything, I would argue for something more along the lines of “yes, we know our mascot is ridiculous or inappropriate, but he’s our mascot anyway.” Hamilton’s classmates understood Lord Jeff’s reputation in 1906, and, due to our recent history and changing sensitivities, we understand it even more strongly today, but personally, singing the “Lord Jeff” does not feel to me like an endorsement of genocide.

    Traditions are only the things we keep doing, generation after generation, and each class has its incremental effect through what it does or does not choose to do. (Remember Hamilton et al. had no radio, television, internet or cell service – not even blues, jazz, or rock ‘n roll.) Group singing from a shared repetoire is one kind of communal activity (sports is another). There are all kinds of good reasons to not want to sing old Amherst songs (they’re sappy, or sentimental, or old-fashioned, or no one knows them anymore), and if current and future students would rather text than sing, then that is what we will become known for in the future. Being known as “the singing college” has no value in and of itself, but there is some value in being known for something. More importantly, the kind and quality of the communal activities students avail themselves of have a strong effect on how we understand and relate to each other. We chose to do these activities because they bring us joy, and because they bring us together.

    Amherst students need a variety of shared experiences beyond our diplomas to keep the sense of community that helps make these four (or five) years so very important in our lives. If this involves a good-natured competition for a statue (thanks again to the class of ’08 for their restoration of the Sabrina), then that’s not so bad, even if it is something that has been done for a long time. If this involves singing a silly song that everyone understands is about an inappropriate mascot, then perhaps there is some value in “Lord Jeffrey Amherst”.

    Sincerely yours,
    JH Noble, ’89

    • annacse
      October 20, 2013

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. First, I want to say I didn’t mean anything against choral society or singing as an Amherst tradition. The comments I made about Glee Club were after speaking with people who were around at the time and I’m sorry if that didn’t reflect your experience. I mentioned that I am Women’s Chorus president and I can honestly say the choir program here has been one of the best parts of my Amherst education. I think choir teaches you to work together and really thrive in a creative environment. Personally, it’s given me a lot of confidence as well. There’s no way I could have imagined being the president of a group when I entered Amherst at 18. By examining the songs we sing that does not mean I don’t want all singing to end. I think it would be a very, very sad thing if singing stopped being an integral part of the Amherst experience.

      On to more specifics. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that Hamilton meant the lyrics ironically. Why mention it at all if he didn’t know the history? In fact when I was speaking with Mallorie about the song she mentioned the original draft began, “Oh, Lord! Jeffrey Amherst…” instead of how we commonly sing it today, “Oh, Lord Jeffrey Amherst…” This also illustrates there was an exasperation with our mascot/the historical man.

      I wrote this piece not because I thought Hamilton was serious or that even in his time Amherst men didn’t know about the history, but because this song has hurt people. There’s been a lot of discussion lately around the idea of offensive jokes and I know a lot of people think, “It’s a joke. If you’re offended, you’re obviously not getting it.” (I’m not presuming this is how you feel at all, but it is a common sentiment). But I think my first-class liberal arts education has taught me it’s not so simple. Words have a very real power and by accepting jokes that hurt discriminated minorities, the discrimination becomes just a little more valid. With this specific lyric I think it makes it just a little easier for the majority to ignore a genocide, while it reminds Native Americans who go to Amherst not only of the historical horror of that time but also that many white Americans (again, not presuming this is how you feel) think it’s time to “get over it.”

      Again I really appreciate your comment. I think the most important part of this song is that we wrestle with it a little bit and are able to have open discussions about it’s content and implications.

      Anna Seward ’14

  2. Pingback: Tracing Lord Jeff, part 2 | Beyond Lord Jeff

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