We live in what is known as the “Five College Area” of Western Massachusetts. And, in these pandemic days as we approach the beginning of the academic year, many of us are having dark thoughts about the impact of twenty or thirty thousand students from all over the world descending on our “Happy Valley.”
Or, conversely, having even darker thoughts about the impact of twenty or thirty thousand young folks NOT coming back to campuses and our communities until who knows when.
The cultural and economic impact of either scenario is hard to fathom, to say nothing of the impact on the health of students, staff, and us in this academic/pandemic year. We wait and see and, yes, we STAY TUNED.
Meanwhile, in our masked sequestration in proximity to many halls of ivy, I find myself musing from time to time on college life both as I knew it way back in the mid-years of the last century (that sounds scary!) and how it affected music and our favorite little musical instrument—the ukulele—in those and earlier years.
Singing was popular in those days and many, many songbooks were readily available and well used.
And, here’s a really early songbook from 1891 and another dated 1915, both from Smith College here in Northampton, one of our five colleges.
Many popular songs were written ABOUT college life but, other than the good old “alma mater” tunes, were seldom written BY those actually experiencing it. Ah, yes. A form of cultural stereotype!
So, as a musical kickoff in this football season with no football games, here is a parody of so many college songs of the day: “Oh How We Love Our Alma Mater!” Click or tap on the next image to listen and laugh at this one from the 1920s.
There were many ukuleles that had a somewhat “collegiate” theme. Here are a few from my collection. Let’s start with a banjo uke from the 1920s autographed by fraternity brothers.
Alas, I played a tenor banjo (a 1928 Gretsch tuned like a baritone ukulele, DGBE) way, way back when I was in college. Not quite a ukulele but close enough in those days.
So much for the instruments themselves.
Now, gentle readers, bear with me as I muse and dip into the devious world of statistics albeit in my mid-century way! Remember these gadgets?
For example, in 1920, fewer than 1% of Americans had college degrees. By 1940, it jumped to around 6% while today it’s nearly 40%! Going “off to college”during the pre-World War II, non GI Bill days, was viewed by many as a luxury few could afford and, in fact, more than a few found unnecessary and, in fact, pretentious. If the public image of college wasn’t tarnished, it sure wasn’t polished in the early days!
But above all, college was seen by many to be fun–a formulative interval in one’s path through life, so to speak–and the “collegiate mythology” was born! Here is one of the most popular tunes of the era, one that typifies the myth both in content and language!
Click or tap on the next image to give a listen to this quintessential image of college life in the 1920s.
The musical myths continued to spin!
And, of course, ukuleles were a big part of college learning and loving.
Most songwriters of the era—with the notable exceptions of Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael—had never set foot on a college campus. To give them an A+ for that good old college try, however, here are a couple of (quite forgettable I would think) tunes by Porter, a Yale “Eli.” You would have to be a one to appreciate, let alone understand, these two.
Here’s a delightful presentation of this tune from the biopic “Night and Day.” Tap or click on the next image to, shall we say, bark along!
On the other hand, it’s a bit easier to pay homage to Carmichael, that good old “Hoosier” from the University of Indiana.
Tap or click on the next image for a look and listen to this song within its film context–snappy lyrics by Carmichael, no less.
But, to be a “college man” (or boy) in those days was still something special and worthy of note, many notes in fact!
Tap or click on the next image for this ragtime era tune from 1910.
And then there were the “college women” (or girls). There were more and more on campuses as the decades rolled along.
Needless to say, these and their college lifestyle became cemented in songwriters’ minds.
But, a lot of the the songs endure and many were made for the ukulele!
You can still strum a few of these today.
In the 1920s or 1930s—whether or not you went to “State,”
one of the “Ivies,”
or an “Ag” school,
or one of the “Sisters,”
college students wanted to fit in.
Of course there were classes. Some stylishly serious.
And some not so. Also, professors, of differing descriptions!
I’ll spare you a YouTube of this one made somewhat famous by the bandleader Kay Kyser and his “Kollege of Musical Knowledge.”
They went to football games on their own or nearby campuses and on (unchaperoned!) dates.
They joined sororities and fraternities.
Tap or click on the next image for a listen to this venerable fraternity “sweetheart” song that has become an American songbook standard.
And they spent their weekends being and laughing with friends.
College men and women in those days often were more worried about the present Prohibition than the coming Great Depression.
Tap or click on the next image for a rowdy 1940s take on this oldie from the University of Maine, one of the most popular (and parodied) college drinking songs of the 1930s.
And, football was king!
Tap or click on the next image to hear this one.
Now here’s a genre of ukuleles from my collection that make the point (point after?)!
Here’s a rather strange interpretation of this old chestnut of a college song–with some rather interesting, not-quite-football moves! Tap or click on the next image for a look see.
There’s even a ukulele version of this one. Tap or click on the next image for a listen.
Still, a big part of campus time was spent meeting future partners—business and romance—and to have the best of times with their peers and cohorts.
Needless to say, music—particularly rousing songs and wild dancing—were a big part of all this
Tap or click on the next image for a jazzy performance of this campus favorite!
The outfit that was the thing in the stadium.
In the 1920s and 1930s, women attending school—co-ed or their own, was becoming more and more the norm. Prior to World War I, most women were expected not to pursue more higher education “than necessary” and to devote their lives to homes and husbands instead.
However, after the war was over, both young men and women looked to their futures with newly opened eyes and enrolled in college for a more meaningful education.
Tap or click on the next image to hear a Rudy Vallee interpretation of this oldie but goody!
Studies in colleges and universities in the 1920s mostly focused on the so-called “generals”—math, English, science, languages, and history. Often both Greek and Latin were requirements. Law and medical curricula were common and professional degrees in engineering, business, and architecture were offered.
Despite Prohibition, hip flasks were often flouted and beer flowed freely in most fraternities. Romance was in the air and, needless to say, opportunities were everywhere!
Give a listen to this oldie by clicking or tapping on the next image.
But, to an outsider, social life seemed to be everything to college students in those days. Alas, good grades and academics too often were not the reasons for attending college. Instead, it seemed to be all about the social life and, of course, football.
So, it looks like we are about to enter an academic year without football. Strange! Nothing to do but go to class, study, write those papers, and stay masked and socially distanced. And, lets not forget the parents!
At least we can have some sort of music to remember those sweet old college days when we could be closer than six feet from friends! Click or tap on the next image to here a delightful group of singers from Alison’s Alma Mater–Smith College.
Now, click or tap on the next image for a song from my old school, Illinois
So, stay well, stay distanced, stay close to your Alma Mater, and STAY TUNED!
And don’t forget your mask, especially you Smithies!
Thanks for college moms and dads!