The Whiffenpoofs: Ethnic Vaudeville, Rudyard Kipling and Now a Girl. Baa Baa Baa.
High atop the list of improbable good things that have happened within my lifetime, a list that previously included a black president and cheesecake M&Ms, I now place this: a female Whiffenpoof.
In maybe the most startling news out of New Haven since Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, Yale University’s renowned a capella singing ensemble the Whiffenpoofs this week announced they’re going to let a girl sing with them.
This didn’t happen when the Whiffenpoofs were organized in 1909. It didn’t happen when Yale began admitting female students in 1968. Now it’s happening. Her name is Sofia Campoamor.
She’s a composer and musician. She also came along at the right time, because as recently as 2016, the Whiffenpoofs voted against taking down the “No Gurlz Allowed” sign. What part of “gentlemen songsters,” the group’s thinking has always gone, is unclear?
To be fair, that debate has never been just about maintaining a Man-Cave, but the musical implications of adding female voices to the group’s sound. That’s a legitimate debate, and one it’s admirable the Whiffenpoofs would hold. Popular culture deserves that level of attention, because it is not nearly as trivial as our microscopic attention spans might sometimes suggest.
The resolution, accordingly, was musical. The Whiffenpoofs are a TTBB group: tenor I, tenor II, baritone, bass. Ms. Campoamor can sing tenor. As long as she doesn’t mind wearing a jacket, white tie and white gloves, all the boxes seem to be checked.
At the same time, it’s instructive to remember something else: The Whiffenpoofs were not founded in stern patriarchal musical doctrine. They were born in jovial whimsy among friends over lagers, and the signature tune that branded them, The Whiffenpoof Song, springs from the unlikely marriage of a throwaway gag by a 19th century vaudeville comedian and a grumpy poem by Rudyard Kipling.
Joseph Cawthorn, born in 1867, was a comedian and singer who made his reputation in minstrel shows with a snappy routine of ethnic dialect gags. By the early 20th century he was a star, which gave him modest leeway to add some of his own comic bits to productions in which he was cast.
At one point, he and a fellow actor were amusing themselves by making up verses in the nonsense style of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. One verse went like this: “A drivaling grilyal yandled its flail / One day by a Whiffenpoof’s grave.”
Because no performer likes to waste material, Cawthorn dusted off this line when he was cast in the 1908 Broadway production of Little Nemo, a light opera by the immensely popular Victor Herbert.
Cawthorn played Dr. Pill, who at one point finds himself among several men boasting of their manly hunting and fishing exploits. What better way to top the others, Dr. Pill thought, than to have bagged a specimen no one else knew existed?
I have, he announced, caught a Whiffenpoof fish.
The word sounds funny enough that it doubtless drew a satisfactory round of laughter. And that would have been that, except that one of the 111 performances of Little Nemo was attended by a young man named Denton Fowler, nickname “Goat,” who loved musical theater and was a member of the Yale Glee Club.
In the winter of 1908–09, Fowler was also one of four or five Glee Club members who had been harmonizing together on the side. Other members included James M. Howard, Carl Lohmann, George S. Pomery and Meade Minnigerode.
Through the fall they would meet on campus to sing their four- or five-part harmonies. When the New Haven weather turned cold, Fowler suggested they convene weekly at a small restaurant called Mory’s, run by Louis Linder.
Fowler, a jovial, lighthearted fellow who apparently was full of ideas, suggested the group also needed its own name. With Little Nemo fresh in his mind, he just happened to have one: the Whiffenpoofs.
It had the right blend of exuberance and exotic fancy, with perhaps just a hint of self-aware faux pomposity.
The group thought it was the cat’s pajamas. Now all they needed was a song.
Seek and ye shall receive.
For a decade or more, college ensembles had been singing a tune based on the Kipling poem Gentleman Rankers.
Like several of Kipling’s works, this had a bitter edge. Its singers were British aristocrats sent off to war in some dismal corner of the Empire, slammed by the realization that when they died for the glory of the Queen, no one would much care or even notice:
When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters
And the horror of our fall is written plain,
Every secret, self-revealing on the aching white-washed ceiling,
Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?. . . .
And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us
And we die, and none can tell Them where we died. . . .
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa! . . . .
Okay, this didn’t exactly describe the circumstances of the Yale men of ought-nine. But the tune was catchy, so Minnigerode and Pomeroy rewrote it for the Whiffs.
To the tables down at Mory’s,
To the place where Louis dwells. . . .
Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled
With their glasses raised on high
And the magic of their singing casts its spell
We’re poor little lambs. . . .
Suddenly this whiny song was fun, which has been the Whiffenpoof creed ever since.
What’s more fun than singing things like “Can’t Help Falling Love,” “The Rainbow Connection,” “The Boxer” and “Down by the Salley Gardens” before wrapping it up with a song about yourselves?
Not much. Except maybe this. How about having a girl sing it with you?