I’m going to talk about what we can learn from 122 years of touring with the Virginia Glee Club. I only have 20 minutes so this will be a highlights reel. If you want to know more, I’ll be happy to play Ancient Mariner for you sometime.
Tonight's presentation has portions that are of general interest, and some lessons largely directed at the current Glee Club members as they prepare to tour Argentina next spring. So alums, you can keep drinking, but Shanty, Backsplash, and Fist, you may want to take notes.
btw, Learning about Glee Club names has been fun. In my day we didn't have Club names--just ask Snappy, Chubs, Turbo, Jewels, and Shameless.
The first thing I want to talk about is: this is a 145-year-old organization. Why only 122 years of tours? To answer that, let's begin at the beginning.
This is the very first mention (not counting a statement that they were organizing) of the Virginia Glee Club in January 1871, just nine months after Virginia was readmitted to the Union following Reconstruction, in April 1870. The Glee Club was at first just a rooming house group. (Virginia University Magazine, January 1871)
It operated solely within the University and the broader community, from its base on the north side of West Main Street between 9th and 10th. This is the a shell House. The Glee Club was one of the only two noteworthy things to happen here; the other was when John Singleton Mosby, later the Grey Ghost of the Confederacy, shot and wounded notorious campus bully George Turpin the night of March 6, 1853, almost 18 years before the Club first appeared.
Even the next few iterations of the club, like the Claribel, saw their role as a serenading group for the “ladies of the University and Charlottesville.” (VUM 1874)
And even in the days of Woodrow Wilson (here seen within about five years of his time at UVa), the group was more about singing to ladies than to audiences. “We hear that on moonlight nights they group themselves in a picturesque, romance-suggesting manner around the graceful form of their handsome leader, somewhere on our beautiful Lawn, and pour out entrancing love songs of exquisite sweetness that rouse the slumbering ones for whom the serenade is meant, and a flood of light, a little half-suppressed laughter, a creaking shutter slowly opening, a light footstep among the shadows on the terrace, a bunch of ribbon-tied flowers and a dainty card fluttering to the ground on which is written in delicate feminine tracery: Many Thanks and Our Compliments to The University Glee Club.
Say, fellows, don't you all wish you could warble sufficiently sweet to be a member of that fortunate U.G.C.?”
So, to paraphrase that movie of my adolescence, Dead Poets Society, the purpose of the Glee Club was originally “to woo women.”
But in ten years, in the early 1890s, the group was not satisfied with serenading, in the vernacular of the day, “the calico”—instead it was going on tour all up and down the East Coast. From Charlottesville to Richmond, then Lexington and Louisville, then Nashville, Atlanta, and Chattanooga. What changed to give the Glee Club of 1893-1894 such great ambitions?
Among other things, the railroad did. Before the Civil War, most goods were transported via water (rivers and canals) with only a few rail lines operating, and those were not linked into a network. The Chesapeake and Ohio (late 1860s to 1880s) was one of the first railroads to connect with other outside rail lines. The Charlottesville depot opened in 1885; before that, it would have been difficult for UVa passengers to access the rail to travel.
This was also the time of the rise of intercollegiate football and baseball. The precedent had been set for students to travel beyond the ivy walls.
And by this time the Northern clubs were touring. We have records of a Princeton Glee Club performance on Grounds in the late 1880s. So there was probably some native pride at work.
By the way, this (1892-93) was the first group to give concerts outside Charlottesville—albeit only in Norfolk and Richmond. The next year, though, a bunch of them, including #6, Bernard Moore, decided to do it again and go big. They went all up and down the Atlantic Coast from Richmond to Atlanta. They had help from #3, George Ainslie—about whom more in a bit.
Take a look at #9. Yes, that’s Edward Addison Craighill, Jr. The author of the Good Old Song.
Why do I bring this up? Well, the 1895-96 officers included McLane Tilton (Z and 13, and future Alumni Secretary of UVa), William Douglas Gordon (Z and Eli Banana, future editor of the Norfolk Ledger Dispatch), D.L. Grover (13, federal judge, Chief Justice, US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit), James H. Paxton (13, OWL, Eli Banana, editor in chief of the Magazine)… and John D. Potts.
Who wasn’t, according to the various catalogs of students I’ve consulted, enrolled. So who was he?
Well, he also turns up in the tour narrative that Bernard Moore put together for the 1894 tour…
and in this ad from an early 1900s William and Mary yearbook, which shows him as the General Passenger Agent for the C&O Railroad. So that brings us to Lesson One…
…or more generally, put the guy with travel and organizational skills—or failing that, connections—in charge of your tour.
Let’s talk about Lesson Two, which should be tattooed on the inside of every Club guy’s eyelids.
This is the Virginia Glee Club on the front page of the Washington Post, on the eve of a big tour in New York City. Probably the most prominent publicity the group ever got. With the women of Barnard College.
And this is the logistics letter that the director, Harry Rogers Pratt, sent to his Club. The “don’t get hoarse singing and talking” is relevant as there was a mixer with Barnard College planned before the radio broadcast. I couldn’t find written proof of this, but memories indicate that the modern version of this comes from Coach Loach, who cautioned the Club on European tours, that — after dinners with wine in the European style — they were always to retire with “two aspirin and a tall glass of water.”
The one significant police run in on the record came from a failure to mind manners. A 1950s era tour to Georgia ended up with the boys running into the law thanks to getting involved in … a panty raid. (This is a stock image from a different school.)
One last story in this vein from my own time in Club: New Orleans, 1992. We had a day off in the Big Easy the day after St Patricks Day. Thee next morning at a prep school in Lake Pontchartrain we sang Tallis’s Lamentations of Jeremiah and went a minor third flat.
The man down here is Mike Braun, who became completely hysterical after the performance. We couldn’t get him to talk for over an hour later, and all he could say is “those poor kids!”
Don’t do this.
But that doesn’t mean don’t have fun. A few examples…
Let’s not pretend tours are all songs and teas with grandmothers. So here’s a note about the 1936 tour. Yes, your grandfather knew what a Purity Test was. (In point of fact, it appears the popularity of a “purity test” as a pre-Internet meme was launched at Barnard College in 1935.)
This is the Glee Club at Pat O’Brien’s during the 1992 Tour of the South. The leadership planned a day off in New Orleans. They taught the crowd how to sing the Good Old Song. (Photo credit Aven Tsai)
So maybe the lesson is not to schedule a gig first thing the next morning.
Camaraderie comes in many flavors. This picture dates from the 1979 Tour of Russia and Sweden. This was a joint tour with the Mount Holyoke Glee Club. Not all tours that you do with Glee Club will give you the option of doing a kick line with colleagues from the tour bus who are better looking than you—well, maybe some of you will have that option…
For one last example, let’s go back to that 1893-1894 tour. After performing, the group came back to Charlottesville and gave a concert in the Levy Opera House — a lot of history there, for another talk. This is the second oldest concert program we’ve ever discovered, in the papers of Ada Bantz Beardsworth. Why do we have it? Let’s take a closer look at the writing on the bottom:
“Dear Ada: I have no program of the Staunton concert, but it was almost the same as this. We had a fine time, but not as large a house as we anticipated. I made a great mash on one of Miss Baldwin’s girls…” Some things never change. And if William Wood Glass, Jr. hadn’t been so eager to show off about it, we wouldn’t be laughing at his love note 121 years later. So be discreet!
Talking about 1894 brings me back to the last point—make sure that you leverage the alumni as much as possible when planning the tour, and on the road.
Here’s a story from my own experience. This is a photo of the Glee Club in 1992 with John Liepold singing the Biebl “Ave Maria” and 10K/Good Old Song. We’re in Jackson, MS in the State Senate chamber, after concerts in Chapel Hill, Atlanta, and Athens, and a night in the remarkably dry town of Oxford. Pretty cool gig!
And here we are with the reason: State Senator Hob Bryan. UVa Law alum, knew about the Glee Club, reached out to us when he heard we would be on tour to ask us to show up. Gave 40 guys one of the most unique experiences of their lives.
Let’s look at the report from the 1894 tour. Bernard Moore writes, “The first concert was given in Richmond, and its success was due largely to the efforts of Mr. George Ainslie.” George Ainslie was the manager in 1892-1893 – and later mayor of Richmond.
Again, Moore writes, “It was in Louisville that the club received its warmest and heartiest welcome. A committee composed of [among others] Gus A. Beaux, Jr. had been empowered by the Alumni Association to see to the entertainment of the club…” Gustave Aurelian Breaux Jr. was a member in 1891-1892 (also editor in chief of UVA Magazine) and later president of the Louisville Symphony. These guys were instrumental in making that first tour a success, along with a bunch of other alums. Make sure you keep your alums aware of what you’re doing.
For you alums in the audience—when the Glee Club reaches out for assistance, or even lets you know that they are touring, be sure to participate. It can be remarkably satisfying to watch this group of singers perform, knowing that you are helping to build the next in the list of the Ten Thousand Voices.
Thanks for listening, and here’s hoping for many more successful years of touring!
Virginia Glee Club: 145 Years of Club, 122 Years of Tours
1 4 5 Y E A R S O F C L U B ,
1 2 2 Y E A R S O F T O U R S
L E S S O N O N E :
M A K E T H E R A I L R O A D M A N Y O U R
B U S I N E S S M A N A G E R
L E S S O N T W O :
M I N D Y O U R M A N N E R S ,
A N D Y O U R I N T A K E .