At 90, the Whiffenpoofs Sing in a New Millennium

The Whiffenpoofs, the nation's oldest collegiate a cappella singing group, will return to Yale November 12-14 to celebrate 90 years of harmony.

The Whiffenpoofs, the nation’s oldest collegiate a cappella singing group, will return to Yale November 12-14 to celebrate 90 years of harmony.

The world-renowned group dates back to 1909, when the four men who made up the elite Varsity Quartet agreed to meet down at Mory’s, a local tavern then on the corner of Temple and Crown streets in New Haven, for a weekly social with song.

By 1909, the Varsity Quartet – composed of four of the Yale Glee Club’s best voices – had become a popular fixture at Yale undergraduate and alumni events throughout the East Coast. The Quartet’s weekly songfests at the “dear old Temple Bar” soon became a major attraction in New Haven – a boon to business that Mory’s proprietor Louis Linder was happy to encourage.

One member of the group, Denton “Goat” Fowler of the Class of ‘09, suggested they call themselves the “Whiffenpoofs” after nonsensical lyrics from the then current Broadway musical, “Little Nemo,” by Victor Herbert:

A Drivaling Grilyal yandled its flail,
One day by a Whiffenpoof’s grave.

With a new name, the “Whiffs” adopted their own signature song. Of disputed provenance, the Whiffenpoof song has been variously attributed to Judge Tod B. Galloway (Amherst 1885), Guy Hamilton Scull (Harvard 1898) and to a traditional spiritual. No Yale man has yet to step up to claim authorship.

The Whiffenpoofs today comprise 12 to 15 Yale College seniors who have been “tapped” in their junior year. Members will sing with the group for only one year and then “pass and be forgotten with the rest.”

Rich in ritual and folklore, “Whiffs” of any given year soon become seasoned travelers and recording artists. Their world tours have taken them to 40 countries including Egypt, Nepal, Iceland and Russia. They have appeared on national television in the United States, including on “Saturday Night Live,” and have recorded 50 albums – their first in 1927.

Including on- and off-campus performances, the Whiffenpoofs perform more than 150 concerts a year. They have sung for Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton and were the subject of the off-Broadway play, “Poor Little Lambs.” Their trip through China inspired the 1985 documentary, “Perfect Harmony.”

There are now 750 living “Whiffs,” a category embracing all present and past members. The well-networked alumni meet informally throughout the year and reserve every fifth year for their big reunion.

At the gathering in New Haven this week, more than 300 alumni will join the 14 Whiffenpoofs of 2000 to celebrate nine decades of song. Much of the old repertoire will be new to younger Whiffs, as each year’s group develops some of its own songs and arrangements.

Among the activities slated for their 90-year anniversary reunion are masterclasses on Saturday afternoon with certain legendary “pitchpipes” (those members selected as the leaders of their groups), a great “wine and song” party at Sterling Library on Saturday evening, followed by dinner in Freshman Commons, and an Alumni Concert in Battell Chapel later Saturday night.

An exhibition of Whiffenpoof memorabilia will be on display at Sterling Library throughout November until mid-December.

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