“In the evening, by the moonlight”

Cover to the April 1938 issue of the Virginia Spectator

I had a lucky eBay find last week: a copy of the April 1938 issue of the Virginia Spectator, the successor to the University of Virginia Magazine and the original University of Virginia literary mag. These magazines aren’t especially valuable, though they only turn up infrequently. What made this one stand out was an article by a Virginia Glee Club member, Daniel Jenkins, about the state of song at the University.

Jenkins is an alum I’ve known about for some time. When I was an undergrad, he sent us a letter about his experience as a Glee Club member in the 1930s. I subsequently discovered that he had been a member of the Tin Can Quartet (which I wrote about a while ago) He is, I believe, still with us and still supporting the Glee Club’s endeavors, though I don’t know much about his whereabouts.

This article provides one of the earliest existing descriptions of Glee Club alumni singing:

On Saturday nights of Finals, however, a minor miracle took place. Gathered in and around a certain room on East Lawn were a goodly number of dark conspirators; six members of the class of 1912 had slipped away from their comrades, bearing with them a huge Mason jar containing a mint julep, and were on their way to join the group lurking in the shadows of East Lawn. Three members of the Tin Can Quartet, a dozen members of the Glee Club, past and present, and an odd assortment of dates waited expectantly as the six alumni approached. And then, a short five minutes later—ah, shades of the mighty Caruso!—it had been a long year—the soft, harmonious tones of “Sweet Adeline” once again rolled up and down the Lawn. The same moon shimmered through the trees and the same purple shadows mingled with the ghostly figures that stood grouped beneath a stately oak. A prominent and dignified New York attorney gazed up at the stars and hit notes of which he had never before believed himself capable. A notorious “big business man” drowned the sorrows of a troubled world in his Mason jar and gazed down at the green sod beneath his feet, rumbling a potent bass that seemed to mingle with the very roots of the mighty oak which towered above him.

For three hours the singing continued. They sang every song that ever graced a barbershop of old. Juleps were plentiful and so were first tenors—happy coincidence. But finally, at four o’clock in the morning, and when voices were so hoarse that anything above a whisper was an effort, the small crowd began to break up. The six alumni, their eyes tired but shining, stumbled wearily across the Lawn, speaking in reverent tones of the song-fests that used to be so common and now are so rare. The others, lingering for a brief moment over the dregs, said good-night and went their separate ways. The Lawn was once again cloaked in silence.

I was unsurprised, but a little disappointed, to find that even this memory carried the taint of the South’s original sin, though, with the inclusion of the minstrel show song “In the Evening, By the Moonlight.” Again, a reminder that the Glee Club was like every Southern cultural institution and carried the seeds of slavery’s past with it into the twentieth century.

But the article gives me hope, too, that the power of song can still bridge generations and tap deeper reserves of humanity in the singer and the listener. It’s a timely reminder, given the Glee Club’s upcoming 145th Reunion celebration in April. I hope the juleps are plentiful then too.