Poor Wayfaring Stranger

My best friend from the University of Virginia and the Virginia Glee Club, Don Webb, died two years ago next month. I haven’t been able to process that and wasn’t able to talk about it for a long time. But yesterday I attended the college graduation of his daughter, and sitting with some of Don’s friends and his family, I found that the stories started to want to come out. So I thought I’d write them here.

Don and I were fellow singers, colleagues (we served on the executive committee of the Glee Club together in my fourth year), friends and neighbors. But we didn’t meet at UVA. As it turns out, we met the summer before our senior years of high school, at Boys State of Virginia.

Boys State was one of those myriad of summer activities, along with Governor’s School, Latin Academy, and working at amusement parks, that seemed to be the only options for getting out of the house in summertime. But none of us knew much about it. It turns out to have been founded in the late 1930s to counteract the influence of the American Nazi Party’s Pioneer Camps. To me, as an ironic late-1980s teenager who had been sensitized by the Reagan years to regard too much patriotism with mild suspicion, the camp’s relentless display of the flag and its presence at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University seemed a little over the top.

Thank goodness for music. I had sung in my church choir but never with kids my age. The Boys Statesmen of Note, as they called the glee club they formed for the week to sing at the different ceremonies, was a whole new thing. It’s probably the reason I ended up trying out for the Glee Club when I got to UVA. And it’s where I met Don (and fellow Virginia Glee Club fossil Chris Anderson, and fellow UVA alum Lash Fary).

1989 Boys Statesmen of Note. Don Webb back row far left. Chris Anderson middle row fourth from right. Lash Fary front row second from left. Author front row far right.

Don was funny and brash. He was still very much a boy; I learned last night from his sister that the thing he talked most about from Boys State was having won the farting contest on his hall in the camp dorms. I remembered him but hadn’t really gotten to know him.

That changed as we went through our years in the Glee Club. I still remember the first rehearsal of our fall 1991 season, as second years. Our new director John Liepold had pulled out a Donald Moore arrangement (re-arranged for men’s voices by Donald Loach) of the folk song “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” The work (which appears to have been one of those American folk songs that has roots in European hymnody) opens with the following stanza:

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
I’m traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright land to which I go
I’m going there to see my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m just a-going over Jordan
I’m just a-going over home

At the end, Don asked Liepold if he could say a word. He told us that his father had died the preceding summer, and that he felt completely overcome by singing the song with us, but at the same time was struck by how the beauty of the sound we created together gave him hope. He called us all his brothers. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.

A few years later in the spring of 1993, that speech and others like it had established Don’s spiritual and charismatic leadership of the Glee Club and had been formalized in his election as president of the group. I was glad to have him leading the Glee Club. I had taken on too much, was trying to pull the literary magazine I had founded out of insolvency after its second issue, had a suspicion that my major in Physics (which I was nine credits away from completing) was leading me on a path I didn’t want to follow, and was struggling with a variety of stress related ailments. I loved the Glee Club but didn’t think I was the right man to lead it. I was very happy to serve as secretary.

Regardless of anything else, we had both applied to live on the Lawn, an honor nominally reserved for the student leaders and representatives of the University’s values. To our great mutual surprise, we both got rooms. In the drawing for which room we’d live in, we agreed that whoever got the lowest number would grab 5 West Lawn, which had been a Glee Club room since 1973. At the end of the evening we had 3 and 5 West, establishing that we would be neighbors the following year.

We might have been neighbors that year anyway. We both had provisionally agreed to live in the Glee Club House, and both spent a fair amount of time hanging out there. Which is where we were when we saw Chris Anderson wandering with a dazed look through the kitchen. Chris had left the Glee Club to focus on the Virginia Gentlemen, a tight-knit a cappella group in which Don sang vocal percussion. We asked him what was wrong, and he stuttered, “Brogan… Brogan’s gonna be a da… a fa… a father.”

Brogan Sullivan had graduated from Club and the VGs in 1992 and had married soon after, so this shouldn’t have come as a shock to us. But somehow it did. Don and I looked at each other, left, and walked back to the Lawn, where we pulled out our rocking chairs onto the Jeffersonian sidewalk in front of our 160+ year old student rooms. I don’t remember whether we tapped into the solitary bottle of Jack Daniels that I kept in my room for the entirety of the year for entertaining (I didn’t entertain, or drink, much, then). But we talked, for hours, about the coming of adulthood, about family, and friendship. By the end of the day we had become brothers, and I knew that we would do anything for each other.

Watching Don’s daughter graduate from college this weekend felt like fulfilling a 31 year old promise. I hope you’re happy in that bright land, Don, and that you got a chance to watch.

Renaming Alderman

Cavalier Daily: Board of Visitors to vote on renaming Alderman Library, undergraduate tuition increases. Renaming the soon-to-be-rebuilt Alderman Library after Edgar Shannon has a number of benefits, starting with signaling that Alderman’s white supremacist and eugenicist views no longer are acceptable at the University. That Shannon oversaw a substantial expansion of the racial integration underway when he became the University’s fourth president AND ushered in undergraduate coeducation is kind of the icing on the cake.

For context: Alderman is widely known to have held white supremacist views. He has been quoted as saying, “It is settled, I believe, that this white man who has shown himself so full of courage and force, shall rule in the South, because he is fittest to rule.” He appointed white supremacist professors and spoke at the unveiling of the infamous statue of Robert E. Lee.

The article linked above names a few eugenicists associated with the University of Virginia in the early 20th century. Another was John Powell, composer, pianist, and eugenicist, who co-founded the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America. That organization sponsored the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which was eventually overturned in the decision of Loving vs. Virginia. Powell was named an honorary member of the Virginia Glee Club in 1935.

Sixteen years after Powell was named an honorary member, Edwin S. Williams became the Virginia Glee Club’s first African-American member. Four years later, he was refused service at a truck stop on the way back from a performance with Club at the National Gallery of Art. Glee Club conductor Donald Loach complained to Edgar Shannon, who had Paul Saunier investigate. Saunier, who had been instrumental in convincing businesses on the Corner to de-segregate or risk losing UVA custom, was able to accomplish the same feat with the truck stops along Route 29.

Acknowledging the painful parts of our history—as a University, as America—means that we also get to acknowledge the parts we get right. Nothing is perfect, but when we take action to correct past injustices, we help to bend the arc of the universe just a small bit.

Retroactive FOMO

The lead to this morning’s The Morning newsletter from the Times could have been written by me. Like the writer, Melissa Kirsch,* I managed to go from 1990 to 1994 at UVA without ever seeing a Dave Matthews show (though I did see Boyd Tinsley perform in more avant-garde groups, notably with the late Greg Howard, in venues so small that you would end up at the next urinal over from him during the break). But it took me until “Under the Table and Dreaming” to develop an appreciation for him, at which point there was no way of seeing him in at tiny venues. I too feel like I missed out on an opportunity, even if the jam band culture that came from the DMB and its peers is assuredly not my kettle of fish.

I don’t know that indie (or “alternative,” or “college”) rock snobbery played any big role in my not going to DMB shows. If I’m honest, it was probably social snobbery—I was very self-consciously aware of my status as a non-fraternity member, to the extent that I never went to a Greek party in my four years there, and it seemed like a lot of fraternity guys went to those shows. Not my scene, I thought.

How foolish I was. If I’ve learned anything since then, it’s that life is too short to not take opportunities to do something simply because of who else is doing it. And I was in a fraternity, of sorts; we jokingly called the Virginia Glee Club a “fraternity of talent,” and our parties were probably not that different from what was happening on Rugby Road (maybe a little quieter).

* Footnote: Melissa started a couple years after me and we ended up in the same poetry class together in my fourth year. She was published in the literary mag I started, Rag & Bone, in the spring 1994 issue.


I was at the Virginia Glee Club annual dinner last night, and as always it was the perfect combination of reconnection and reminders of the passing of time. The more often I come to these things, the more the members of the Club and their guests look like my friends, and also like they could be my children. (One young woman at our table, whom I had first met at last year’s dinner, let me know that her mother was UVA class of 1989, or just a few years older than me; then there was the mother of another member who was herself class of 1993.)

The University itself is in constant change; as my cab driver remarked on the way into town from the airport, “It wouldn’t be Charlottesville without something under construction.” This time of course it was Alderman Library, which is famously losing its incredibly dense and labyrinthine stacks and gaining … something. But also it was the building to the right of New Cabell Hall that was under reconstruction, and the myriad of businesses that didn’t survive the pandemic. And even the inn I stayed at, which when I was in school was student apartments; a friend lived there for a few years.

So it was in a pensive mood as I walked back to my hotel from breakfast, and decided to take a different route around Grounds. And found myself walking through Dawson’s Row. I’ve only written a little bit about the Row — all that remains of a set of buildings of varying purposes and origins that originally stretched in an arc from Monroe Hill to where the front steps of New Cabell Hall now stand. Some were originally constructed as dormitories; these were demolished over the years, and no trace of them remains.

One housed Arthur Fickénscher, the first professor of music at the University and conductor of the Virginia Glee Club from 1932 to 1933.

One was built as the parsonage for the University, becoming the first building constructed for religious purposes on Grounds. Built in 1850, it appears to have been expanded in the later 19th century, gaining Italianate porches and roof brackets and possibly losing a rear porch (seen as the black line across the brickwork in the second photo).

And one, inevitably, was slave quarters for James Monroe’s house across the way at Monroe Hill, or so oral tradition says:

The latter buildings, along with a late 19th century cottage, comprise the Office of African American Affairs at the University. I never saw the buildings as an undergraduate; I knew they were there but had no reason to engage with them. It was only recently, as I was writing Ten Thousand Voices and reading works about the University to inform my research, that I thought about why the OAAA was so important. It came as I was reading The Key to the Door, which I highly recommend for those looking to understand how UVA integrated in the 1950s and 1960s—and, to be honest, through the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.

And through that research, the way I view the University has changed. I still feel it is my home; in some ways, I belong to it more than ever. But I now can see where the footprints of enslaved laborers were. And yes, some aspects of the University have changed. But that’s not where the most important changes have been. As I learn, as I dig, as I acknowledge that I am old enough to be these young adults’ parents, I feel even more keenly the responsibility of the past, the need to own this story and tell it and compel action from it.

Mystery traces

UVA Today (um, four years ago): What We Found in Alderman Library. This tab has been sitting open in my iPad since the week it was published, and I haven’t been quite sure why. But there’s something about a University library for the sheer heart-clutching density of human knowledge. And mystery.

This was maybe the thing about Alderman Library. More than the merciful solitude it offered to stop, think, right, read, study. (I translated more than a few works from Old English there because the deafening quiet allowed me finally to speak the words to myself in my head.) More than the memories of happy discoveries — like digging out the Alderman bound copy of the 1870-1871 archive of the Virginia University Magazine, opening it to the January issue, and reading “Music: There is one point on which we are deficient, and that is college musical clubs… We know of but one exception to this rule. Those gentlemen rooming at the Cabell House, and in that neighborhood, have made great efforts, and we understand tolerably successful ones, to form a Glee Club.

But even more there was the sense that in any room, you could climb a narrow set of stairs (oh, those submarine-scale stairs between the half floors in the Stacks!), sidle down a row of shelves, pick up a book, and find something miraculous.

I get a little thrill when I turn up new Glee Club material via Google, but it doesn’t compare to perusing the library stacks. It’ll be interesting to check out the new experience when it reopens.

More 10K publicity

A few more items for the press scrapbook for Ten Thousand Voices:

This article about summer reading from UVA affiliated authors was posted in UVA Today on June 27. It links to the Author’s Corner interview.

I also announced the book on UVA Magazine‘s website. It’ll be interesting to see if it makes the print edition.

A reminder that the book is now available for sale everywhere.

Author’s corner

The publicity for Ten Thousand Voices: 150 Years of the Virginia Glee Club has begun, now that books are shipping from the warehouse and into the hands of readers. Yesterday University of Virginia Press published an interview with me in their Author’s Corner, in which we discussed some of what led to the book’s publication and some of the stories within it.

It was harder than I thought to pinpoint some of my favorite stories from the book. I had to pass up talking about the early Glee Club member who was paid for legal services with a trunk full of gems, as well as the Glee Club concert in Washington that was interrupted by a speech attacking the Jewish owner of Monticello for refusing to surrender the property to a nonprofit. But in the end I had to go with the story about running from our bus to the Jefferson Memorial to sing for the President on Thomas Jefferson’s 250th birthday.

Glee Club Bandcamp: In Concert: Openings and Christmas, 1968

1968 Openings Concert program, first page

This edition of Virginia Glee Club Bandcamp features a surprise I found a few years ago. As the Glee Club historian, I regularly search online for information about the group’s history as more materials are digitized, and this time I found information in an unexpected place: Etsy. In particular, the Etsy shop of an antiques dealer in Florida, who had a Glee Club record that I had never seen before—recordings from 1968, including a fall concert and Christmas.

I bought the thing, of course. I was filled with some trepidation when it arrived and I noted that the album jacket (which was a generic blue cardboard sleeve with no printing or image) was torn in one corner and damaged—possibly even chewed—in another. But the record looked OK. So I dropped it on the turntable, played it, and was delighted to realize that, based on the repertoire, it was indeed a recording of parts of the 1968 Openings Concert and the 1968 Christmas Concert.

The 1968 Openings Concert was notable for a few things. First, it was the fifth year of Donald Loach’s tenure, so while there are definitely signs of his trademark style emerging, it’s not fully there. Second, the Openings program in particular opened for the first time with a song that would become part of Loach’s signature repertoire, “Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints Above,” but then featured a set of twentieth-century compositions that the group would return to only a few times in his tenure: “Here is the God Who Looks Both Ways” and “Thy Word is a Lantern.” Most durably in terms of the group’s repertoire, the Openings Concert also featured the debut recording of “Vir-ir-gin-i-a,” arranged by Loach from a march tune of Handel and featuring a text written by former Glee Club member Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr.

We actually know less about the Christmas Concert, as we have not found a full program listing. But the recording has a few highlights, including the earliest known performance of the “Gloria” from Josquin’s Missa Mater Patris, a work that the Glee Club would not perform again for another 24 years. The Dufay “Gloria” is spectacular here, as is the unexpected closing, the coronation scene from Boris Godounov by Mussorgsky.

Have a listen, and if you enjoy it, please remember that all proceeds from Glee Club Bandcamp sales go directly to support the Virginia Glee Club.

Glee Club Bandcamp: A Dove in the Hall and Songs of the University of Virginia

We have a twofer today, on the cusp of the weekend long celebration of the Virginia Glee Club’s 150th anniversary. The first new album on Bandcamp is A Dove in the Hall. Recorded on the Glee Club’s 1992 Tour of the South under John Liepold, this concert features the Club’s 1991-1992 repertoire in an entirely different acoustical setting. While tunes such as “Come, Heavy Sleep” and “Soon-Ah Will Be Done” had featured on the Club’s setlists that year, in the remarkable resonance of Holy Name Chapel at Loyola University they took on entirely new dimensions. Indeed, throughout the recording you can hear Liepold and the group adjusting their performance to the echo in the hall, at times lengthening cutoffs by a full measure to let the reverb add new colors to the performance. As conductor Robert Shaw once said, “If you want the Dove to descend, you have to clean out the birdcage,” and this group had done that in spades. Listen below.

The second album being released digitally today is the legendary Songs of the University of Virginia. The first record album that the Glee Club ever released (though not the first recorded—more on that later), the record features almost exclusively Virginia songs, including the alma maters, “Hike, Virginia,” an entirely clean version of “From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill,” and, unusually, the songs for two University “ribbon societies,” Eli Banana and T.I.L.K.A. The Glee Club is accompanied by the University Band in most of these recordings, made live in Old Cabell Hall, and is enthusiastic, if not always nuanced; you can see the recording sessions in the photo below.

Glee Club records Songs of the University of Virginia in Old Cabell Hall. Courtesy Small Special Collections, University of Virginia

The album is well worth a listen, despite the passing of the tide of years, as a reminder of where the Glee Club started and how far it came.

Check it out on Bandcamp today!

Glee Club Bandcamp: 51st Annual Christmas Concert

Another Christmas album? A little warm for that, isn’t it?

Yes, perhaps. But this Christmas album is notable for a bunch of reasons:

  1. First Virginia Glee Club recording during John Liepold’s tenure as conductor
  2. First recording of his re-scoring of the Duruflé “Ubi Caritas,” which took advantage of the group’s countertenor section to create a close harmony version of the song that would become one of the signatures of the group during Lieopold’s tenure
  3. First ever Glee Club performance of “The Winter Song.” The wolf winds are wailing from the doorways… without some of the sound effects that later generations of Club guys added to the performance.
  4. Really beautiful trio of “O Magnum Mysterium” settings
  5. Most of the Maurice Duruflé Messe “Cum Jubilo,” featuring Duruflé’s pupil Yvaine Duisit on the Old Cabell Hall organ, and solos from Poulson Reed and Matt Benko

Go check it out!

Glee Club Bandcamp: Three Songs (1956)

Donald MacInnis with Glee Club accompanist Barry Rogers, ca. 1956

Today’s update to the Virginia Glee Club Bandcamp page is a little unusual. For one thing, before I found a copy of it online a few years ago, we had no idea it existed. These three songs were recorded on a promotional record, an acetate that was sent to radio stations in the hope of garnering live radio gigs for the Glee Club. This was a strategy that actually paid off in 1956, with an appearance on WTVR.

Donald MacInnis was the Glee Club’s conductor for most of the 1950s; his tenure was notable for launching the Virginia Gentlemen. It is therefore unsurprising that this record combines “highbrow” repertoire (a Bach motet) with something a little more popular; what is perhaps surprising is the choice of a Tom Lehrer song, only a year or two after Lehrer’s first record became a collegiate hit.

As we continue the Bandcamp series of digital releases, we’re going to get into some increasingly interesting territory, with recordings that haven’t been heard for years. I’m thrilled to be able to share this one, especially for our 1950s Glee Club alumni that are still with us.

Glee Club Bandcamp: 50th Annual Christmas Concert

Does the Dolby logo make anyone else feel nostalgic? How about the chrome tape info?

It’s time for another Virginia Glee Club recording on Bandcamp! This one is an anniversary milestone: the 50th Annual Christmas Concert! Featuring highlights from the performances at St. Paul’s and Old Cabell on December 7-8, 1990, when I was but a wee first year, this is one you’ll want to check out. As always, the proceeds go to the Virginia Glee Club.

This year was Michael Butterman’s last as our interim conductor, and he brought a lot, as usual, to the proceedings, including some of the nicest Baroque orchestra performances to accompany a Glee Club concert on record. Which is why your bonus photo for today is from the St. Paul’s performance of a young Butterman getting his bow tie adjusted by an even younger John Vick. Ah, history.

You can preview the album on Bandcamp.

Virginia Glee Club Bandcamp Friday: A Shadow’s on the Sundial

Today’s next album in the Virginia Glee Club Bandcamp discography is a classic, A Shadow’s on the Sundial. I’ve written about this album before, but aside from the folks that were there at the time (and people like me who have scored copies on eBay), very few people have had a chance to hear it. Now’s your chance!

In addition to featuring the only recording of David Davis‘s Summer Songs, there are some outstanding performances of staples of the Glee Club’s repertoire from the 1970s and 1980s including “Shoot, false love” and “Hark, all ye lovely saints.” And it’s a really great chance to hear the Loach-era Glee Club at the beginning of their great stretch in the 1970s—after all, this was the album that raised funds to take the Glee Club on their first European tour!

Listen and buy here! As a reminder, all proceeds from sales go to support the Glee Club.

From the Virginia Glee Club archives, on Bandcamp

As I was writing Ten Thousand Voices, one of the things that kept hitting me was that it was a little like dancing about architecture. How could readers who hadn’t listened to all the various recordings connect with some of the stories about the music that is the Virginia Glee Club’s mission?

We’re addressing a bit of that today with an experiment. Music for a Noble Acoustic, released on cassette in 1993 and capturing the Glee Club’s early 1990s repertoire in concert, is now available for preview and purchase on Bandcamp, on the Virginia Glee Club’s very own artist page. You can now hear what the group sounded like under John Liepold, as well as hearing early renditions of “The Winter Song,” “Shenandoah” and other Club favorites.

This is an experiment. There are a lot more recordings awaiting remaster and publishing if this one works out, so all are encouraged to check it out.

And one of the benefits of the Bandcamp platform is the ability to embed a preview here, so check it out!

Ten Thousand Voices, Coming Soon

Cover of the forthcoming history of the Virginia Glee Club

I’ve been working on Ten Thousand Voices, the book about the history of the Virginia Glee Club for … a really long time. Finally you’ll be able to buy the book—it’s being published this spring and will be distributed through the University of Virginia Press.

Featuring some of the stories I’ve told on this blog, and much more, the book can be pre-ordered in many places. (Please note that, some of the options on that link to the contrary, audiobook and ebook versions aren’t available yet!) I’m so looking forward to getting the book into your hands.