Stepsinging Now and Then
Leslie Meyer Holmes ’58 may very well be the foremost authority on Wellesley Stepsinging. A lifelong musician, she is a talented soprano and pianist who has performed with nearly every major Boston classical music group from the Boston Pops to the Wellesley Symphony Orchestra. She notably hosted a program on Classical Radio Boston, WCRB 102.5 FM for eleven years. Leslie is the song leader for the Class of 1958. In addition to leading Stepsinging at many Reunions, she has spent years gathering an impressive personal archive of Stepsinging ephemera. Darcy Kupferschmidt ’12, Associate Director of Alumnae Engagement at the WCAA and song leader for the Class of 2012, sat down with Leslie virtually for a conversation on Stepsinging’s past and her hopes for its future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
D: Thank you for joining me today. It’s so exciting to have you here. I understand you’ve done quite a bit of research on Stepsinging.
Can you tell me a bit about your findings?
L: I have the 1897 original copy of the song book. It was these two women, you know, Roberta Montgomery and Cordelia Nevers who started it and then another woman, Mary Caswell, she was the editor for the 1906, 1910, and 1912 Editions. I have about a dozen song books that people would give me at Reunion Stepsinging. This one is in such good shape for being 123 years old.
D: Wow. So that one in your hand is a copy of the original song book compiled by Cordelia Nevers? I’ve seen scans of this, but I’ve never seen a hard copy anywhere.
L: It has 66 songs.
D: That’s quite a big amount, compared to the list of songs we sing today.
L: Well, sure. Talking about how many songs there were - in the 1897 song book, there were 48. Then there were 43. In ‘21 there were 66. I also have a copy of the song book from the Semi Centennial in ‘25 which is the largest with 111 songs.
D: Given the significance of the Semi Centennial celebration, they probably wanted to include every possible tune ever sung on campus!
D: That seems to be the height of when the classes were all contributing their own individual class songs.
L: There were class songs, marching songs, competition songs.
They used to have a competition for writing songs, and so you should see the index, it’s amazing. And then in ‘37, there were just 24 songs, and finally, in 1975 - there were 13, the same number that there are now.
D: Many of the songs that we still sing today are in that very first edition of the original song book.
L: Or the second printing - the second edition which was in 1906. I have that one too. The songs we still sing from the 1897 book are Alma Mater, Wellesley Composite, Where Oh Where, and ’Neath the Oaks. In the 1906 edition, there’s Katherine Lee Bates’ America the Beautiful, O Thou Tupelo, and Stepsong. I’ve made lists of when the songs appeared in the song books, and what the titles of the song books were because they changed, how many songs were in each song book, and various things. That’s what I did last week, and then I told you I had this big cardboard box of folders - about 25 folders - so I sat down and I thought, I’ll go through these folders. I pulled out the first one and realized it would take several days to go through each one. There’s so much material. I have song books from ‘80, ‘97, 1906, 1920, 1921, ‘25, ‘30, ‘36’ ‘37, ‘35, ‘89; one undated one; 2007, 2013.
D: What a remarkable collection. It’s a whole library you have there!
L: It’s quite a few. And then there’s another book that’s “a gift from the Alumnae Association” at the bottom. But there’s no date, and only seven songs. Later in 1989, there were 19 songs, but no music, only the words. Our neighbor two doors down used to work at Wellesley, and she said that the cost of the song books went up and so they printed that song book that only has words for several years. Here’s the book. (Shows book)
D: That looks very similar to one that I own. It was my mother’s from 1979. It’s slim and has a yellow cover, and like yours it’s also missing the music. But these later song books show that we seem to have settled in the last decade or so on a small canon of songs that are now performed and sung.
They really seem to be the tried and true songs. It’s remarkable that some of them are from that very original edition. I was also pleasantly surprised by how many of them were either entirely original composition, both music and lyrics- and if the tune was borrowed, the words were written by a Wellesley student. There were only one or two songs that seemed to originate elsewhere, one of them being ’Neath the Oaks, which came from Trinity College and was adapted slightly to fit Wellesley. I think very few people realize that it came from another school. Songs are oral traditions, and it’s very easy for them to move from one place to another. We also gained Oh How Lovely Is the Evening, which is a simple German folk song. But aside from those two songs, almost every song is completely unique to our college.
L: And as I said, Oh, How Lovely Is the Evening was the last one to be added.
D: So really, those two songs aside, today’s Song Book is mostly composed of original songs. There is one particularly famous tune that snuck its way in, and that’s the Wellesley Composite, which borrows from a song -
L: "Funiculi, funicula."
D: Yes! It’s become totally ubiquitous, used in so many types of media, and I think the tune is part of why the song has stuck around so long. We still sing it today- once someone catches on to what the tune is, it’s very easy to pick up.
L: One hilarious thing I found was in the 11th edition of the Song Book from 1926. It has a poem that’s in it and it’s called “I don’t want a B.A..”
D: B.A. as in a degree?
L: Yes. It says “I don’t want a B.A, I don’t want a B.A., I’m having a wonderful time. Every summer, spring, and fall we paddle, skate, and dance, that work isn’t worry, that can’t worry us at all! Oh, I like to work and play while I’m getting my B.A. but I don't want to graduate at all. But Oh! Oh! Oh! I don’t care for the sensation, I don’t want a B.A., I don’t want a B.A, for I’m having a wonderful time.”
D: I love that.
L: And then there’s an alumnae rebuttal: “Well we’ve got our B.A., yes we’ve got our B.A., but we’ll still have a wonderful time. Every winter, spring, and fall of course we’ll all come back to you, but won’t be changed at all. Well we’ve got our B.A., yes we’ve got our B.A., let’s frame it up and hang it on the wall, our tassels show, we’ve got our education, our parchment perhaps will get us a vocation. Well we’ve got our BA, yes we’ve got our BA but we’ll still have a wonderful time.”
How did you become involved with Stepsinging?
L: Well, when I was an undergraduate, I was the songmistress, but I’m a professional singer and in 1977, the alumnae office called me. They asked if I would lead Reunion Stepsinging, and I did it from then until 2008, and then I also did it at the 2013 Reunion because Janet McKeeney called and said, “we can’t have you on campus and not have you lead Stepsinging at your own Reunion!”
D: So you were there for the Reunions when Stepsinging took place in the Chapel on Friday evening to kick off the event. I remember attending some of those with my mother at her Reunions.
L: Well we had, as you should know -- we had well over a thousand people there in the chapel.
D: Oh, it was always an immense crowd- which, when they were singing, was a wonderful thing to hear.
L: Oh, yes. The song that was added last to the song books, “O, How lovely is the evening” was done as a round. I just walked from group to group, calling them in, and oh, it was so beautiful. “The Wellesley Blue” was one of the later songs to be written, by Natalie Gordon, Class of ‘38, and so they used to have her come up and lead it. But before Reunion Stepsinging was held in the Chapel, it used to be outside on the steps for years and years, until we decided that the older people were getting too cold, and it was too buggy, and people had a hard time seeing the music. So that was why we moved into the chapel.
D: I’ve seen photographs of Reunion Stepsinging taking place at night, outside of the chapel and there were beautiful lanterns that were hung in the trees. It was such a pretty scene. I’m sorry to have missed out on that. As you know, we’ve recently moved Reunion Stepsinging to the Hay Amphitheatre on Sunday morning, which is a lovely end cap to the weekend. Everybody is feeling a wonderful swell of class pride as they file in from the parade, and to have everyone in their white outfits and class color insignias creates a very visually striking event. It’s nice that the event found its way outside again.
L: Now, for years I have also led the Alma Mater at the Alumni Meeting at Reunions.
D: What has that been like for you?
L: Oh, fun! It ends the meeting, I have everybody stand who can and then follow it with the cheer...it’s lovely.
D: Of course we’re naturally biased, but I really do think that Wellesley’s alma mater is a particularly poetic one that brings out the most heartfelt feelings about Wellesley.
What was Stepsinging like when you were a student?
L: Well, my… We were freshmen in those days. My freshman year, it was an elected office, Songmistress. And so I got elected.
D: So you were then leading Stepsinging almost every week?
L: Well, I’ve been polling my class and because I have led so many Stepsingings after graduation, I couldn’t remember how many we had when we were there. So I’ve gotten various answers, from once a week to once a month. Those are the two answers. But not Friday night, because we were all scattering Friday night to different schools.
D: Now, when you would gather on a casual evening in the 50s for Stepsinging, was this usually after dinner?
L: Yes, 7:00. There were lots of people on the chapel steps, and both sides.
D: And would you sing all of the songs in the dark? What about the wintertime?
L: Well as long as we could, we wore coats and gloves and hats, and then when it got too cold, we didn’t do it.
D: This explains some of the pictures I’ve seen in the archives of the classes being led by people in long wool coats. And I see that in those photos, the class banners seemed to always be present. Would they usually make an appearance?
D: And where would those - who was the keeper of the banner?
L: I think the president of the class. Although of course, there was a different president every year.
D: Were you ever joined by faculty or staff? Was it strictly student experience?
L: Oh, yes, “We want Dean So and So on our steps!”
D: And they would come, even though it was in the evening?
L: Yes! And the president... but the freshmen weren't allowed to call any of them.
D: Oh, we go too easy on them now I guess! Everyone gets a chance to call Deans and the President. Usually there’s a set list of songs prepared, and in between each song, the classes take turns cheering, and that’s often when the “stealing” of staff or the president will occur. Sometimes they even get fought over back and forth quite a bit between the classes.
L: Oh that’s fun.
D: It sounds like Stepsinging was happening in your student days with much greater frequency than what we see on campus today.
L: You see, it’s not possible to learn the songs if you only have it once or twice a year. If you have it every week, you learn them. I didn’t realize that it had gone to so few these days - but I learned this from doing the Reunion Stepsingings. In the beginning, everybody knew all the songs and then it got to be fewer and fewer people who did.
D: I think it is hard to know the songs well when you only hear them a couple of times a year, and maybe you don’t even make it to all three of the events, and then as an alumna, you go years between Reunions, which makes the songs even fainter in one’s memory. That’s why we’ve had accompaniment in the last decade or so, we’ve had keyboardists come and to play the melodies on the piano, and that seems to give everybody a bit more confidence. Especially if the pianist can play a few bars of the song to remind everyone of the tune- we found that’s very helpful. But I imagine when you were doing regular Stepsingings, students all knew the songs well enough that even a pitch pipe was sufficient.
L: Well I didn’t need a pitch pipe, but I did establish the pitch!
D: I’m wondering if you ever witnessed the process of changing steps? It’s my understanding that typically the seniors were granted the best spot on the steps but then at some point that changed.
L: In 1922, the junior class decided that they were going to take the place of the senior class so the senior class was on...as you face the chapel on the left hand side as you face and so the juniors took the right hand side. And then eventually, the Davis Scholars were in the center. And at the final Stepsinging, the seniors walked down and they sang…
D: Where would they be walking down from?
L: From the steps onto the lawn
D: So that was their way of giving their position over to the juniors?
L: Yes, and then the other classes assumed the position of the class above them
D: I have a recording from your class’s spring Stepsinging in 1958. You can hear someone say, “Alright now everyone, change your places!” and there’s a big flurry of noise and cheering and I assume that must have been what was happening there- that each class was shifting into their new spot.
L: And years and years ago, the seniors -I can’t believe this- walked to the other side of the lake and sang with it echoing and coming back to the people Stepsinging in front of the chapel.
D: I have found some news articles that mention something similar where the seniors would dismiss themselves by walking down the steps as you described. The younger students would hand them forget-me-nots, and then the seniors would march all the way up to the Academic Quad, where they’d wait to hear the students back at the Chapel begin the “tra la la la” of the Wellesley Cheer. Then the Seniors would finish off the cheer with the final chord of “WELLES-LEY” echoing all the way back. It sounds like it was very pageant like.
What are your hopes for the future of Stepsinging?
L: I wish it weren’t only three times a year. And essentially, that’s only two times a year for most people.
D: That’s true, because most of the students aren’t present at Reunion, unless they’re our student workers.
L: I find it - and I’m not a person who gets discouraged - I find it discouraging to try to do anything with so few Stepsingings. I don’t really see how it’s possible to get people really interested in something that happens twice a year.
D: It would be interesting to see if we could think of some other times to hold the event and see if students would be interested. Right now, it’s become attached to sort of these -symbolic days and events, but I suppose there’s really no reason we couldn’t have a more informal gathering or an arch sing a few other times a year. So that’s a thought- to see if perhaps the frequency creates more interest.
L: Oh I absolutely think so. I mean I think it’s pretty self evident because if you don’t know the songs you’re not going to be really enthused about it.
D: In the last few years there has been some talk of adding some new songs to the canon, and as you’ve shown in some of these older song books, there’s plenty of room to add more, going all the way up to, you know, 66 songs, or 100, and while I don’t think we’d get there, we might have some student composers out there. They could always go the way of the Wellesley Composite - find a popular tune that is much easier to set words to. But, you know, it’s also possible that if there was a musically inclined student out there who wanted to write a song, we’d be open to that.. But I think, like any of these songs, they really have to capture the crowd and take hold in a way that ensures that they’ll live on if they’re going to make it into the Song Book.
L: Do the classes still write class songs?
D: They don’t, so that’s something that could easily be revived.
L: What’s great is that at Reunion instead of just doing a cheer a lot of classes sing their class song. They all stand and someone leads them.
D: I'd love to hear what they're able to come up with today- some of the cheers they write these days can get a bit saucy, but that’s part of the fun, giving a little jab at the other classes. It’s all in good spirits. That’s a part of the event that I think the students still find a lot of joy in shaping.
L: I caution you to this degree: that people coming to Reunion won’t like to have a new song.
D: Yes- in the context of Reunion, it’s very challenging to imagine them being added. These new songs would be more for the current students’ purposes. We’re trying to think of what else we can do to encourage students to get more excited about Stepsinging. We’d like to see them take a more active role in the whole event and what goes on. It sounds like, way back when, that’s really how it was - students took Stepsinging into their own hands, met independently, elected leaders, brought the song books, wrote songs.
Leslie asks Darcy: How did you get involved with this project?
D: Well, I’ve also been somewhat of a lifelong devotee of Stepsinging. I have a very Wellesley family, so I was raised on some of the songs. My mother taught me to spell Wellesley by teaching me the Wellesley cheer- sometimes when I have to spell it out for someone, I can hear it ringing in my head! I ended up going to Reunion with her several times and that’s when I learned about Stepsinging as an activity. By the time I got to Wellesley, I knew right away that I wanted to be involved in Stepsinging and figured out how to- we don’t have any formal elections for song leaders anymore but I just sort of volunteered and started showing up, and then I started writing cheers for the class. I did a lot of work to try and encourage classmates to try and come to the Stepsinging events.
L: But there were so few!
D: It’s very challenging. I found it hard to encourage people to come because these days there seems to be a sentiment among students of, “Oh, well I’m not a very good singer,” or “Oh I can’t sing, that’s not for me,” when really that’s not the point- you know, it’s much more about the gathering and the spirit and I’d rather anybody come regardless of their talent. So I worked really hard to encourage people to come. One fun part for me that was I was a red class, but I was also a Tupelo, and of course the Tupelos’ color is red.
L: I was the leader of the Tupelos!
D: Oh, a fellow Tupelo! Yes, I was president as well, and given that we were all singers, I would try and recruit all of them for each gathering and make sure that they brought all of their friends. So there was always a very good showing of the various a cappella groups at Stepsinging. I do remember seeing students who would come and return year after year. I think although the crowds are not as big as they were in the past, there are certainly people who do enjoy the tradition.
L: Oh, that’s great.
D: It's just amazing how many years worth of Stepsinging history there are and we're lucky to even have the archival content that we do. There’s so much that can get lost over time, but the memories that you’ve been able to share and the archival papers you’ve collected are such a treasure to have. Over the years a lot of the details of Stepsinging have faded into the background, but there’s so much to learn from these songs. It’s really my hope that with this project, some of these details will be highlighted and hopefully renew alumnae and student interest in Stepsinging. It’s still on the top list of Wellesley traditions, so I think it will be around for quite some time.
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