The Wiffenpoofs Assemble…Hail to the Victors

When my brother and I were young, before my mom and dad divorced and my dad departed the household, my recollection is that just about every night, truly a nightly ritual, he would join Peter and I in our bedroom to sing songs. He taught us the songs he loved the best…college songs. Football fight songs, first the “home team’s”, his beloved University of Michigan…

Hail! to the victors valiant,
Hail! to the conquering heroes,
Hail! Hail! to Michigan the leaders and best.

Both my mom and dad held this institution in the highest regard, which had drawn them away from their young adulthood in Binghamton New York and propelled them to academic achievement, marriage and starting a family.

Not to be totally Maize-and-blue-centric, we sang the fight songs for other universities as well. I can remember Dartmouth’s and Indiana’s, though he also taught us an alternate version of the Indiana song where the line…

At the alter you never falter
From the battle you’re tried and true


At the alter you always falter
From the battle you’re black and blue

Apparently a version sung by drunken taunting Michigan fans at the stadium when the University of Indiana football team came to town. (Apologies to folks from Purdue and Indiana in general!)

He sang them with gusto and my brother and I learned to sing along with the same level of enthusiasm. He even taught us the fight song of one of Michigan’s most hated rivals, Notre Dame. Though he and our mom went to great lengths explaining to us the provenance of the bad blood, incidents of Notre Dame players breaking the rules and slugging Michigan players when the refs couldn’t see. I am sure we were indoctrinated with a one-sided retelling of the events, probably a mostly Protestant U of M versus the Catholic Notre Dame. Still we were inculcated in a parochial mythos of our home team and its rivals. I still to this day feel a sense of deep martial pride when I here “The Victors”.

He also taught us a ditty honoring our town…

I want to go back to Michigan,
To dear Ann Arbor town,
Back to Joe’s and the Orient,
And back to some of the money I spent,
I want to go back to Michigan,
To dear Ann Arbor town,
I want to go back; I got to go back,
To Michigan.

I can think of no other way we communed as much with our dad’s soul as when we joined him, in the evenings, in our little bedroom, in song. And I remember no other song that he sang with such heartfelt soul and bittersweet longing as “The Whiffenpoof Song”…

To the tables down at Morey’s
To the place where Louie dwells
To the dear old temple bar we love so well
Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled
With their glasses raised on high
And the magic of their singing casts it’s spell

He would raise his head and croon mournfully to the ceiling or the gods when he sang this song. We followed as best we could but never forgot.

Our dad died of pancreatic cancer in 1984 at age 69. He loved college life, as a student when we were very young and later as an English professor. He taught his classes literally up to the end, passing away on spring break. My brother Peter, who was there with our mom for the last months of his life, actually graded the finals and turned in the grades during dad’s last days when he was too weak to do them himself. At the memorial service, which had a good attendance from his students and fellow faculty, Peter tried to sing the Wiffenpoofs Song but broke down in tears and could not finish.

Note: That as an added treat, Ralph Protsik (who commented on this blog entry), a member of “The Whiffs”, agreed to let me share with you their stellar rendition of “The Whiffenpoof Song”. the-whiffenpoofs-song

Many years later I as a parent, once my kids got old enough to appreciate songs at bedtime, continued my dad’s tradition. As part of the bedtime ritual I had negotiated with them, I would sing them three songs each. The songs I knew and loved most growing up were not the college ditties, but the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle and other artists from the 1960s. Some favorites were the Beatles’ “I Will” and “All My Loving”, the Association’s “Windy” and the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday”. But I would also often throw in a rousing rendition of “I Want to Go Back to Michigan” or a favorite from my partner Sally’s song friendly family, “Little Things Mean A Lot”.

And as to passing on that ritual… if there is nothing else that my kids continue of our family “culture”… I hope in my heart… if they have any kids… they will be singing songs to them at night. I don’t much care what songs, but an occasional 20th Century classic might not be out of place in their song list.

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One reply

  1. Ralph says:

    Wonderful piece. I have a recording of the 1965 Whiffs singing the Whiffenpoof Song, arguably the best recording ever made of the song. Let me know if you want me to email the fiile (its just over 2MB).


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