Song contest provokes unique reflection on College values

Teach It Forward: The Campaign for Williams launched in early October, the same month as another holiday of sorts at the College: Mountain Day. Thus, the College came together twice that month and sang “The Mountains,” perhaps one of the few pieces of music (besides Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”) that unites the entire Williams community. During that launch, however, the Purple with Purpose initiative was announced, and with it, the Williams Song Competition, which invites students to create a song that can stand alongside that iconic ode and add to our College songbook.

Students past and present have until Jan. 31 to submit an original song to the competition. The judging panel – which includes Lyell B. Clay Artist in Residence Brad Wells, TV writer and playwright Rachel Axler ’99, Fountains of Wayne band member Adam Schlesinger ’89, and current students Justin Jones ’16 and Claire Leyden ’16 – will select the finalists in the coming months, and alumni will vote on the winning song to be announced in May. The song will be performed during commencement and reunion weekends, and not only will it be included and released in a new edition of the Williams songbook, but its creators will also win a lifetime of free grilled honey buns from Lee Snack Bar – any student’s dream.

“Purple with Purpose is about formalizing and recognizing all the different ways in which Williams alumni do things for each other and for the community. It’s all sort of centered on celebrating our common experience at Williams,” said Leila Jere ’91, president of the Society of Alumni, who helped conceive of the competition.

Jere recounted a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni about four years ago, during which, “inevitably, [the group] started singing.” While she had thought alumni and current students tend to only ever sing “The Mountains,” a group of men who graduated in the fifties broke into songs from their fraternity days at that meeting.

“The rest of us were sitting there with our mouths open,” she said, describing the reaction to the unfamiliar tunes of the College. The experience prompted her to start researching the College’s songbook.

“I was surprised to find that there’s a whole bunch of Williams songs, and I sort of realized there’s a reason we don’t sing them anymore: they’re really dated. They don’t really reflect who we are today,” she said.

Beyond “The Mountains,” the songbook tends to center around three key themes: football, drinking and Amherst. While these topics may still be relevant to students’ experiences, they certainly no longer define them, especially since the abolition of fraternities at the College.

Still curious about the role of song at the College, Jere read the book When Colleges Sang: The Story of Singing in American College Life by J. Lloyd Winstead, which discusses the way in which songs commented on campus life throughout American history. Winstead’s book even opens with a line from Mark Hopkins and the Log, a social and political history of Williams and other American colleges by Fred Rudolph ’42. “The United States is a nation of small colleges. No where else in the world is the countryside so generously   sprinkled with liberal arts institutions of a thousand students, a few hundred more or less,” he wrote in 1956. The country and colleges of which Rudolph writes have indeed changed, but Winstead aims to examine how singing remains a part of their cultures to this day.

“[Song] transcends all sort of race and demographic,” Jere said, additionally noting the importance of song at women’s and historically black colleges.

Jere wanted the song competition to prompt the College’s students to reflect on “who we are as a community today.” She feels the competition brings “a different spin on volunteering” and wants it to be approached from a social perspective, as the winning song would aim to demonstrate the many ways in which the College has changed since the last songbook was released in 1959.

“When Brooks Foehl, director of Alumni Relations, told me about the song competition and offered me the opportunity to be a judge, I was extremely excited,” Jones, one of the two student judges, said. “I love that one of the main goals of the competition is to find a song that captures the spirit of today’s Williams. The Williams we know is highly dynamic and multifaceted, and I often feel unsure how to neatly characterize the spirit of such a complex place. I think that the song competition will provide all of us at Williams with a unique chance to reflect on our school-wide character, and ideally find points of commonality in our experience that we might not have otherwise been able to identify.”

While it is difficult to imagine belting anything other than “The Mountains” atop Stone Hill each October, come May the College will have another tune to teach its newest members during First Days, to cheer with at soccer games, to toast with at the Log and maybe even to sing on top of a mountain. “All students can see themselves in [“The Mountains”],” said Foehl. Foehl was especially appreciative that the addition to the songbook would come from within today’s wider College family. The winning song will aim to be just as timeless as “The Mountains” and offer an updated view of the College.

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