Last weekend, the Meddiebempsters’ 80th reunion brought together current and former Meddies representing eras of Bowdoin’s history stretching as far back as the 1950s.
With such an extensive history on display, cultural shifts over the years were clearly apparent, in everything from the diversity of the group to the music they performed. While much of this rich history was exciting for both Meddies and audience members to witness, it also prompted a discussion of how to address outdated language in the group’s repertoire.
“[The event] started with the older groups and then went on, so you can see the changes in the style and shifts in diversity of the groups and also shifts in awareness of what is okay and what is not okay to sing,” said Sam Kyzivat ’18, the current music director of the Meddiebempsters. “And definitely some of those groups from the fifties, sixties and seventies [had] some pretty sexist, misogynistic lyrics.”
In response to some controversial lyrics, a group of former Meddies from the classes of 2005 to 2009 have written an op-ed, in this week’s Orient, asking to revisit the group’s repertoire.
“Some of the stuff that got sung Saturday night at the concert was not a good choice, some of those groups sang music that objectified women and objectified non-consensual sex, and some women got up and walked out,” said Tony Antolini ’63, director of the Bowdoin Chorus and a co-chair of the event. “And I thought to myself it’s too bad that we didn’t think to say to them ‘Give some thought to what your audience is.’ There are young women out there now who don’t think date rape songs are funny.”
While through a contemporary lens these songs feel jarringly out of place on a college campus, they reflect the accepted culture of the early 20th century in the United States.
“What we’re dealing with here is history,” said Antolini. “Because that’s the way things were in the 60s and 70s and women expected to be treated like cattle when they visited campus. And now it’s another day and women are not going to put up with that kind of stuff.”
However, not all the Meddies are quick to abandon some of their classic songs with the changing times.
“We have all this repertoire, which is great stuff,” said David Sherman ’76. “Every year this controversy gets a little more pronounced, and maybe it’s time to throw those old songs out. I don’t know—I hope not. Personally, I don’t see the harm, but I am not a woman and I don’t have to deal with issues that women have to deal with today.”
As Sherman pointed out, the song “Mountain Greenery” was performed by the group beginning in the 70s. While the line “If you’re good, I’ll search for wood so you can cook, while I stand looking” similarly reinforces restrictive gender roles, it’s still considered an American standard and has been performed by Ella Fitzgerald and The Supremes.
Quite a few of the songs in the Meddies’ repertoire are featured in “The Great American Songbook,” widely regarded as the canon of the most influential American pop and jazz tunes of the early 20th century.
“It was a different attitude, it was a different world,” said Sherman. “No one is performing this music to excuse that behavior or that attitude or that racism or objectifying women or anything like that. The Meddiebempsters are not trying to resurrect that era.”
“It’s not meant to be a political statement, it’s just meant to be a little bit of fun,” said Sherman. “I think if you draw too much, if you try and look too deeply into this music in a contemporary context, there isn’t going to be a single song that’s going to work for you.”
One common response among Meddies has been to adjust lyrics to better reflect contemporary culture.
For example, the era grouping from 2006-2016 performed “When Francis Dances with Me,” whose original lyrics include the line, “In pinches and clinches she always says no, but you know and I know that no means let’s go.”
However, over time the lyric was changed to “you know and I know that no means STOP,” where one of the members would say stop before the line was finished. It was then further changed by Simon Close ’17 to “When Francis dances with me, it’s always consensually. For waltzing can lead to a dirtier dance, but I wait for the green light to get in her—heart.”
“The song is clearly about sex, but in this newest iteration it is no doubt presented more consensually,” said Kyzivat in an email to the Orient. “Still not perfect, but definitely progress and moving in the right direction (and will hopefully continue to move).”
Despite these discussions, the group still values its extensive history. With 80 years behind the group, the Meddiebempsters is the College’s oldest a capella group and the third oldest all-male a capella group in the country.
In 1937 the group was formed as part of the College’s glee club, and just 10 years later they were traveling to Washington D.C. to perform for the Trumans—a trip that launched them into a series of international tours with the United Service Organizations to sing for American troops across the globe.
In the decades after, the group has continued to travel and perform, and frequent reunions allow the group to remain deeply rooted in its past.
“I deliberately had the youngest group, the current group, sing with the oldest group,” said Antolini. “So you have these octogenarians up there who are a little nervous about singing by themselves and we put them with the current group and it was fabulous. It made the younger guys have a really strong sense of how deep the history is of singing at the college.”
Isabelle Hallé contributed to this report.