Whiffenpoofs headed to Natchez

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Whiffenpoofs are coming! The Whiffenpoofs are coming! What should I do?

Initially you might think that you need to lock your doors, or if outside seek the nearest shelter. At the very least maybe you should grab a baseball bat so that you can take a whiff at one of those Whiffenpoofs. But before you takes such drastic steps it would serve you well to find out what a Whiffenpoof is.

At that renowned university in the northeastern portion of our country called Yale, every year the junior class men enter a fierce singing competition. They are competing to be one of 14 men who will be chosen to sing in the oldest “a cappella” group in the United States.

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The group was founded in 1909 as a quartet that every Monday evening would meet at Mory’s Temple Bar, where they would harmonize to the delight of the guests. The group became quite popular as they sang at different locations around the campus and at public locations around town.

One member of the group, Denton Fowler, was delighted by a scene in the Victor Herbert musical “Little Nemo” that had recently been playing on Broadway. The scene featured a character that was telling what great skills he possessed as a big game hunter and fisherman. The character told how he once had caught a whiffenpoof fish! It turns out that whiffenpoof was a nonsensical made up word and right away Fowler thought it was the perfect name that their group should be called. And thus the quartet was thereafter known as The Whiffenpoofs.

The Whiffenpoofs, through the decades, have performed at the Lincoln Center, the White House, the Salt Lake Tabernacle, Carnegie Hall and the Rose Bowl in addition to making numerous television appearances. One Whiffenpoof later became president of Yale University, but perhaps the most famous alumnus is Cole Porter. Today the group often performs Porter songs in his honor.

Although the Whiffenpoofs have a rather large repertoire they are best known for “The Whiffenpoof Song” which Guy Scull (a Harvard man) had written a musical score that utilized the Rudyard Kipling poem “Gentlemen Rankers” for the lyrics. The Whiffenpoofs retained the chorus in that song that is familiar to us all — “We are poor little lambs, Who have lost our way, Baa! Baa! Baa!” — but changed the rest of the lyrics to reflect their meetings at Mory’s Temple Bar where the magic of their singing would cast its spell.

“The Whiffenpoof Song” was first published in sheet form in 1909. It became a hit for Rudy Vallee in 1927 and for Bing Crosby in 1947.

It has also been recorded by Elvis Presley, Count Basie, Perry Como and many others. It was featured in the opening sequence of the TV series “Baa Baa Black Sheep” starring Robert Conrad as World War II Marine aviator Pappy Boyington. The chorus was also used in the WWII movie “12 o’Clock High” starring Gregory Peck.

It is very important to note that the Whiffenpoofs donate part of their proceeds from their year long tour to The Whiffenpoof Children’s Literacy Initiative, which creates 15 literacy centers in 12 countries, including the United States where they not only read to children but also distribute books, pencils, pens and notebooks. They will also take time to visit and perform for schools, orphanages and homeless shelters.

The Whiffenpoofs performed to a sold out crowd at The Natchez Little Theatre last January and they were so enamored with Natchez and its people that they requested to begin their 2008 season in Natchez as they start their tour of the American South and the Caribbean. Give Layne Taylor credit for bringing this very talented group to Natchez last year and this year.

So now you know — the Whiffenpoofs are coming! The Whiffenpoofs are coming! The Whiffenpoofs are coming!

They will be here at 2 p.m. performing at the Natchez Little Theatre and all you have to do is go to the Natchez Pilgrimage Tours counter at the Visitor Center to purchase your $20 ticket. Believe me this will sell out quickly and it’s easier than going to Carnegie Hall!

Dr. Jim COY is the manager of Natchez Pilgrimage Tours.