History Spotlight: the forgotten school songs of Colby

When asked if she knew about current Colby songs, Maura Campbell ’19 replied, “We have a song?” Her response may be shocking, but she’s not alone. Many students are not aware that the college even has songs except for “Hail, Colby, Hail” (and it is more often referred to simply as  “Oh Canada”). If college songs are an indicator of school spirit, Colby’s is running dangerously low.

This lack of knowledge surrounding Colby’s musical heritage is exactly what previous Colby students feared. An article from the Oct. 9, 1935 edition of the Echo, titled “Learn Your Alma Mater,” opens with the slightly aggressive sentence: “The weak demonstration of singing the Colby songs at the chapel service last week would seem to indicate that Colby students, many of them, do not know the words to their own college airs.” This ignorance came about four decades after an initial push to develop original Colby songs, beginning just before the turn of the 20th century. An article appearing in the April 24, 1899 edition of the Echo lamented the lack of original Colby songs, citing several that were written by students and alumni while simultaneously claiming “we have no song of our own that is known by all of the students.” The author suggested that students learn “Old Colby, Our Glory,” which can be found in the 1882 edition of “The American College Song Book.” Miller library has a copy available on their website. The author suggests, “It would be a good thing if the Colby songs already in existence, together with such new ones as may be written, be collected and put in such a form that the students can learn them.” This was the first mention of what would eventually become the first edition of the Colby Song Book.

The song book, housed in Miller Library’s Special Collections, is a compilation of original school songs written by Colby students. The idea had been thrown around in earlier years, but in 1917 plans came to fruition, after two consecutive years of the John Hedman Song Contest produced many inspiring tunes.

John Hedman was a Colby student in the class of 1895, and he eventually went on to became a professor in the Department of Romance Languages. He was also very involved in both the Colby and Waterville communities. As described in the Echo, “His devotion to the college was unbounded, and he gave unstintedly of his best to her interests.” His death from typhoid fever in February 1915 was “an irreparable loss.” That year the Class of 1895 started the John Hedman Song Contest in memory of their classmate. Prizes were given out to the three top songs­—$25 for first place, $15 for second place, and $10 for third place). The multiple competitions were enough to create a stand-alone Colby Song Book. The first edition was put into production in 1917, and another was released in 1948.

Today, more than 100 years after the first song contest, there had been a marked decline in interest in the college songs that were important to those who have come before. Is it because traditions have changed and we no longer view songs as representations of school spirit? Have we shifted to other ways of honoring the school? Or are we just not exposed to songs anymore? After all, the first-years have never heard “Hail, Colby, Hail” at a school event. It was scheduled at Convocation, and each program contained a copy of the words, yet the song was never actually sung.

How do schools with prominent song traditions keep interest going? It appears that being a larger school helps. Of the schools noted in USA Today’s  “Top 10 fight Songs in College Football,” the smallest is Georgia Tech at around 10,500 students, significantly larger than Colby’s 1,815. Closer to home, MIT and Harvard both have prominent songs. If you search “fight songs” on Harvard’s website, several links appear, including a page with the words to several popular songs (including “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” and “Harvardania”) and the page for the Harvard marching band. Searching “fight songs” on the Colby website will bring up the page for the “In their Footsteps” project, which is a multimedia compilation of Colby’s “historical highlights.” While the page is interesting and very thorough,  it doesn’t include Colby songs specifically.    

For whatever reason, songs at Colby have fallen out of popularity. Though they were once a source of pride for the students, they are now merely a reminder of the past. Perhaps it’s time to bring them back. A good starting place could be this fairly simple song that was published under “Songs of the Celebration” in May of 1901:

Screen shot 2016-02-16 at 10.58.46 PM

Leave a Reply