Friday, December 6, 2013

An Unusual Lullaby: The Whiffenpoof Song

I've just spent about an hour and a half—a small fortune in time, given the number of things I should be doing—listening to versions of The Whiffenpoof Song, which was one of the lullabies my mother used to sing to me when I was a child.

My husband had whistled a snatch of "Beautiful Dreamer" and, in response to my comment about how much I loved it, had laughed and said it was just something he used to hear Bugs Bunny sing when he was a kid. He also mentioned, it was relevant even if I can't remember exactly why now, that he thought Bugs may have claimed to have attended Yale. That was all it took! The next thing you know, I'm searching YouTube for versions of The Whiffenpoof Song.

As lullabies go, The Whiffenpoof Song must be among the more unusual, since it is commonly known as the Yale Drinking Song. But, it was one of my favorites, and I asked for it often. After listening to numerous versions, including several a capella renditions by Yale choristers, I'm convinced that Rudy Vallee, who seems to be the earliest to have recorded the song, sang it the best. Here's one of Rudy Vallee's versions, from 1930:



I found a couple of other Rudy Vallee versions: one may be even lovelier than this one, but visually it had no discernable connection to the song, while the other was an earlier recording and had more sound defects. This song has also been recorded by a number of other artists, including Bing Crosby, The Lettermen, every single class of Yale choristers, Louis Armstrong (in a very altered revision), and even (in a very tiny "unpublished" fragmentary snatch that's part of a medley) Elvis Presley. (You should listen to the Presley version, just for the beauty of it, even if it isn't really this song.)

The lyrics my mother sang, as I remember them, were slightly adapted from the original, which was published as sheet music in 1909, more than a decade before she was born. Most notably, she seems to have left several lines out, and to have changed the word "damned" to "doomed." Also, because my mother's name was Luella and she was often called Lui, I'm sure it was her dwelling we were both thinking of.

Using the lyrics from the WikiSource page for the song (see link in the first paragraph), I've attempted to provide the lyrics as I remember my mother singing them, complete with omissions and my childhood misunderstandings:

To the tables down at Mory's,
To the place where Lui dwells,
To the dear old [???]
We love so well,
See the whiffenpoofs assembled
With their glasses raised on high,
And the magic of their singing casts its spell.
[skipped lines] 
We are poor little lambs
Who have lost our way.
Bye-lo-bye!
We are little black sheep
Who have gone astray.
Bye-lo-bye!
Gentlemen songsters off on a spree
Doomed from here to eternity
God have mercy on such as we.
Bye-lo-bye!

As my mother sang, I imagined the whiffenpoofs as stork- or crane-like birds, sitting around Mory's tables while wearing top hats and carrying lorgnettes, looking very fine and very aloof as they sang the little lambs on their lonely way. The little lost lambs were wandering around pastoral hills and dales, trying to find their way home, and certain they would be lost forever, but I was sure that a shepherd or shepherdess was nearby and would find them before long. My certainty that the lambs were in no danger and would soon be home safe and snug, made this a very reassuring song for me.

I have no idea why, despite the fact that I knew very well that lambs say "baa" I heard my mother sing "bye-lo-bye," but that's the way I remember it.