A Vignette of Dartmouth Music

Sometime during the spring of my freshman year, I was sitting on the Dartmouth College Green with several of my friends. The air was cool, the sun was out, and as is usually the case during the pleasant days of New England spring, the group had adopted a generally languid attitude. Sometime during our mindless chit-chat, a group of men in flashy suits took their place on the steps of Dartmouth Hall and started singing. My friends and I rushed over to listen to the beautiful chorus singing the beloved "Alma Mater."

What I heard from the steps of Dartmouth Hall as I approached was, perhaps, the most stunning moment of live music I have ever experienced. At that moment — the moment when the group sang the third word of the second stanza — half of the Aires sang the words “stand as sister stands by brother” while the other half — a group of older, white men — sang “stand as brother stands by brother.” The clash of the “sister” and “brother” rang loud and clear.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my friend — a female — furrowing her brow.

I would later learn that this event was the triennial Aires reunion, and further, that at reunions, the current cohort of Aires tells the older alumni to “sing the lyrics true to your Dartmouth experience.”[1] Thus, alumni who hail from an era of Dartmouth before songs were altered to reflect a shift in campus demographics tend to sing the “Dartmouth Touchdown Song” with the words "Wah-Who-Wah-Who-Wah" and the lyrics to “Men of Dartmouth” instead of “The Alma Mater.”

My friend’s frown illustrates the effect these lyrics can have on individuals, particularly those that they discriminate against, as well as communities, especially those that are trying to move past eras of exclusion. Dartmouth has spent the past five decades playing catch-up, supporting female faculty members and trying to reach gender parity in admissions. So, when a group of alumni return, stand on the steps of the most revered building on campus, and sing a song that implies that only men should be at Dartmouth, it can feel like a step backward for the people (in this case, women) who have worked to increase their presence on campus.

Why not have the alumni sing the lyrics true to the Dartmouth experience today? Questions like these embody the issues my project is digging at. However, there is no good, single answer to this question because it stands at the intersection of so many social constructions: money, masculinity, and homophobia, to name a few. I share this moment of music at Dartmouth because it captures several facets of musical performance at Dartmouth. Key to this moment were the people listening, the people performing, where they were performing, and what they were performing. In essence, I argue that a critical understanding of the music around the student body today requires an exploration of who, where, and what. Who gets to perform, and who is the audience, intended or otherwise? Where do performances happen, and what does that do to the music and peoples’ interaction with it? What is being performed, and how does the music itself contribute to the socialities around of the act of performance?

Music is a windowpane, offering scholars a glimpse into the community that has constructed, performed, and preserved the music. Dartmouth music is no exception. Understanding the who, where, and what can reveal student sentiment and outline an arc that traces us through the institution’s relationship with women, Native Americans, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. To explore the first of the W’s — who — forces us to face a more fundamental issue: selection at Dartmouth.


[1] From an interview with a current member of the Aires

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