It graces every Commencement ceremony. It closes every Legacy Brunch. It rings from the bell tower on Cox Hall every day at noon. It is both the most familiar tune and the least-known song on the Emory campus. Everyone can hum it, but most are grateful for the lyrics printed in their programs. It is the Emory Alma Mater.
Alma mater — Latin words meaning nourishing or kind or bounteous mother. The phrase harks back to the founding, in 1088, of the first university in the West, the University of Bologna, whose official name is Alma Mater Studiorum Universita di Bologna.
We know these words to signify something more particular–a university’s signature song. An alma mater’s lyrics often strain to fit rhyme to meter, and the sentiment usually verges on treacle. Frequently the tune is one familiar to thousands who may never even have heard of the institution that the alma mater salutes. That tune is “Annie Lisle,” and it is the tune of hundreds of alma maters for high schools, colleges, and universities around the country–and even in China.
Published in 1857, the original ballad sang of a young woman, “pure as the forest lily,” who, as she lies dying, hears the sound of angels singing and whispers to her mother, “God is love.” Did I say treacle?
Two Cornell University undergraduates claimed the tune first, around 1870, for the setting of “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.” Many other balladeers followed, but it took until 1918 for someone to recognize that “Annie Lisle” could also accommodate a hymn to the bounteous mother named Emory.
Marvin Rast, hailing from Louisville, Georgia, was a campus leader elected to membership in the DVS Senior Society.
He also sang in the Emory Glee Club. In the spring of Rast’s senior year, the glee club director, Professor Christian Hamff, lamented the absence of a song about Emory for the season’s final concert.
Stirred to action, Rast went back to his dormitory room and composed two verses and a chorus. The tune, of course, was “Annie Lisle.”
In the heart of dear old Dixie, / Where the sun doth shine,
That is where our hearts are turning, / ‘Round Old Em’ry’s shrine.
We will ever sing thy praises, / Loyal sons and true.
Hail we now our Alma Mater, / Hail the Gold and Blue.
Though the years around thee gather / Crowned with love and cheer,
Still the mem’ry of Old Em’ry / Grows to us more dear.
Thus the Emory Alma Mater was born. Performed at Commencement in 1918, it took hold.
But it had several problems. To begin with, there were those lines in the chorus, “We will ever sing thy praises, loyal sons and true.” What about the women, who had begun enrolling at Emory’s Atlanta campus in 1917?
And why those apostrophes in “memory” and “Emory”?
And what did it mean that the years would “gather ’round” Alma Mater? Were we supposed to see the college personified as a grandmotherly figure shedding benign smiles on younger generations?
And finally, what about that word “Dixie”?
I’ll say more about revisions to the Alma Mater in the next post.
One thought on “Alma Mater, to thee we sing”
These days it’s not often that “treacle” finds its way into a sense. Thanks for this delightful reflection about dear old “Em’ry.” Martin