What's in a Song?

Commencement was the perfect way to finish off my first year at Harvard. For two weeks, I and about fifty other fools in crimson wool jackets ran around school playing the same fight songs over and over again at reunions, Class Day and Commencement. The band helped to provide the appropriately festive atmosphere for all the hellos and good-byes. My favorite part of these sentimental performances was the singing of "Fair Harvard." Seniors, alums and other band members not playing at the moment would drape their arms around each other and slowly sway from side to side as they sang (and we played). The lyrics were printed in the Commencement programs and were attributed to their composer: "Fair Harvard, S. Gilman, 1811." And then, a little off to the side, "[revised 1998]."

I instantly disliked the new version. True, the change is pretty minor: instead of "Fair Harvard! Thy sons to thy jubilee throng" it was, "Fair Harvard! We join in thy jubilee throng." Only one phrase in the whole first verse had been revised, a fairly innocuous change. But word choice is not the issue. The words are fine, except that they have been altered.

My best guess is the lyrics were changed because "thy sons" is a remnant of Harvard's exclusively male past. The lyric is not meant to constantly remind Harvard women that they have not always been full and equal members of the University. But it can. Women's reactions to the phrase "thy sons" range from complete acceptance to indifference to outrage. So why is my reaction somewhere between the first two? As a woman, I should embrace the politically correct change. After all, the Harvard that sang only of its sons is one that didn't want me in its lecture halls or libraries. It's very different now, of course, but why would I want to keep these sexist lyrics in "Fair Harvard?" Why do I possess this seemingly perverse loyalty to such an otherwise inconsequential phrase? I know Gilman was not thinking of Radcliffe women when he wrote the line, I know that generations of male Harvard students never even thought about the meaning of these words for the other sex. And I can certainly understand how the words might still give offense.

Yet here I am today, 188 years later, and I love singing about Harvard's sons. I don't know exactly what it is that enables me to tacitly accept the historical connotations of the first line. I am fond of the song for its archaic language, its connection to Harvard's past; it gives the feeling that you are one in a long and honorable Harvard tradition. But what endears "Fair Harvard" to me most is that when we sing it, we do so in the company and thoughts of people who have truly made our Harvard experiences special. The song is almost sacred, and to change it is to hurt it. My own interpretation of "thy sons" includes women. I honestly feel that I can be counted as one of Harvard's sons, because the meaning of that word is broader today than it was in 1811. I take "thy sons" to mean all of Harvard's children.

Not everyone feels the same way I do, and were I not so sentimental about the song, I might not have an opinion on it either way. I'll admit, it's a trivial thing to even notice, much less care about. If I hadn't learned the original words before the revised ones, it probably wouldn't matter to me. I certainly wouldn't like a new Harvard song that only referred to one of the sexes. The new words make more sense--they are more inclusive and considerate. And yet, the revision of one little phrase, the attempt to apologize for or whitewash the past is, in my eyes, silly and artificial. What real harm is done by that phrase, that one word? Its greatest crime is not what it actually does, but of what it reminds us.

The revision might be termed modernization, a better and kinder way of doing things that should be acceptable to everyone. I realize changes of this type generally come with good intentions and can be very positive. We are wiser and more enlightened now and there are times when it is best to sweep away the old habits of 1811. Traditions like the exclusion of women and minorities from full participation in the Harvard community have been rightfully "revised."

Am I proud of the fact that Harvard was once all male, or that non-white males weren't always included as sons? No, I am not. There will always be elements of the past we would never want to celebrate, but it is impossible to change the reality of it. However, I am not celebrating historic injustices when I choose the old lyrics over the new ones. I am acknowledging the new Harvard, the one that considers me to be one of its sons, just as I see myself as part of its grand and glorious tradition.

I feel a little guilty for not supporting "we join in thy jubilee throng," but it's such a little thing that doesn't accomplish anything. It only reminds us of how powerful our discomfort about our history is, and how desperately we keep trying to fix what is still not perfect about Harvard. I am probably one of about five people who care about the lyrics to a song that about 5 percent of the Harvard undergraduate population knows. In several years the old lyrics will have faded from memory and nobody's life will be any different because of it. I can't really say it affects me that much; it only annoys me. It's a nice, but ineffectual attempt to fix and forget, and it helps us do neither. There is a difference between correcting serious errors in tradition and killing harmless reminders of it.

P. Patty Li '02 is a Crimson editor spending the summer in Cambridge.

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