Heads were popping out of windows all over Dunster House last Sunday afternoon. Like cobras to a charmer's pipe, Dunster men were responding to the sound of a chorus of familiar male voices. In the courtyard, ringed by students, their dates, and passersby from Memorial Drive were the Dunster Dunces, giving an impromptu concert. It so happened that the Dunces had suddenly discovered themselves sitting at the same table at lunch that after-noon. Naturally enough, they started to sing. After dessert, they filed out of the Dining Hall, still singing, and held forth in the Courtyard for a full half-hour.
The urge to sing together is almost primeval for the members of the University's oldest (1946) informal singing group. It's brought them profit as well as pleasure: what once was in danger of degenerating into a drinking society has now sold out two issues of recordings and will have to press another batch next fall to keep up with the demand. The singing urge is infectious, the Dunces say, and anyone who has seen some of them start harmonizing over a glass of beer at the Wursthaus and wished he knew their songs, will agree. Moreover, the weeks of rehearsal, travel, and minor triumphs at college dances build up solid ties of friendship that don't easily break. And just to insure post-graduate Dunce solidarity, they publish a yearly Dunce newspaper that keeps as close a tab on the whereabouts of former Dunces as any Alumni Bulletin.
Besides the singing, sociality, and occasional dashes of sex involved in Dunce activities, (they have sung at Smith, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Radcliffe this year), the Dunces have two stated purposes: to sing comparatively unknown songs other groups don't perform, and to sing tunes arranged especially for them.
Of the "unknowns", which are usually well known after a few Dunce concerts, the group has its own favorites. They like to begin a program with something short, like "I Got Along Without You Before I Met You, I Can Get Along Without You Now." Another favorite opener is "Behold the Bridegroom Cometh", which features bass Roy Colemen's solos in an unbelievably low voice range.
The singers mix up the rest of the program, depending on the composition of the audience. Even individual songs vary with the audience. The last song of a lover's lament called "Vera", for example is:
"I'll get up, pack my grip, and go home" before the Cambridge Elks Club, but becomes:
"I'll get up and get dressed and go home" at a House dance, and degenerates further in private.
The group usually concludes each program with "Goodnight, Little Girl," a masterpiece of subtle suggestion that is sure-fire with college audiences.
But perhaps the best known arrangement is the Dunces' mild satire on the Harvard Glee Club's stock in trade, trade, "Marching to Pretoria." The Dunces' "Petoria is shouted out with trilled R's in the best operatic tradition, and an abhorrence of vowel sounds. For authenticity, it goes the Glee Club one better with a verse in the original Afrikanese text.
Though the Dunces have songs for all types, they have found on their travels that slighty high audiences are more lavish in their reactions than more sedate ones. As one Dunce puts it. "even we sing better when we're a little oiled."
Sedateness has never characterized the Dunster Dunces. When Charles Vivien, a tutor in Dunster House, decided in 1946 that the House needed a "choir", sedate souls might have smiled in expectation of a Palestrina revival. But when this self-same "choir" tossed a bombshell into a Dunster Senior Dinner with a ditty called "Balls, Balls, Balls," sedateness vanished forever. The original manuscript of "Balls," never again sung in public is a Dunce keepsake.
Since those days, the Dunces have won easy acceptance at Dunster House, and are well on their way to becoming a House tradition. But tradition ends with their reputation, and does not include their future plans. These are full of experiments. The files of music director Anthony Saletan are stuffed with original arrangements of rarely-heard music. Some is his own arrangements, some sent him by former Dunces. Some is singable in public, some not. Saletan, whose musical interests overlap into the folk song and square dance fields, has now interested the Dunces in music of the Temperance period. "Some pretty good musicians poured their souls into such stuff," he says, "and it's rarely performed now." One Temperance song the Dunces now use is "Sign Tonight", a deadly serious chant about the pledge to banish rum forever. Saletan thinks college audiences will like that sort of music, if only for its antique interest.