Preserving tradition through song
Cushing — Doug Stenberg recalls summers abroad entertaining American troops and taking part in Bowdoin's transition as a singing college in the 1950s. These reminiscences inspired him to preserve the music of his alma mater and honor the music professor he admired.
When Stenberg, of Cushing, began arranging the five popular Bowdoin songs of his youth and considered having the compilations recorded, he said didn't want to appear presumptuous, but felt he was the person to complete the project.
From 1936 to 1961, Professor Frederic Erle Thornlay Tillotson, affectionately called "Tilly" by students, taught music at the college. As president of the glee club his senior year, Stenberg said he developed an appreciation for the care Tillotson gave to the club. "I learned an appreciation for good music from him," he said.
The medley of songs arranged by Stenberg is titled "Remembering Tilly."
"The guy had a presence and he changed a lot of lives — he changed the college," Stenberg said.
Tillotson founded the Bowdoin Meddiebempster acapella group in 1937 with the aim of comparing to the well-regarded Yale Wiffenpoofs. Stenberg said he is grateful for the group because it changed his life in many respects and said all nine members learned a lot from each other during their collegiate years.
"Every place has it's distinction, and places change over time," he said. Bowdoin referred to itself as a singing college in the post World War II years, which Stenberg said isn't simply rhetoric.
"It was the Eisenhower years, post WW II and the alumni from the time are proud of Bowdoin," he said.
Stenberg said the 12 fraternities on campus insisted pledges knew all the songs and could sing them, as well as participate in the traditional intrafraternity sing.
Stenberg, as a secondary goal through the project, wanted people to remember the time period. "Those years had their own historical importance," he said.
In 1972, Bowdoin became a co-educational institution, and the lyrics to the popular melodies were changed to be more compatible. Stenberg said he agreed the lyrics should be changed, but was concerned the music would be forgotten.
Stenberg said only one song remains celebrated, originally named "Rise Sons of Bowdoin" and later evolved to "Raise Songs to Bowdoin."
As the project progressed, the issue of copyright was raised, as Stenberg was not recording original music, but an orchestration of the songs.
To discover the copyright status of the songs, Stenberg had to conduct research. Anything written prior to 1923 is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright restriction.
"Beneath the Pines" was a difficult song to find information about. Stenberg's son, Douglas, — also a Bowdoin and Meddiebempster alumnus — typed the verse into a search engine — 'we were slingin' the ink and kiddin' the profs along', and was able to determine the lyrics were also used by Union College in Nebraska.
They called the school and learned in 1924, a professor from Coe College in Iowa had brought the song with him. "As a result of that sleuthing, we determined the music to 'Beneath the Pines' was written prior to 1923." The origin of the melody is unknown to be from Bowdoin or Coe College In Iowa.
Stenberg consulted with the Portland Symphony Orchestra 18 months ago. "I said 'I'm not John Williams or a skilled composer, although I used to do a little arranging, would you consider recording it?'"
A service session of the orchestra to play and record the piece was held Oct. 8. During the same session, two current Bowdoin students had their own compositions recorded.
"I was thrilled. My response was satisfaction, gratitude — it was a new experience. The piece was lead and played in a way I had envisioned," he said.
Stenberg's wife, Shirley, who has witnessed the project develop "from the first bar," said Robert Moody "got into the head and heart of Doug — the orchestra was wonderful."
As a student, Stenberg did arranging for the glee club and the acapella group, the Meddiebempsters. He did the work by-hand at the piano and still has his first arrangements.
"Once you learn how to do it, it's much easier," he said of the electronic tools and digital playback. "Now that the technology exists, there's really no option," he said, although he's happy to have done the written exercises without computers 60 years ago.
Although the sheet music exists of the chosen songs, Stenberg said, "most people don't want to read sheet music — you want to hear the music."
Stenberg is donating the recording and the musical score to the college as a gift and educational purposes.
"I tell everybody I live with Mozart," Shirley said, "I'm just so proud of him."
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at JLaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.