Sixty Years, One Musical Language

 

Colbyettes from across generations compare notes, sing again.

By Pat Sims
Photography by Jeff Pouland
 

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Then-current Colbyettes perform in the latest version of the 60-year-old a cappella group. From left are Cat Gallagher ’12, Susannah Hatch ’11, and Savvy Lodge-Scharff ’11.

Fifty Colbyettes, hailing from the group’s founders in 1952 to current student singers, gathered on campus in April for the 60th anniversary of Colby’s oldest women’s a cappella group. Their musical tastes embraced everything from traditional barbershop to the gritty sounds of beatboxing, showcased at a concert featuring the Colbyettes’ trademark polished harmonies—linking decades and generations, in just a few hours’ time.

“Oh my gosh, we had three hours to pull together three songs,” said Savina Balasubramanian ’10, after the concert. “All of us hadn’t sung with each other in a long time, but it was stressful in a good way.” As one of the soloists, Balasubramanian had an extra challenge: “I lost my voice [a couple of nights before],” she said, “and I was thinking, ‘Am I really going to be able to sing Candyman?’ But the voice came back.”

Working with the entire group of Colbyettes was tremendously satisfying, the singers said. Said Balasubramanian, “We had a common language.”

And a common experience.

At a table of members from the ’70s and ’80s, the consensus was that being a Colbyette was a major part of their Colby experience—great fun, but also hard work. “You had to be able to blend four-part barbershop, doo-wop barbershop,” said Dorcas Benner Riley ’80.

The Colbyettes of 2011 can thank their sisters from the ’80s for breaking through with music selections that were more au courant than the traditional material that had been performed up until then. Folk songs gave way to ABBA, the alumnae recalled. Barbara Leonard ’83’s recollection of singing “Summer Love” with the male-counterpart Colby Eight elicited an appreciative collective sigh.

Carolyn “Muffin” English Caci ’53 was the senior Colbyette in attendance and an original member. (Janice “Sandy” Pearson Anderson ’52, the longest-term member of the Colbyettes, could not attend.) “I helped the two people who founded the group” (in 1951, Anderson and Virginia “Ginnie” Falkenbury Aronson ’53), Caci said. She showed a photo of that earliest company—clad in skirts, vests, and white blouses, their hair uniformly short—and a copy of the 1952 Colby Oracle, which reported on the newly formed group:

“Ten gals and a song were all that were needed (with a few rehearsals in Mary Low, of course) to start the Colbyettes on their way. Beginning with a meager two songs, the repertoire has grown constantly and the consensus is that the group will become a Colby tradition. Already they have chalked up such appearances at the Senior Banquet, the Glee Club Monsanto Broadcast, and a three-day trip through Aroostook County in April. Whether it’s ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ or the ‘Colby Night Song,’ the Colbyettes manage close harmony that makes you just want to sit back and listen.”

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Savina Balasubramanian ’10 takes a solo.

At the reunion those close harmonies were in the air. After a welcome from Susannah Hatch ’11, president of the 2010-11 Colbyettes, women divided into groups bydecade—’50s and ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and a group referred to as “the aughts”—and set off for the Bixler Art and Music Center to practice, strains of “Java Jive” (“A cuppa cuppa cuppa . . .”) drifting from their midst. For the next few hours, groups of Colbyettes, sheet music in hand, roamed Bixler, harmonizing on the fly.

Before the concert in Lorimer Chapel, Kathie Flynn Carrigan ’55 related her tale of Colbyettes past. The group had grown tired of its outfits—strapless gowns “with this incredible netting”—and Dottie Forster Olson ’54, one of the original Colbyettes, had a suggestion. She had a friend who sang with the Skidmore Sonneteers, who looked classy when they performed in their black tops and pants, pearls and white blazers. Why not, reasoned the Colbyettes, take a page from their book? That was fine until the group was invited by the Sonneteers to Skidmore’s Spring Singspiration, along with singing groups from a variety of New England colleges. Carrigan, then the president of the Colbyettes, panicked. Her quick fix to distinguish the Colby outfits from those of the Sonneteers was to add hastily purchased red carnations. As fate would have it, the Sonneteers had had the same floral inspiration.

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From left, Julia Crouter ’13, Rebecca Hushing McCole ’76, Liz Yanagihara Horwitz ’80, and Maureen Hagerty Polimeno ’84 P’14 enjoy the show.

At the April 2 concert this year, the songs reflected the zeitgeist of each group: Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” for the present Colbyettes (accompanied by the beatboxing of Melanie Brown ’13); the old folk song “I Love Little Willie” from the ’50s and ’60s group; “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” from the ’70s and ’80s group (who donned sunglasses), and Christina Aguilera’s “Candyman” from the aughts.

The finale was all of the generations of the Colbyettes singing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Helplessly Hoping” (“They are one person / They are two alone / They are three together / They are four for each other.”)

Even after the concert, the music continued, at least for some of the former Colbyettes. Carrigan sings with the midcoast Maine choral group the Down East Singers. Caitlin Coit ’08, now at nursing school in Boston, Mass., wants to form a singing group called the Post-Ette Notes. And, said Caci, “I sing to myself. I put on Tony Bennett in my car and we are fabulous.”

 
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