From the Campus Quartet to Saint Motel: Music through the generations

Since Green Key’s inception in the 1920s, a variety of genres have been featured at the festival, giving insight into campus culture at the time.

by Allison Burg | 5/20/22 2:10am

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by Lila Hovey / The Dartmouth

This article is featured in the 2022 Green Key special issue.

'Until a few weeks ago, students’ conversations seemed to continuously float back to one timeworn question: Who will perform at Green Key? Since the onset of the Green Key Society in 1921, the festival weekend has attracted sunshine, kegs and notable performers, according to a 1993 article from The Dartmouth. The Green Key Society was a junior society that began with the purpose of entertaining visiting guests and sports teams, soon expanding to a more service-oriented committee that helped the college during freshman orientation, Commencement, and Green Key. 

Though most well known for the hired artists who venture up to campus to perform, Green Key weekend has many traditions centered around song and student-created performing arts — reflecting the importance of music in the lives of many students. From orchestras to popstars to student theatrical productions, tracing the performance history of Green Key shows how music truly is a sign of the times. 

The year was 1922 — an era of jazz, blues and swing — and the men of Dartmouth had decided the spring needed a weekend full of girls, excessive drinking and, of course, music. A program from the original December 1922 Green Key show displays individual student performances, plays and campus sing-alongs from groups like “The Campus Quartet” and “Intoxicating Melodies.” In 1929, as the Green Key Society — which organized the weekend — grew more established, Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band made its way to Hanover for the first Green Key Spring Prom, according to “The Story of Green Key,” a short book published by the Green Key Society in 1951.

Even with the addition of professional artists, students continued to perform at Green Key. The Dartmouth Players theater group held an annual show, and the Glee Club sang every year on the steps of Dartmouth Hall. In 1937, a new take on a classic singing competition began, called the interfraternity Hums, in which each fraternity’s pledge class would write and perform an original song. This competition was prefaced each year by an event called Spring Hum, during which each class year would sing a song together. 

The Green Key weekends of the 30s and 40s had much of the same jazz, blues and swing music, but were marked by increasingly famous musicians and heightened student involvement. According to a 1939 guide, the Key’s band committee talked to two of the country’s “most outstanding” bands each year and then polled the preferences of the student body. Swing legends Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw performed at Green Key in 1938, trumpeter Larry Clinton came to campus in 1939 and Bob Chester and Louis Armstrong performed in 1941. Even with the greats coming to campus, Green Key did not lose sight of students: The Barbary Coast orchestra — a Dartmouth student-led and year-round ensemble, performed at the 1941 Freshman non-fraternity dance. 

The ’50s introduced a new era to Green Key, dominated by social change, which would last almost 30 years. This began with students embracing a change in the musical genres which they invited to campus: In 1954, pop singers Vaughn Monroe and Cindy Lord headed “the list of stars that perform[ed] at the massive ‘Spring Fantasy,’” as reported by The Dartmouth. Rock and roll made its first appearance in 1963, with four professional bands – The Coasters, The Shirelles, King Curtis and The Commanders – playing on the Green. The 70s added disco and soul to these new genres. Perhaps the most notable performance of Green Key took place in 1978, when the Grateful Dead was the featured band for the weekend.

With these shifts in music came larger social changes. In 1967, Green Key was canceled as students rioted after a speech by then-former Alabama Governor George Wallace. Since its establishment, the concert weekend had only been canceled twice before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic  — both during World War II. In the 70s, the interfraternity Hum was suspended, and then banned, as the pledge-created songs became increasingly offensive — especially when women began to be admitted to Dartmouth. 

The 80s and 90s saw another critical shift in campus music culture as students took the reign of the campus’ music scene. Student rock bands saw such rapidly increasing popularity that Dartmouth held its first Spring Rock and Roll festival in May, 1981, featuring 12 hours of 12 student bands. Beginning in 1982, this phenomenon could be seen at Green Key — with Alpha Delta fraternity hosting the band Anthrax, becoming one of the first fraternities to bring in a well-known band. The AD lawn concert became a tradition  that continued until the fraternity’s disbandment in 2015. 

By 1989, almost all the other  fraternities followed suit, hosting their own professional or student bands during Green Key weekend — in addition to the programming provided by Green Key Society. These practices were expanded in the 90s with the increasing popularity of hip-hop, rap and pop.  For Green Key in 1993, the College hired funk band, The Meters, and Alpha Delta brought Boston band Downtime to their lawn. 

A freshman at the time, Robin Allen ’92, remembers the anticipatory excitement surrounding the big weekend. 

“Music, in terms of live music and bands and so forth, was really a big part of Green Key weekend — and freshman bands, student bands,” Allen said. “I didn’t feel like we had many other music performances like that, in terms of live music.”

This sentiment is still felt today, as the College’s remote location and cold weather limits the amount of big name artists which students have access to. Nonetheless, Allen recalled having “never heard” of most of the Green Key musicians during her four years — the weekend was instead special because students were celebrating being with their friends, the spring weather, and the live music. 

“There is something irreplaceable to a live performance — [it’s] a lot more emotional,” said Avery Fogg ’24, a member of the Glee Club and the Decibelles a capella group. “It gets people more excited, and you can kind of appreciate music a lot more in person… It’s a lot more real.

Student performances took Green Key by storm in 1999 with the first step show — in which  fraternity and sorority members would perform special vocal and dance performances. The dance show set a precedent which expanded the weekend from just live music to including other forms of performing art as well. This development formed the basis for an involved, student-dominated and student-run culture of campus performances.  

Even as the records and mixtapes of the 90s have transformed into Spotify playlists, there is no replacement for live music — and that’s what makes Green Key so special.

“I think there is an energy that comes with live performance and music that is kind of unmatched,” said Grant Foley ’25, a drummer in two campus student bands. “I love seeing the energy of performers because it makes me more excited – and being up there is, of course, way more fun.”

So, as students belt the lyrics to “My Type” by Saint Motel this weekend, they also connect with the students before them — who once experienced the same beating sun, rowdy festivities and joyous live tunes. Even as the melodies of the music throughout the generations have changed, the celebration of friends and spring — and critically, the unique significance of live music — remain for Green Key 2022.

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