Saturday, August 27, 2011

CMU History Minute: In 1958, This Joint Was Jumpin'

By Frank Boles

Preparing for an exhibit that opens this fall discussing student life and learning, I sometimes come across wonderful, unanticipated discoveries. A few weeks ago a copy of the publication “Louis Armstrong and His Concert Group,” autographed by Armstrong and the vocalist who accompanied the group, Velma Middleton, was lent to us for the exhibit.  Louis Armstrong at CMU?  No jive!

In May, 1958 the Panhellenic Inter-Fraternity Council was planning “a jammed packed week” to celebrate the first campus “Greek Week.”  The planned activities included many old standbys like a tug-of-war between fraternities and a push cart derby. Also included were a few more conservative events, such as a revised Greek Sing competition. 

The previous year’s sing had been something of a disappointment. In 1957 each of the ten contesting groups were required to sing the hymn, “Now on Land and Sea Descending,” written in 1859 to a tune first documented in 1818. The audience was apparently unenthusiastic about listening to ten renditions of the song despite the hymn’s heartfelt advice to “jubilate, jubilate, jubilate.” In 1958, each group was simply given ten minutes onstage, without a requirement that the performance include a “song of a religious nature.”  

Perhaps still worried that the Greek Sing might not be a musical high note, the organizing committee also booked Louis Armstrong “to blow,” as the headline read, on Friday May 16. Armstrong had two performances that evening, first at an “all-college” jam session from 7:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. and then at a dance from 9:00 p.m. until midnight for Greek week participants.  Louis Armstrong came and blew. Velma Middleton came and sang. And it appears that the campus really was jumpin’ that night, at least when the Satchmo and Velma weren’t busy signing autographs for happy fans.