Nearly 30 years ago, while riffling through sheet music for a campus vocal ensemble, students Adrian Trevisan and Claiborne Booker stumbled upon the “St. John’s College March,” the ancient school song.
It was an inspiring find, and the Johnnies started singing it at campus events. But denizens of the Annapolis great-books school quickly discovered that the song’s words, emphasis and overall message were, as Booker recalls, “hopelessly out of date.”
St. John’s needed a new song.
The old one, written in 1911 by St. John’s student Robert Graham Moss, celebrated the virtues of an institution that scarcely resembled the iconoclastic, cerebral, coeducational thought community of today. One hundred years ago, St. John’s was a military school for men, oddly kindred in mission and feel to the neighboring U.S. Naval Academy.
Here are the words to the “St. John’s College March”:
St. John’s forever, her fame shall never die/ Fight for her colors, we’ll raise them to the sky/ Each loyal son pledges you his heart and hand/ For her united we as brothers stand.
“And we used to sing it,” Trevisan said. “But the words, if you see them, are more appropriate for a military academy in the early 1900s.”
It was a “fight” song, and there are stories of Johnnies unfurling it at pep rallies, bonfires and snake dances before thousands of spectators. The college once fielded one of the finest small-college football teams in the country. Its lacrosse team went 13-0 in 1929 and won two national championships.
But the song seems to have been shelved and politely forgotten until last year, when the two 1984 graduates thought to organize a contest around composing a new one.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Annapolis Cup, an annual croquet match against the Naval Academy. The event is sometimes described as the Maryland capital’s biggest party, a celebration rich with irony.
The Johnnies usually win; that is itself a sort of inside joke, as St. John’s fields few athletic teams and Academy midshipmen are incomparably more physically fit.
What’s more, the Johnnies openly mock the mids by taking the field in some new and outlandish costume: camouflage, or Vote for Pedro T-shirts, or kilts. The mids, of course, have no option but to wear their Navy whites.
The annual contest arose out of a conversation between a St. John’s student and a Navy commandant wherein the commandant more or less challenged the Johnnie to find a sport, any sport, in which St. John’s could compete with the Academy.
Trevisan played on one of the first intercollegiate croquet teams, and both alumni have fond memories of the first matches. They thought it would be nice to roll out a new song this year, if only to throw the midshipmen off their game.
The contest was announced at last year’s match. It yielded four or five new musical arrangements and 17 lyrics. The winning arrangement was penned by John Bonn of Baltimore, father of St. John’s student Tommy Bonn. And the winning words came from Charles “David” Branan, a current junior from Sandersville, Ga., who said he was inspired by Renaissance polyphony.
Each is deemed a winner of the Trevisan-Booker Prize and pockets $1,696, a sum that matches the year the first school was founded on the St. John’s campus.
“It’s a nice little addition to what’s now become a grand tradition at the college,” Booker said.
The new song had its first performance at 10 this morning in the Great Hall of St. John’s, sung by Trevisan and Booker with a group of current Johnnies. The new words play on the school’s singular identity — students read original classic texts in their entirety — and on its motto, Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque, which translates roughly to I make free men from children by means of books and a balance.
Here are the words:
True love of wisdom is sheltered in her halls/ Seekers of virtue will answer to her call/ Books and a balance are all the tools we need/ St. John’s forever! She will make us free.