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Harmon’s Histories: Montana’s early glee clubs were ‘no fake amusement’

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

We all could use a bit of glee these days. While the heyday of the glee club is long gone, we can still enjoy the memories of those times.

From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, glee clubs were commonplace. Missoula had the Rocky Mountain Glee Club, the Missoula Glee Club, the University Glee Club, the YMCA Glee Club and the Orphea Glee Club, to name a few.

During the 1893-1894 campaign to select Montana’s capital city, there was even an Anaconda for Capital Glee Club!

For today’s generation: No, a glee club was not a group singing happy, gleeful songs. It was just a group of three or more voices singing short songs, often about eating and drinking.

It all started with the London Glee Club in 1783. America’s oldest group is the Harvard Glee Club, dating to 1858.

ANACONDA FOR CAPITAL GLEE CLUB, 10-17-1894

In Missoula, wandering groups of singers were commonplace, but the creation of the first actual college glee club didn’t happen until 1902.

One newspaper account tried to convince the public that this was a serious undertaking and should be supported. “This kind of entertainment is well known and immensely popular farther east, but up to the present has never been known in Montana.”

“The Easter tour of the Montana State College Glee Club is the first ever attempted in the state and should be welcomed by the public with lively feelings of interest and curiosity. The concert will be no fake amusement, and the public will be assured of the full return of their money.”

Montana State College Glee Club, 3-27-1902

But those early glee clubs became “neglected” over time and disappeared. It was the work of UM President Edwin B. Craighead and music instructors Mr. and Mrs. DeLoss Smith that would bring them back a decade later.

John R. Cowman Jr., in his 1951 master of music education thesis on the history of UM’s School of Music, wrote: “In the spring of 1914, the Men’s Glee Club made its first State tour, a practice continued each year until 1918. Of necessity, the tour was canceled that year because of a depleted membership caused by the enlistment of many men students in the armed forces.”

Glee clubs were routinely asked to entertain at a variety of gatherings. After one event in Missoula, their performance was followed with a “lecture on radium and wireless telegraphy.”

The end of the glee club era came with World War II. Jeremy D. Jones in a 2010 master’s thesis at the University of Cincinnati wrote: “The large number of men drafted into the service of the United States military decimated the ranks of collegiate glee clubs. As a result, this period of time witnessed the disbanding of numerous glee clubs around the country, some of which, unfortunately, never returned, while others evolved into co-ed choral ensembles.

Today, a few long-established glee clubs still exist.

ORPHEA GLEE CLUB, MAY 2, 1903

The Harvard Glee Club presented its third annual ‘Hand in Hand Concert’ on Oct. 29. The Harvard Crimson wrote, “After a year off due to the pandemic, America’s oldest collegiate choir took the stage at Sanders Theatre, as choirs from Princeton and Yale Zoomed in from their respective campuses, for a celebration of global choral music.”

Meantime, Penn’s Glee Club, the “university’s oldest student performing arts group this year opened its choir to singers of all genders.”

Princeton University’s Glee Club, “the oldest and largest choir at the university,” continues to tour internationally, recently adding “northern Spain and South Africa to the list of stamps in the Glee Club passport.”

Honoring tradition, the choir “embraces a vast array of repertoire, from Renaissance motets and madrigals, Romantic partsongs, large choral-orchestral masterworks, and 21st century choral commissions to the more traditional Glee Club fare of spirituals, folk music and college songs.”

While no longer known as glee clubs, choirs of various size continue to entertain Montanans each year. Keep your eyes open for performance schedules as we head into the holidays – and put a little glee in your life.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.