Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 © Jeff Matthews    entry Mar 2008  amended Oct 2015

Everything is related to Naples
Number 1 in this series. Link to all items here.


The Whiffenpoof Song

I see that I misunderstood the so-called “small world experiment,” also referred to as the “six degrees of separation” (SDS) idea. Originally, I thought the idea was to have six friends who have six friends who have six friends who have six friends who have six friends who have six friends, and by that time you would be connected to everyone in the world. Well, I did wind up showing with precise mathematical rigor that there are exactly 46,656 people in the world, of whom I knew six, but I also once calculated that since I have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, and 8 great-grandparents, by the time I got back to the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were surrounded by so many people that their combined weight was greater than the weight of the Earth, itself (although some Biblical scholars claim that Eve, alone, weighed most of that).

What the SDS really claims is that if you are one "step" away from each person you know and two steps away from each person they know, and so forth, then you are no more six steps away from any other person on Earth. I wondered if I could substitute events or places for people and find a connection between Naples and anything else.

The 'anything else' that came totally unbidden to mind the other day was the phrase, "'Shall I Wasting' and "Mavourneen’,” as in

Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled with their glasses raised on high
And the magic of their singing casts its spell.
Yes, the magic of their singing
Of the songs we love so well
"Shall I Wasting," and "Mavourneen," and the rest…

That of course, is from the famous Whiffenpoof Song, the signature theme of the Whiffenpoofs, the 14-man choir at Yale University. You have probably heard the song and can probably sing a bit of it, although you will never make the choir. You may know that the text is from 1909 and was a parody of one of Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads named “Gentlemen Rankers,” a ballad that contains the cheery lines.

We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
That poem was set to music by one Tod B. Galloway (Amherst, class of 1898) at the turn of the century; the Yale Whiffenpoof parody text to the same melody was written somewhat later by two Yalies, Meade Minnegerode and George Pomeroy. But why “Whiffenpoof”?


Whiffenpoof” is a nonsense word coined by comedian, lyricist and all-round show business personality, Joseph Cawthorn (1868-1949), to insert into his lines in the Victor Herbert operetta Little Nemo in 1909. The complete nonsense phrase was,  "A drivaling grilyal yandled its flail, One day by a Whiffenpoof's grave." The kids at Yale liked it, named their choir after it and wrote the song. Poor Cawthorn never got a thin dime, not even in nonsense currency —maybe a thin gebardle or two. The text refers to two songs still in most editions of Yale song books: "Shall I Wasting" and "Mavourneen.”  The text to the first one is a poem by George Wither (1588-1667), English poet and satirist. The first stanza is:

Shall I wasting in despair/Die because a woman's fair?/
Or make pale my cheeks with care/'Cause another's rosy are?
The music is by George Job Elvey (1816-1893), a well-known English church musician in his day. He wrote the music to the popular hymn “Crown Him with many Crowns,” which even I know. The second song is Kathleen Mavourneen [my darling], from 1837, music composed by Frederick Nicholls Crouch with lyrics by Marion Crawford. The first lines are

Kathleen, Mavourneen! the gray dawn is breaking,/The horn of the hunter is heard on the hill;/
The lark from her light wing the bright dew is shaking,—/Kathleen Mavourneen, what, slumbering still?      [*-NO!]

*Oct. 27, 2015: WAIT! STOP! That is a mistake! Kind Paul Matsumoto has written me a delightful letter that I happily publish in its entirety directly below.

I came across your webpage while doing some research on Victor Herbert, Mavourneen, and the Whiffenpoofs and thought I would correct what I see to be an error in your story.
    By way of background, I am a Whiffenpoof, made a living for a several years as a professional singer, and have performed lots of Victor Herbert pieces. The song "Mavourneen" referred to in "The Whiffenpoof Song" is not "Kathleen Mavourneen" as you explain; it is a reference to the Victor Herbert song "Barney O'Flynn" from "Babes in Toyland" (which itself is a song often sung by the Whiffs and referred to inaccurately as "Mavourneen"). The Irish word "mavourneen" means simply "sweetheart" (from a form of the words "my affection"). So it would not be unusual to find other songs with that word in it.
    But beyond correcting that error, I am writing to let you know that your six-degrees chain from the lyric in "The Whiffenpoof Song" to Naples is much shorter than the one you managed to find: "Mavourneen" was written by Victor Herbert; Victor Herbert wrote a song for the operetta "Naughty Marietta" called "The Italian Street Song," sung by the title character; the opening lyric of that song is "Ah, my heart belongs in Napoli..."  I actually did a production of "Naughty Marietta" the summer before I became a Whiff. About five years later, I would visit Naples, one of my favorite cities, and that same year would have the pleasure of meeting Myrna Loy, who was in the audience of a Broadway show I was doing.
   Coincidentally enough, I also worked at the stage door of the original Broadway production of "Six Degrees of Separation"!   Paul Matsumoto
--from Matthews (Still Oct. 2015): if you are interested in "The Italian Street Song," click here.)


So, Whiffenpoof to Naples. Can I find perhaps an episode of Yale Whiffenpoofers in the US 36th Infantry Division that invaded at Salerno and maybe wound up singing their song in Naples? That would be a solid lock! The only one I know who might be able to answer that is my 94-year-old WWII buddy, Herman, who was, indeed, part of the invasions in North Africa, Sicily, and Salerno. I looked him square in the eye (really, about five minutes ago) and said, “Herman, were there any Yale Whiffenpoofers in the 36th infantry that invaded at Salerno and maybe wound up singing their song in Naples?” Herman looked me square in the eye and said something very World War Two-ey and unrepeatable.

On to plan B: Cawthorne, himself. He had a long and productive life on the stage, appearing as a child shortly after the civil war; he saw minstrel shows, barbershop quartets, early jazz, early musical theater, and worked in films until 1942. He passed away late enough to have heard Louis Armstrong’s own parody directed at the new jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie: “They are poor little cats who have lost their way—Bop! Bop! Bop!" No doubt, Cawthorne got all misty when he realized that he wasn’t going to get paid for that one, either.

Cawthorne appeared in a great many films, most of which I have not seen, but some are familiar by name. In one, Love me Tonight (1932), Cawthorne appears with Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald and Myrna Loy. (I am struck by the eerie coincidence that there was a statue of Myrna Loy on the lawn of my high school in Venice, California! Feel free to start humming the theme from The Twilight Zone.) But —here it is!— Maurice Chevalier also performed numerous times between the wars in Naples, at the first and most lavish café-chantant, the Salone Margherita in the Galleria Umberto. (My friend, Warren, who teaches college kids, has recently reminded me that some young students are unaware that the reason World War II is called “Two” is that there was another one before it, called “One”. For those trolls, then, “between the wars” means, roughly 1920-40.)

But, wait, you say, as brilliant an SDS routine as I have just laid out, haven’t I also shown that Myrna Loy is related to Louis Armstrong and Rudyard Kipling? Indeed. There may be a Nobel Prize for this sort of thing. I shall wait by the telephone —with my glasses raised on high. I shall lower them to the bridge of my nose when the phone rings.


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