c/o Soren Stokes

c/o Soren Stokes

Originally founded in 1981 by Charles North ’82, the Wesleyan Spirits is the University’s oldest Tenor 1, Tenor 2, Baritone, Bass (TTBB) a cappella group. Nowadays, the Spirits are known for their upbeat performances that consist of a fun mix of New England college tunes and modern music. According to the group, you are guaranteed to enjoy yourself at a Spirits concert—their charismatic energy, humor, and impeccable vocal skills are not ones to miss. 

As interesting as the Wesleyan Spirits are today, their past is even more fascinating. 

From the mid-19th century to the 1960s, musical life at the University was abundant. For many generations, the University was regarded as the “Singing College of New England.” Back then, the University community was familiar with our college melodies, and students were known for bursting into song.

The Spirits originated from the Wesleyan Glee Club. In the March 29, 2019 article, “What Was the Wesleyan Glee Club? A Primer,” then-Staff Writer Hannah Docter-Loeb ’22 described the creation of the club.

“The Wesleyan Glee Club was founded in 1846, but the group did not begin performing until the early 1860s,” Doctor-Loeb wrote.

The Wesleyan Glee Club was responsible for performing traditional old college songs. Their singing differed from 21st-century a cappella, as they were mainly a choral group. 

After the Wesleyan Glee Club started to fade from campus in the early 1940s, another singing group, the Jibers, was created. According to the current historian of the Spirits Alex Kaplan ’25, the Jibers took over the role of the Glee Club, but they too became extinct in the 1960s.

“When [the Wesleyan Glee Club] started to die out a little bit, another group of singers was coming to prominence called the Jibers,” Kaplan said. “They were an all-male group who did all the college songs, and their whole thing was [to] keep doing these college songs. And then in the 60s, they fell out.” 

Why the Jibers died out remains a mystery. Whether it be due to a lack of interest or a mysterious cataclysm, a cappella at the University was inactive during the 1960s. 

The Wesleyan Spirits was founded in 1981, formed by North to revive school spirit at the University. At the University’s Special Collections & Archives, a letter written by North explains how he learned the melodies from his parents and carried their legacy out at the University. 

“The letter says something to the effect of, ‘I grew up with all of these songs, and I thought, why should we let that die?’” Kaplan said. “And so he came back to Wesleyan and set out to gather a bunch of guys to keep singing these songs.” 

From then on, the Spirits have paved their way for the a cappella scene at the University. Throughout their journey, the Spirits have found themselves in some unforgettable situations, making their history even more unique. 

In an article published on Feb. 4, 2003, “Spirits sing in Tokyo, a cappella a novelty in Japan,” then-Contributing Writer Kat Johnson ’06 reported on the Spirits winter break trip to Japan.

“The Wesleyan Spirits a cappella group spent two weeks in Japan this winter break and gave over 20 performances in Tokyo and Kagoshima, hometown of Spirits member Jack Hagihara ’05,” Johnson wrote. “The group received attention from newspapers, television programs and community members and sold over 140 CDs.” 

The article went on to explain the impact the trip had on the group. For example, Hagihara, a then-Freeman scholar, was able to participate in the Japanese national coming-of-age holiday. Johnson described how the Spirits performed for an audience of 2000 in Kagoshima, Japan. 

Another article entitled “An inside look: meet three campus a cappella groups,” written by then-Contributing Writer John Wright ’06 on Nov. 8, 2002 recounted amusing circumstances in Spirit history. 

“Among other bullet points in their successful history, the group has met Former President Bill Clinton, and performed with Anne Hathaway and appeared on a widely-broadcast news show based in New Orleans,” Wright wrote. 

One tradition for the Spirits that still occurs today is their annual spring break trip to Atlanta and New Orleans. In each city, the group stays with a host family and puts on concerts for the area. Kaplan recounted a time in Atlanta when the Spirits performed the song “Insomniac” with the original artists themselves, rock duo Billy Pilgrim. 

“They were doing their annual performance in Atlanta at a local restaurant, Eddie’s Attic, and they performed ‘Insomniac,’” Kaplan said. “One of the people working there came up to them and was essentially like: ‘Hey, the guys who wrote that song, they are gonna be here tonight’. So the Spirits hung out until that evening, and then they got to sing Insomniac with the band who wrote it.” 

The Spirits were also recently mentioned in a New York Times article. On Jan. 8, 2024, the article “How an Obscure Song Became an a Cappella Sensation,” written by Sopan Deb, highlighted the Spirit’s connection with “Insomniac.” 

But even with an extensive past, the Spirits continue to evolve as an a cappella group today. 

In 2017, the Spirits diverged from their distinction as all-male and opened their auditions to include anyone who sings within the range of tenor and bass. When asked about the reason, Kaplan explained how many talented tenor and bass singers are not all cisgender men.

“Keeping ourselves as all-male limited our ability to bring in new people and was exclusionary for people who might have wanted to participate,” Kaplan said. 

From talking with members of the current Spirits, it’s clear that the culture of the group today is a major appeal. Alex Kermanth ’26 spoke about how joining the Spirits has shaped his time at the University. 

“I will say that joining the Spirits was probably one of the best choices I made on campus for expanding the people that I know, because it’s so diverse in all different areas of majors and life experience,” Kermath said. “And I feel that [the Spirits] put a lot of depth to Wesleyan that I was missing.”

Kaplan agreed on the importance of their group’s chemistry. 

“Part of being in Spirits is that you have a community of people who share an interest with [you] and we spend a ton of time together,” Kaplan said. “It’s a group you can rely [on] and turn to no matter what, and I think that’s really what makes it special and keeps people coming back.”

The Wesleyan Spirits play an integral role in keeping the University’s musical history alive. Their songbook, which they refer to as the black book, is responsible for passing down the medleys of college songs from the University’s past. Besides the old college songs, the Spirits will now perform any kind of music in their concerts and are always looking to develop in new ways. The group today consists of an interesting mix of the University’s past and present. 

Maggie Smith can be reached at mssmith@wesleyan.edu.

“From the Argives” is a column that explores The Argus’ archives (Argives) and any interesting, topical, poignant, or comical stories that have been published in the past. Given The Argus’ long history on campus and the ever-shifting viewpoints of its student body, the material, subject matter, and perspectives expressed in the archived article may be insensitive or outdated, and do not reflect the views of any current member of The Argus. If you have any questions about the original article or its publication, please contact Head Archivists Sida Chu at schu@wesleyan.edu and Maggie Smith at mssmith@wesleyan.edu.

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