I’ve sung the Alma Mater too many times for me to count since my Orientation Weekend in 1997.
But it was at the 2016 Founders’ Day convocation, marking Meredith’s 125 anniversary, that I began thinking of the Alma Mater as a kind of compressed history of the College. Professor of English Norma Rose, ’36, would have agreed, for in a 1957 issue of The Alumnae Magazine, she called the Alma Mater a “distilled” text about “Meredith’s past, present, and future.”
President Jo Allen, ’80, suggested that the Alma Mater’s “power comes from the recognition of the years that it’s been sung, the years it’s had a place in the hearts of Meredith women.”
Part of that past is that Richard Tilman Vann, the second president of Meredith College, wrote the words of the Alma Mater “sometime about 1902,” and it was in 1907, that Vann “wrote the music as we sing it today,” according to Rose’s article. That’s one thing that makes the Alma Mater special: it connects us to the past and the future. It connects us to 1902, 1957, and today – and all the todays ahead.
We salute thee, Alma Mater (1), we salute thee with a song,
At thy feet our loyal hearts their tribute lay; (2)
We had waited for thy coming in the darkness, waited long, (3) (4)
Ere the morning star proclaimed thy natal day.
Thou hast come through tribulation and thy robe is clean and white, (5)
Thou art fairer than the summer in its bloom,
Thou art born unto a kingdom and thy crown is all of light; (6)
Thou shalt smile away the shadow and the gloom.
In thy path the fields shall blossom and the desert shall rejoice,
In the wilderness a living fountain spring; (7)
For the blind shall see thy beauty and the deaf shall hear thy voice,
And the silent tongue their high hosannas sing. (8)
Where the rhododendron blushes on the burly mountain’s breast, (9)
In the midland where the wild deer love to roam;
Where the water lily slumbers while the cypress guards its rest;
Lo! Thy sunny land of promise and thy home. (10)
Where the sons of Carolina taught a nation to be free,
And her daughters taught their brothers to be brave; (11)
O’er a land of peaceful plenty, from the highlands to the sea,
May thy banner, Alma Mater, ever wave. (12) (13)
(1) Alma Mater: Latin for “nourishing mother.”
(2) At thy feet our loyal hearts their tribute lay: The favorite line of Hilary Allen, ’01, director of alumnae and parent relations: “This line speaks to the loyalty of our alumnae and how they whole-heartedly support the College. I am fortunate to see on a daily basis just how loyal and generous our alumnae are to the College. This line also implies a level of gratitude for everything that Meredith gave us and continues to give us.”
(3) (4) We had waited for thy coming in the darkness, waited long: From 1835-89, the Baptist State Convention let the idea of Meredith languish; women’s education was relegated to darkness. According to Vann, cited by Johnson, “The reason assigned was poverty, but Wake Forest grew and accumulated $100,000 in endowment before the Civil War. I fear, therefore, we must admit that the longstanding assumption of superiority by men over women was responsible in part for this neglect.”
Favorite line of Robin Colby, ’81, professor of English: “In a year when we’ve seen the first presidential nomination of a woman by a major political party, the phrasing seems especially charged.”
(5) Thou hast come through tribulation and thy robe is clean and white: Fifty years passed after Thomas Meredith proposed a women’s college before the Baptist State Convention began working toward that in earnest. Many people, including Vann, Oliver Larkin Stringfield, and Fannie E. S. Heck, raised money for Baptist Female University, often walking door-to-door. “Most of the gifts were small,” Johnson wrote. “It is said that [Stringfield] was once given two cents, and the tale is credible.”
(6) Thou art born unto a kingdom and thy crown is all of light: By now, more than 22,000 living alumnae make up Meredith’s “kingdom.”
(7)In the wilderness a living fountain spring: It would be difficult, I think, to overestimate the importance that Vann, and the other founders of Meredith, placed on educating women. After the establishment of the College, flowers bloomed where there had been none, the “desert” was no longer desolate, and a “living fountain spring” appeared in the wilderness. It was the end of a drought in women’s education.
Some have also read these lines as addressing alumnae. In A History of Meredith College, Mary Lynch Johnson cites a speech made by Betty Brown MacMillan Green,’41, to alumnae in 1946, which concluded of the same stanza that Vann “used the emphatic shall—a stern imperative to the daughters of Meredith.” In other words, Meredith alumnae have a responsibility to ensure that the fields of the College continue to blossom.
(8) And the silent tongue their high hosannas sing: The second half of this stanza is, in my mind, a rebuke to those who had not made women’s education a priority. It is written as an imperative to those who had failed to see the import of women’s education. They “will” see and hear, Vann writes. The voice of Meredith College, and by extension, the voices of its students and alumnae, will be strong and powerful.
The “silent tongue” Vann refers to is an example of synecdoche, a literary device in which a part is used to refer to the whole. In this case, the “silent tongue” refers to the women who receive an education from the College, women who had been “silent” and unheard, women who now sing “high hosannas” in praise of Meredith College. Giving time and giving financially are two ways that Meredith alumnae today can sing this praise.
(9) Where the rhododendron blushes on the burly mountain’s breast: A favorite line of President Allen: “Last year, we did an alumnae and friends travel program to Ireland, and I remember being in a particular area of the country, covered in rhododendrons blooming. Seeing acres of rhododendrons and being a part of a Meredith trip was quite special. We were very insistent on having pictures taken with the rhododendrons.”
(10) Lo! Thy sunny land of promise and thy home: The penultimate stanza is an ode to North Carolina. Vann uses personification to depict the state as a living, breathing being: the rhododendron, big as trees, growing in the Blue Ridge Mountains; the deer grazing in the woods throughout North Carolina’s Piedmont; the cypress trees in the coastal plain of North Carolina; water lilies floating nearby.
At one time, most of Meredith’s students came from inside North Carolina. Today, Meredith College has students from 33 states. Still, North Carolina is Meredith’s home, and the College, like the state itself, has changed and grown over the years.
(11) And her daughters taught their brothers to be brave: These lines rose to the top as the most controversial in the Alma Mater. They are, said Jean Jackson, ’75, “tied to a time and cultural stance long past.”
They were also the lines that led to Amy Shepard Galvan’s 1992 Meredith Herald opinion piece calling the song “outdated.”
In the next issue of the Herald, Robin Colby, ’81, professor of English, wrote in defense of Vann and the Alma Mater, “Dr. Vann’s vision of a powerful group of women who help make fields blossom and deserts rejoice is a fit challenge and tribute to all Meredith alumnae.”
Today, Colby said she agrees “with her younger self,” adding, “I guess my spin on this always has been that those daughters logically must be quite brave themselves in order to teach their brothers.”
Today, Galvan, ’94, noted that “when we sing it at any event that I attend, it brings tears to my eyes.” “When you’re in the midst of things at Meredith, I don’t think you quite realize the sentimental attachment,” she added. However, she said, “I’m still not sure it brings out what I hold dear about Meredith, what Meredith gave me,” which was “strength and confidence” and a “strong bond” with other alumnae.
Some have come to view the lines as an acknowledgement of history, the Revolutionary War in particular (because that was when the U.S. was freed from British rule): the verb “taught” is in past tense. While today, we may cringe at the idea that men are the brave ones while women stay home and provide the moral support, during earlier times, that was certainly expected.
(12) (13)May thy banner, Alma Mater, ever wave.: Jackson’s favorite line. “When the Alma Mater was written by President Vann, Meredith College was in its infancy. Yet the early promise of the school yielded the hope and expectation that it would last ‘ever.’ Now 125 years old, Meredith College has continued to be relevant, dynamic, and strong. We continue to sing that last line with gusto and determination. And I trust that long after our individual days at the College are memories, Meredith College will move proudly into the future, continuing to set its course toward ‘ever.’”
Whereas the first two lines of this stanza highlight the past, the last two lines highlight Meredith’s continuing future. The subject and verb are at the end after two introductory prepositional phrases. Try changing the order, and it’s easier to see: May thy banner, Alma Mater, ever wave o’er a land of peaceful plenty, from the highlands to the sea. Vann uses the simple future tense “may,” which offers a hope for the future: that Meredith’s flag will continue flying on and on. It reminds us that Meredith’s story is still being written.