photo illustration of the Sherwoods created from a photo from a 1966 concert

The Sherwoods of Cornell sing “So Sad Baloney” (an arrangement of the Everly Brothers’ “So Sad”), one of their big in-concert hits, to a female student on stage at Bailey Hall during the annual “Fall Tonic” concert in 1966. (Photo illustration by Cornell University from a provided photo)

Sherwoods of Cornell Keep Harmonizing Through the Years

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It was Orientation Week, August 1964, and Ron Johnson ’68, BS ’69, had just arrived on the Hill as a first-year Hotel student. He recalls walking around campus and seeing all the “come join us, freshmen!” posters advertising a multitude of clubs and organizations. A sign for the Sherwoods of Cornell caught his eye, promoting an opportunity to hear the popular a cappella group perform that afternoon in the Ivy Room.

Another men’s troupe, Cayuga’s Waiters, performed first; Johnson recalls enjoying their “simple harmonies but very impressive music.” Then the Sherwoods took the stage, clad in their signature dark green blazers. “They completely blew me away,” he says. “They not only had much more complex musical arrangements, but they did introductions of each song by stepping forward and ad libbing, little stories or jokes or whatever, that were very humorous. The audience was enraptured.”

So was Johnson, a baritone who had sung with a barbershop quartet in high school but was new to the more complex arrangements the Sherwoods had showcased. He went to the auditions they held later that week in Willard Straight Hall and made it through to the final tryouts the next weekend, held at Toboggan Lodge next to Beebe Lake. After spending the day learning and practicing a complex a cappella arrangement, Johnson and a few others were each asked to go on stage. “They said, ‘Ron Johnson, you’re next; come on up and make us laugh.’ Amazing. No pressure,” he recalls with a chuckle.

Johnson made it into the group, and he’s been a Sherwood ever since.

The Sherwoods of Cornell perform in Jamaica during a tour in 1960
The Sherwoods of Cornell perform in Jamaica during a tour in 1960. (Photo: Provided)

Glee Club origins

Like Cayuga’s Waiters before them, the Sherwoods originated as a small official subset of the Cornell University Glee Club and later split off from it as their popularity grew. They first appeared at the Glee Club’s fall 1956 concert, and, by the following summer, were already on their own international tour. The group—a “triple quartet” of twelve singers—officially separated from the club in 1958 and enjoyed a decade and a half of success, with seasonal concerts on campus and regular tours taking them to the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia, including USO trips to entertain U.S. servicepeople.

The name “Sherwoods” reportedly comes from the group’s visit to well-known Ithaca haberdasher Irv Lewis to decide on a defining look. Since the Glee Club wore navy blue and red was taken by the Big Red Marching Band, Lewis offered them jackets in “Sherwood green” and the group was sold; the name evoked the royal forest in Nottinghamshire, England, and the legend of Robin Hood. It also came to be associated with the singers’ ad lib style: as Michael Slon ’92 observes in his 1998 book Songs from the Hill: A History of the Cornell University Glee Club, “[T]he group often responded to the impromptu invitation, ‘Would you like to sing,’ with the answer, ‘Sure would.’”

An early appearance in the Cornellian yearbook describes the musical style of the “traveling troubadours extraordinaire” as “featuring a repertoire which ranges through rock-n’-roll, close harmony, Calypso, novelties, folk-songs, and nearly every other type of music popular in America.”

Unique to the Sherwoods were their famously intense two-hour daily rehearsals, increasingly complex six- and eight-part harmonies, and a growing repertoire of original arrangements created by Frank Holden ’62, Fred Kewley ’65, and, later, Dan Murray ’70. Sherwood alum Bill Hazzard ’58, MD ’62, says the broad scope and complexity of the group’s harmonies and their diligent rehearsing helped the Sherwoods to “demonstrate excellence.”

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Composite image showing two Sherwood album covers and two LP record labels
The Sherwoods of Cornell released eight LPs during their student years. (Images: Provided)

The more challenging arrangements were based on popular songs of the time and “contained some of the first-ever uses of voices as percussion or rhythmic ‘drivers,’” says David Hunter ’68, who notes that the group’s novel combination of songs and humor earned it frequent invites to college choral festivals. The Sherwoods grew over time, expanding to 15 and even 18 singers, giving them a bigger sound and more vocal complexity. They released eight LPs during their student years and, decades later, produced two remastered compilation CDs.

Famous Sherwoods included Harry Chapin ’64, who sang with the group and wrote two songs that became part of their set list (“Let Me Down Easy” and “Winter Song”). “He was a funny guy. Humorous, but driven,” Johnson recalls. “He’d be down in the Ivy Room with a stack of napkins, writing lyrics … One of his big songs, ‘Taxi,’ he composed at Cornell.” Kewley, the group’s musical director, became its longtime alumni leader and went on to have a notable career in music industry management for artists like Chapin, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Earl Klugh, and Chet Atkins.

Through Reunions, a renaissance

The popularity of a cappella groups waned in the early 1970s and the Sherwoods stopped auditioning new members; they last appear in the Cornellian in 1973 and last performed as a student group in 1974. Save for fond memories, that might have been the end of the Sherwoods’ story—but a new chapter began just over a decade later, when the Class of 1965 invited them to perform at its 20th reunion. “It was exciting,” Johnson recalls. “We contacted all the singers from approximately the ’63 through ’66 era. And everybody said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Without the benefit of sheet music—as Johnson explains, “Nothing had been written down”—the group re-learned about 15 songs in preparation for the Reunion performances. The show was such a hit that the Class of ’66 invited the Sherwoods to its 20th Reunion—and they kept coming back, year after year. Essentially split into two subgroups—the “younger” Sherwoods from the classes of ’64-’74, and the “founders” from ’58–’63—they’d give performances for classes from the late ’50s through the mid ’60s. “Word got around that the Sherwoods were a hot act,” Johnson says. “It was a terrific time.”

Word got around that the Sherwoods were a hot act. It was a terrific time.

Ron Johnson ’68, BS ’69

In 2000, Sherwoods alum Jon Dickinson ’60, LLB ’64, created The Pipes Are Calling, a short film about the group that he describes as more of a visual statement than a typical documentary. Says Dickinson: “What it does is show, in imagery, the depth and power of the deep friendship bonding which exists with this collection of early Sherwood members—a bonding rooted in the years spent together beginning with our shared time at Cornell—and a bonding enhanced progressively in the many years thereafter as we relinked from year to year, usually for a week at a time, to sing and enjoy our friendships.”

Sherwoods of Cornell alumni gather for a group photo during a practice in 2019 in Longboat Key, Florida
Sherwoods of Cornell alumni gather for a group photo during a practice in 2019 in Longboat Key, Florida. (Photo: Provided)

After Kewley died in 2013, Hunter took over as musical director, and Johnson continued to manage group practices and get-togethers (often held in the fall in Longboat Key, Florida) and serve as business manager. Hunter—a Minneapolis-based physician who also studied voice for many years—carefully trains the alumni to maximize their sound without hurting their vocal cords. “I have learned a great deal about how to optimize the aging voice,” he says.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sherwoods held regular Zoom get-togethers, and they aim to return to in-person Reunion performances in 2022. The group wants to keep singing “as long as we’re still standing,” Johnson says. “The reality is, we won’t live forever. But our voices, fortunately, are hanging on.”

Top image: The Sherwoods of Cornell sing “So Sad Baloney” (an arrangement of the Everly Brothers’ “So Sad”), one of their big in-concert hits, to a female student on stage at Bailey Hall during the annual “Fall Tonic” concert in 1966. (Photo: Provided; Photo illustration by Cornell University)

Published October 5, 2021


Comments

  1. Richard Stewart

    Great stuff.

    • Ilene Greenberg

      In 1968 the Sherwoods performed at a resort in the Caribbean where i was staying with my family. I was a junior in high school and sneaked out at night to ride around on a motorcycle with one of them. He invited me to visit Cornell and I did—the weekend of the Straight takeover. The Sherwoods were the reason Cornell became my first choice of colleges. Made it in as a transfer and graduated in ‘74. Thank you Sherwoods!

  2. Steve Chamides, Class of 1964

    Just say “The Sherwoods” and the memory of their performances brings big smiles to my face and a little whistful feel to my heart.
    Their fabulous weave and presentation took acapella singing to new heights.

    When things got tough or just feeling overwhelmed by life at Cornell my spirits would soar just listening to them.

    Thanks for great memories.

  3. Steve Chamides, Class of 1964

    The Sherwoods and the memory of their performances brings big smiles to my face
    and a little wistful feel to my heart.
    Their fabulous sound and presentation took acapella to new heights.

    When things got tough or just feeling overwhelmed my spirits would soar just listening to them.

    Thanks for great memories.

  4. Jean Myers Smith

    I was as a Cornell freshman in 1966 and vividly recall the Sherwoods performing for us in the formal lounge of Clara Dickson Hall, at that time an all girls dorm of primarily freshmen. What a talented group! Their rendition of “Barbara Ann” in particular comes to mind. Enjoyed hearing them at many concerts during my years at Cornell and most recently at my husband’s (Thomas M Smith ‘69) 50th Reunion at Cornell in 2019.

  5. Stephen Goldberger, Class of 1969

    Long live the Sherwoods. They are without peer

    • Helen Karel Dorman, Class of 1968

      For me….the Sherwoods ARE Cornell!
      My joyful memories of Cornell and every reunion are intertwined with the Sherwoods
      I think I own every Sherwood CD.
      ❤️ love you…please keep singing and entertaining us all.

    • Charlotte B. Gardner, Class of 1969

      Stephen,
      If you are watching the Zoom tonight would you please ask if it is recorded? I worked the polls all day and have a 5:30 work appointment so will miss this wonderful opportunity to reminisce!
      The Sherwoods remain my favorite!!
      Thanks,
      Charlotte Bruska Gardner ’69

  6. Nancy Levine Castro, Class of 1965

    What a delight the Sherwoods were when they made an appearance at our 20th Cornell Reunion. Brought back so many wonderful memories of them serenading the coeds outside of Dickson Hall.

  7. Carolyn (Hill) Rogers, Class of 1959

    This article brings back such good memories of the Cornell that was. Wishing some of that aura for the students of today. So soothing and sustaining.

  8. Glenn Wise

    Enjoyed hearing the guys in the formative years. Knew many as friends.

  9. Jim Venetos, Class of 1965

    After graduation, Fred and I remained in close touch. In early 1985, while planning for our 20th Reunion, I suggested that we bring the Sherwoods back. The response from the former members was overwhelming. They were a huge hit and a highlight of the weekend. It has been gratifying for me have witnessed this phenomenon.

  10. Sue Pozefsky Tepperberg, Class of 1963

    Orientation ‘59, Risley Hall after curfew, in the courtyard gorge side: the Sherwoods entertain us with their talent and humor…and the promise of all that awaits! Spine tingling, unforgettable.

  11. John Guran, Class of 1974

    I joined the Sherwoods in the fall of 1970 as a baritone and became co-leader with Jim Hood until I graduated in the summer of 1973. I sang with the Sherwoods alumni at a couple of reunions back in the late 90s and early 2000s, but moved further away and lost touch with former members like Dan Murray, George Preston, Mark Dix Bob Berger, Rob Booth and Rich Conklin who brought me into the group. I would love to reconnect now that I am retired and more in control of my schedule.

  12. Linda Whitman Bors, Class of 1961

    Cornell in the late ’50s and ’60s … did we sing! Great memories of jamming Goldwin Smith to sing along with Peter, Paul and Mary, the Sherwoods harmonizing at house parties, Cayuga’s Waiters at class events, music on the Quad.

  13. Steve Unger, Class of 1968

    I’ve made it to most of my reunions over the past 50 years. The Sherwoods have always been a highlight. Whenever there’s a scheduling conflict with another event during a reunion, it’s the other event that is missed.

    • Mary Van Vleck, Class of 1962

      This is a fabulous article about the Sherwoods through the years. I dated (later married) Sherwood Bruce Hewitt 1959 – 1961, so attended many of their performances, often with rehearsals just before as they polished their songs, then led by Frank Holden. I never got tired of following them on weekends as they performed many times, going from one fraternity party to another. One of my best memories was being serenaded in Carnegie Hall (a Limberger sandwich, a cool glass of beer, a Bermuda onion and you. . .), so embarrassed that I never dared glance towards the crowded hall and smile; and of course I adored listening to the Sherwoods, seeing so many familiar faces, at my 25th reunion at the Straight, so overcome that I cried.

  14. Henry Grillo, Class of 1974

    I was privileged to be a Sherwood from 1971 through 1974, and was the music director during my last two years. We were all sad to leave the group and discover that the effort to keep the ‘woods alive was not sustained in the following years. It is great to see that the alumni brought it back to life! I loved my years at Cornell, and much of that love is a result of the experiences I had as a Sherwood. It isn’t always easy being Green.

  15. Liz Morgan, Class of 1970

    Such happy memories. Their serenades outside Balch Hall were the sweetest. There was one who “got away” while I was involved with a law student, darn it all…. I can’t remember his name but he was in the engineering school and a real sweetheart. Are you there, sweet boy? Free for you now!

  16. Bruce Hewitt, Class of 1961

    I sang with the ‘Woods from fall of 1957 till graduation in 1961. With the exception of family, the Sherwood’s and that experience, as well as returning to reunions 1985-2019, has been the highlight of my life. The members have been some of my closest friends all through the years. One of the finest for good “introductions” was my younger brother Geof, who sang with the group 1962-1966. Hoping we will be singing in the Staight this coming June!

    • Susan Labrthe, Class of 1964

      & hoping I’ll be hearing you at my next reunion in ’24! Highlight of Reunion, biggest reason for going.
      I see Geof from time to time, married 1 of his fraternity brothers, think his son Ben was between my 2 boys at U32.

  17. Judy Gleklen Kopff, Class of 1968

    I graduated from the Arts College in 1968 and still regularly play my “Sherwoods at Home and Abroad” music. My husband, Gary Kopff (Yale ’67, Cornell Johnson School ’71) converted my album into a tape cassette many years ago. I’ve chaired the Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network (CAAAN) for DC for more than 40 years, and we’ve hosted at our home for this same time period the annual Cornell Club of Washington Frosh Send-Off Supper for the 150 or so students from DC, northern Virginia, and suburban Maryland who leave the following week for Freshman Orientation. At our send-off parties, we always play Sherwoods’ music while the students mingle. The songs bring joy to my heart and a smile to my face. One of my favorite Sherwoods’ songs is “The House of the Rising Sun” in which, according to the back of the record album, “Bozo Chagnon growls out the ill-fated life of a drunkard-gambler.” Bozo also autographed that album for me.

    • Helen Karel Dorman, Class of 1968

      Hey, judy…Judy… LOVE em too!!!

  18. Jeannine (Ginny) Gustafson Douglas, Class of 1958

    As one of the “lucky” women to be serenaded, I recall being totally terrified and absolutely charmed at one and the same time.

    Love those Sherwoods, and lead the applause at reunion for these
    talented guys every chance I get!

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