Sherwoods of Cornell Keep Harmonizing Through the Years

Popular Reunion performers aim for a 2022 return

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.”

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

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