Section: Features

From the Archives: Kenyon a cappella’s roots in Greek life

From the Archives: Kenyon a cappella’s roots in Greek life


Most Kenyon students probably weren’t expecting to walk into a “Pitch Perfect” movie when they chose Kenyon. Yet, when they visited the Student Involvement Fair on Aug. 26, Kenyon’s 10 a cappella groups lined up on ‘a cappella alley’ and fought for their attention, cutting through the club cacophony with the same question:

“Do you like to sing?”

Singing has always been a staple of Kenyon’s campus culture. Everyone on the Hill is familiar with the New Student Sing, a tradition founded by President Frank Bailey in 1956. Kenyon’s first singing clubs, the Kenyon Quartette and Ascension Serenading Club, appeared in the Kenyon Reveille as early as 1861. More groups formed over the years, with popular singing groups in the 1870s including the East Wing Serenaders, Milnor Hall Quartet, Arion Quartette and Kenyon’s Glee Club. 

Interestingly, for a brief period in the 1880s, the Kenyon Glee Club evolved into multiple smaller Fraternity Glee Clubs. Though the Glee Club had melded back into a single club by 1905, it raises the question: Does Greek life have anything to do with a cappella? 

In a way, the a cappella audition process is akin to Greek recruitment: while initial auditions are gauging how well you sing, callbacks are about how well you get along with other members of the group. Many a cappella groups also have traditions to welcome their new members. New members of the Owl Creek Singers are surprised with a 5:00 a.m. paid diner trip the morning after callbacks. New members of the Kokosingers (Kokes) wear something silly at their first concert instead of a tie; president of the Kokes Sam Morris ’25 wore a “help wanted” sign. 

Beyond the surface-level similarities, people join Greek life organizations and a cappella groups for the same reason: they are looking for a community. Poppy Meyer ’26 joined Zeta Alpha Pi because she was seeking a core group of friends during her first year. “I wanted to join a sorority to meet new people and find a place that truly feels like a home away from home,” she said. Similarly, Abby Warshauer ’27 joined the Owl Creek Singers because she was looking for a community at Kenyon that was similar to her high school soprano-alto a cappella group. “It’s pretty intimate. And I like that a lot,” Warshauer said.“I’m excited to be able to [sing] with my friends.” Co-president of the Owl Creeks Jess Besca ’24 expressed similar sentiments: “I love to sing and have our concerts, but it truly is the family and relationships I’ve made through being in Creeks that makes it so important to me.” The groups’ extensive alumni networks reflect a tight-knit community. According to Morris, the Kokes not only stay with their alumni while on tour, but they often bring alumni on stage at the end of their concerts to sing with the current group. “I wouldn’t say there’s more than one or two shows where we aren’t meeting previous Kokes and having them sing,” Morris said.

These similarities provide some hints about the origins of a cappella at Kenyon. Fraternity singing has actually been a long standing tradition at the College. Before the Fraternity Glee Clubs in the 1880s, fraternities were singing songs together as early as 1861. By 1944, one tradition had the entire student body collectively sing songs from each fraternity. A Collegian article from 1945 referred to fraternity singing as a long-standing tradition: “Seldom do three or four Kenyon men get together, anywhere, that they do not burst into song.” Kenyon’s fraternities even brought their songs beyond Kenyon — members of Kenyon’s 1920 division of Sigma Pi, a former fraternity at Kenyon, wrote the first official Sigma Pi song book. Even today, new pledges for Alpha Delta Pi (AD) can be seen traipsing down Middle Path, singing traditional songs.  

Because fraternity singing was so popular at Kenyon, it isn’t all that shocking that certain a cappella groups were actually founded by fraternity members. According to former AD Henry Ratliff ’20, the Kokosingers were founded in 1965 entirely by members of AD, including Jim Hecox ’69, Peter Arango ’70, Jeff Thompson ’69 and Tom Ulrich ’69. “They were never an AD-exclusive group,” Ratliff explained in an email to the Collegian, “but there have been a lot of ADs in the Kokes over the years.” 

The Chasers and the Owl Creeks were likely founded by former members of the fraternity Sigma Pi, later known as “the Peeps.” Though they were established in 1964, the earliest mention of the Chasers is actually in the 1966 Reveille, which lists a total of 10 members. Of the eight that were members of fraternities, the majority were in Sigma Pi. As Kenyon College became coeducational, Kenyon’s Chapter of Sigma Pi disaffiliated from its national organization in 1970 so they could admit women as members. Because both groups were mixed gender, it is likely that the founding members of the Chasers were also in Sigma Pi. 

The Owl Creek Singers were founded less than five years later in 1974. During Besca’s first year, a former dean at Kenyon told her a possible origin story for the Owl Creeks: “She told me that some girls at the time didn’t feel they were being treated fairly in the a cappella scene so she told them to suck it up and start their own group,” Besca said.“The Owl Creeks were started in the Norton common room!” Though Besca cannot vouch for the accuracy of this story, it isn’t unlikely. Before the Owl Creek Singers were founded, there were only two a cappella groups at Kenyon: the Kokosingers and the Chasers. Only the Chasers accepted women. 

Regardless of their origins, there is no denying the close relationship that a cappella groups had with Greek organizations over the years. In a 1975 event, fraternities marched down middle path singing their fraternity songs alongside the Owl Creek Singers and the Kokes. Today, the Kokes sing at Delta Kappa Epsilon and Theta Delta Phi’s annual Shawn Kelly Holiday Party fundraiser. 

Historically, singing is one of many ways Kenyon builds community. Whether auditioning for a cappella groups or standing awkwardly on the Rosse Hall steps during New Student Sing, Kenyon students have always been singing. It can be hard finding a tight-knit community away from home, and a cappella groups provide those spaces for many students on campus. “[A cappella] brings such a sense of camaraderie,” said Morris. “You meet such good people. It’s so fun.” 

“It’s so important to create inclusive spaces that tailor to different passions and interests,” said Besca. “I do think people can appreciate and see the love and joy that comes from finding a safe space here.”

Warshauer explained, “Something that they’ve [the Owl Creek Singers] told us is, while we’re performing for an audience, because we work so hard together on the songs, we’re really performing for each other.”

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