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Spartan Folksinger Reboots Shadows

  • Author:
    Paula Davenport
  • Published:
    Winter 2016

A fresh spotlight is shining on Michigan State University's beloved alma mater, Shadows. The venerable song was reimagined, rearranged and rerecorded by folk singer Josh Davis, ’02, with MSU students singing backup vocals.

Folkies and pop culture followers will recognize Davis as one of the three finalists on NBC’s The Voice last summer. A former East Lansing resident and front man for Steppin’ In It, one of his three bands, he performed around the region for years before moving to Traverse City.

Davis is a die-hard Spartan with deep Spartan roots. He says he feels honored to have had the opportunity to reinterpret his school’s alma mater. “The minute I started working with the chords and arranging it, I knew it was going to be really nice. I wanted to honor it and to change it, but not too much—just enough to make it relevant to students now...(while keeping) that sweet narrative of the song, which is this kind of reflection on your years at college,” says Davis, a College of Arts and Letters graduate.

Davis performed his arrangement of Shadows in a music video that premiered at an MSU Empower Extraordinary campaign event in Detroit last November.

MSU Marching Band Director John Madden knows the university alma mater’s every note and nuance—and its gravitas. “The (song’s) root word, mater, means mother,” he says. Figuratively, the alma mater, like a loving mother, is “one of the ways the university wraps its arms around” students, faculty, alumni, fans and friends.

 “As a university, the (song) is the closest thing we have to reverence in a secular way,” Madden says. “Nothing has more connective material to MSU for people than this song.”

Football fans, wrapped arm in arm, sing it at games. Shadows is also heard at commencement, special events, parades and alumni gatherings.

Bernard “Bernie” Traynor, a Spartan football coach in the Ralph Young era, composed the song and penned its lyrics in 1927. Though wildly popular, it wasn’t ratified as the official alma mater of the then-Michigan State College until 1949, following a student vote.

However, rarely is history free of some mystery. In this case, it concerns the melody’s origin. After Shadows was ratified as the alma mater, an article about it ran in the Oct. 1, 1949, Spartan Gridiron News, the football game program.

The story reported that the tune was “… taken from the Italian opera Lucia di Lammermoor.”

Madden bristles at the notion. “That’s a myth.” Any comparisons end after the opera’s first or second measure, he says.

How can the veteran band director be so sure? He keeps official documents to back up his claim. Madden possesses 1956 letters between Traynor—by then an attorney in Texas—and John A. Hannah, university president, and W. Lowell Treaster, MSC’s director of information services.

In the correspondence, Traynor wrote: “I did not have any collaborator in writing either the words or music for this song.”

Madden requires new members of the Spartan Marching Band learn to sing Shadows in four-part harmony. The band sings the song in the stadium tunnel before taking the football field, he says.

There’s no question about the song’s place in MSU’s culture. “It’s one of those MSU entities that belongs to everybody,” Madden says.