It all started in 1937 When...
The singing group that came to be known the Bowdoin College Meddiebempsters was the brainchild of two visionary men: Professor Frederick E.T. Tillotson and Geoffrey R. Stanwood ’38. The kind of successful collaboration between teacher and student on which Bowdoin College prides itself, the project was initially to form a “group of singers that would be comparable to Yale’s Whiffenpoofs.” The four original singers—Stanwood among them— were an almost immediate success, performing around campus countless times during the spring of 1937. Shortly the group was expanded to a double quartet, entertaining larger audiences in the community with old favorites and tight harmonies.
The early octet amassed a repertoire from both borrowed and original sources, though adopting from the outset the philosophy that song choices themselves were less important than the group’s energy and performance of them. The early Meddies were a group that, in the words of Geoffrey Stanwood, “enjoyed each other, had a helluva lot of fun, and worked up a good blend of voices.”
While there is some contention as to the true story behind the decision to call the fledgling group “The Meddiebempsters,” the most commonly-told story attributes the name to a “pin the tail on the donkey” type of exercise involving the map of Maine. Tom Bromwell ’41, according to the tale “was blind-folded, spun, pointed in the direction of a map of Maine and hit the town of Meddybemps with his pencil. That did it!” Perhaps it did, but the etymology of the group’s whimsical moniker has remained a source of creative yarn-spinning for decades of Meddies.
With the name slightly altered and a ninth member augmenting the octet, the Bowdoin College “Meddiebempsters” were born. The group could be found in the early 40’s performing for private functions and public concerts in Brunswick, most frequently during intermissions at Bowdoin College Glee Club Concerts. In this early era the Meddies were invited to perform for the Governer of Maine at Bailey Island, a locale they still frequent yearly.
During World War II, the Meddies—unlike many other organizations on campus— continued to exert their energies and voices, keeping alive their beloved music despite the period of intense student disruption. During these years, the group directorship was assumed by Professor Till (much to his dismay) to help keep some sense of flow and continuity during otherwise tumultuous times when the college had fewer than one hundred total students.
The MeDDIEs rise to Stardom
As the war came to a close, the Meddiebempsters’ notoriety grew by leaps and bounds. After a Glee Club tour to Washington D.C. in 1948 where the singers impressed the First Family, the Trumans invited the Meddies to take a USO tour of Europe for the first time. The tour was enormously successful and resulted in a full performance calendar for the 1948-1949 academic year. The Meddies had become a performing group of international note.
The boys from Bowdoin made frequent high-visibility appearances in the upcoming years, including a performance on “The Tex and Jinx Show,” after which the Meddies were offered a professional summer-long engagement in the Catskills. European tours also continued, as the Meddies were invited by the Department of Defense every summer from 1948 through 1955.
After another decade, the nine men of the 1965 Meddiebempsters were again invited for a sixty-five concert series over eight weeks, including impromptu performances for Russian Border Guards. All in all, “fifty-eight Meddiebempsters had the unparalleled opportunity over an eight-trip, eighteen-year period, to demonstrate on another continent those sounds which had made them justifiably famous in their own country.”
The 70's and 80's Meddies
Over the next twenty years, through the eighties, the Meddiebempsters produced no fewer than twelve albums, archiving nearly eighty songs on a combination of vinyl and cassette. Yet among them all, to Meddiebempsters and their fans no song is more dear than “Mood Indigo.” The Duke Ellington tune was performed first in 1937 and is still sung by today’s Meddiebempsters.
These decades of group history have been described as some of fierce camaraderie. As the group enlarged from its fixed number and split from the College Glee club, the slightly larger group of singers held tightly to one another, honoring old songs and ushering in newer, shorter-lived tunes in an era when modern pop a cappella received an explosion of popularity.
the 90's bempsters
Members of the 1990’s group have considered themselves “more of ‘Meddie Alums’ than as Bowdoin Alums, or at least as much. "Can’t beat the all male sound!” Others remember “fun, blending, singing, camaraderie, travel, great exposure, meeting Bowdoin alumni all over the country, singing with other similar groups at other colleges…"
The meddies today
The most recent incarnations of the group have enjoyed small and large scale Meddie reunions (most notably the belated ‘70th Reunion in Fall 2008 and the '80th Reunion in the Fall of 2017). The group has traveled once to South Korea, twice to California, once to Colby and Bates (surely an accident), and of course around their beautiful Maine home and the eastern seaboard. In recent years, they’ve also performed with such preeminent groups as the Tufts Beelzebubs and the Harvard Din and Tonics. They have also sang the national anthem at Fenway Park.
Today’s Meddiebempsters treasure their strong relationship with the group’s esteemed alumni and rich history. They still sport the navy coat and tie worn on the group’s original European tour, tour annually across North America, and strive to uphold (while updating and ruthlessly bowdlerizing) the Meddie’s classic tongue-in-cheek humor and beloved camaraderie.