The Junipero Serra Song actually got its start in 1921, the last year of the San Diego State Normal School days. At that time the school was situated where El Cajon Avenue and Park Boulevard intersect. Irving Outcalt, professor of English, wrote the song’s verses, and perhaps had a likely tune in mind for their use.
The Normal School system was changed by legislative action in 1921; San Diego State Normal School became San Diego State Teachers College in that year, and during the time I was a student at “Teachers College”, namely, from 1925 to 1929, the Father Serra Song was occasionally sung by the Men’s and Women’s Glee clubs and sometimes at a campus rally.
I began my teaching career at San Francisco State Teachers College in the very year, 1935, when the legislature again made a change in the college system. San Diego and San Francisco and the other “Teachers” colleges now dropped the word “Teachers” and became State Colleges. During my years at San Francisco State College I frequently taught an upper division course in California History, and on one occasion, apparently carried away with the exuberance of my own remembrances as an undergraduate, I sang the Serra Song to my class. Great applause! Then up piped a student with: “The tune to which you sang those verses is ‘Lord Jeffrey Arnherst’.” I had previously explained that though I knew the authorship of the verses, I had never known about the origin of the tune itself.
I decided to follow up on the lead which the student had given me and wrote a letter to Miss Deborah Smith, the well-adored music professor at San Diego State who could, if anyone, give me the answer to the question about the origin of the melody.
Miss Smith responded to my inquiry with a charming letter and a musical notation, both of which are reproduced here along with the verses which Irving Outcalt had written.
Outcalt’s gentle humor, with its little dig at the “Educators” with their pedagogical fadism, makes the Father Serra Song a contemporary item. Perhaps it is time for the music department at San Diego State University to revive an interest in what was surely one of the most pleasant traditions of that institution.
My dear Ted-
The first session of summer school is now over and I am back from a 7,300 mile automobile trip across the U.S. and just catching up with my mail. I’m so sorry that my return was not in time to get the music to you for your class.
Indeed I’m not scandalized at the thought of your singing to your class. On the contrary, I’m most thrilled to know that music has been “functional” with you (to use the good old “pedagese”). I certainly remember you as a most enthusiastic glee club member. I’m thrilled that you still enjoy it.
Now about Mr. Outcalt’s song! It evolved the year before I came here — in 1921. Someone told me they had a male quartet record from which they tried to pick out the melody. I can’t swear to the truth of that statement. And I’ve never known whether Mr. Outcalt first wrote the words and the music dep’t. tried to find a tune which fitted them or whether it was the other way around. I suspect that Mr. Outcalt had the tune first because the words fit so perfectly.
At any rate, when I came in 1922, they were singing the song lustily but there was no music. Someone was playing it by ear. Of course that couldn’t go on indefinitely so I sat down and wrote out what they were singing. Even then I was not as smart as your sharp student who identified it as Lord Geoffrey Amherst (sic). I didn’t know L.G.A. and it wasn’t until several years later that I found the latter in a college songbook. True, what we were singing was not the exact melody of the Amherst song, but that could easily have been explained by the difficulty in picking out the melody from a quartet performance. Generally speaking, we were using the Amherst tune. But everybody loved the words and the tune has a gorgeous, lusty swing.
All went well until we wanted to use the song on a radio program. Then I had to get copyright permission. So I wrote Amherst, explained the situation and sent them a copy of our words. Their letter was very nice but very firm. We could use the tune if we used the Amherst words over the air.
That was a blow to the students and they began a campaign for an original college song or songs. As long as I was there, however, we continued to sing the song because everybody liked it. When I was a guest at a drama club dinner last spring, however, they wanted me to lead them in some songs. I suggested that and even played a snatch of it on the piano. They looked at me with blank expressions on their faces. They had never heard of that. Then I remembered I had been gone five years and no old students — of my time — remained. The old order changes very rapidly in college generations. There used to be, about the music dep’t., many mimeographed copies of the song, but I presume they have all been destroyed.
However, I’m writing out for you a copy of the song as we used to sing it. I take it for granted you have a copy of the words.
It has been lots of fun to visit with you again, in this fashion. When you are in La Jolla please hunt me up. I’d be delighted to see you.
(signed) L. Deborah Smith. (P.S.) By chance, was Mr. Outcalt an Amherst man? I wonder if the record(?) was his.
Theodore E. Treutlein received his Ph.D. from the University of Califbrnia at Berkeley and has taught histoty courses at San Diego State University, Stanford University and the University of San Francisco. He is the author of numerous books and articles.