Twelve Days

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

(Note: this article was originally posted on December 23.  In the ensuing five days, new information came to light, notably (see the comments at bottom) concerning the year “Christmas Soup” was introduced at Williston, resulting in this revision, posted December 28, 2017. — RT)

A couple of years back a comic arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” performed by a certain a cappella ensemble from Indiana University, had a sudden surge of popularity.  Apparently unbeknownst to them — despite the presence of the author’s signature on the last page of the score — the “Twelve Days of Christmas” parody was sung by the Williston Academy Caterwaulers of 1967-68.  It was composed by their director, longtime (1961-2004) Williston fine arts teacher Richard Gregory.  Dick founded the Caterwaulers in 1965, as an evolution from the former Double Quartet, long attached to the Glee Club.  The name is a play on the school’s “Wildcat” mascot, and a line from the English version of a once-popular Haydn vocal catch, “You caterwauling rogues, be gone.”

The Caterwaulers of 1967-68, the first civilians to sing “Christmas Soup.”

“Christmas Soup” (the real title of Dick’s arrangement) stayed in the Caterwaulers’ repertoire for nearly three decades.  Dozens of former Caterwaulers went on to college singing groups.  Many took copies of Caterwauler arrangements with them, well within the collegiate a cappella tradition that also brought arrangements by the Baker’s Dozen and Whiffenpoofs — Dick’s groups at Yale in the early 1950s — into the Caterwaulers’ repertoire.  “Christmas Soup” was actually performed and even recorded, with proper attribution, on multiple occasions around the country before Straight, No Chaser picked it up.  And to their credit, they now perform it (I am told) with appropriate acknowledgment of the author.

But, Dick Gregory points out, “Christmas Soup” didn’t originate with the Caterwaulers.  From 1957-1960, Dick was a lieutenant in the United States Navy.  For most of that time, he was stationed on Guam, where he created “Christmas Soup” for a group of his fellow officers.  Since they were members of a communications unit, they called themselves the “Seven Nicators.”  They stuck with that until three of their members were rotated out, and the remainder deemed the name inappropriate for a quartet.  Dick made some minor revisions for the Caterwaulers, but only the ending was new.

Dick Gregory, concluding his last Williston class in 2004.  He is retired and living in Easthampton.

Straight, No Chaser’s performance breaks off abruptly and segues into “Christmas in Africa.”  I once found this baffling, until I came across a recording by a group from Ball State University, also in Indiana, that shifts gears in exactly the same place.  Suddenly, all was clear: the copy of the music that was being passed around between Bloomington and Muncie was missing the final page.  And that’s why no one there knew that Dick had written it, or when.

At a Williston Alumni Reunion in June, 2009, a large gathering of former Caterwaulers got together to rehearse and perform “Christmas Soup” and a number of other favorites.  If the following video lacks the polish of more professional renderings (and I can’t help noting that it sounds pretty good for a bunch of underrehearsed old guys), it has the distinction, not to mention authenticity, of including several of the singers who originated it, and Dick Gregory himself directing.  You can’t get more authentic than that!

For the record, “Christmas Soup,” a.k.a. The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with the ending as sung in the preceding video, is copyright ©1967, Richard C. Gregory.

On behalf of all of us at Williston Northampton, happy holidays!

7 thoughts on “Twelve Days”

  1. The Indiana Straight No Chasers were sent actually the complete copy of RCG’s arrangement by me in the very early years of the establishment of the Contemporary A cappella Society of America, now as part of the arrangement lending library. Until recently I still had a copy of that correspondence…. As a side note when I heard the Stanford Fleet Street Singers perform it at Sanders Theatre @ Harvard in 1987, I found that their album lacked a credit. I informed them of the origin of the song and after that they properly credited future recordings. The had in fact “borrowed” or “liberated” their arrangement by transcribing a Princeton Nassoon’s record… of course all of the led me to know where except a mention in Mickey Rapkin’s book “Pitch Perfect” “as the world’s first a cappella superfan” while my CASA cofounder Deke Sharon is now the primary driving force in contemporary Acappella [The Sing Off,PitchPerfect Films, arranging the music for those alums of Indiana….bet I digress..

  2. This was Mickey Rapkin’s article on RCG…

    As another trivial note….when the SNC were last in Houston, at there after concert “Meet & Greet” I brought a copy of the original arrangement that I had sent Walter Chase all those years ago…and each member signed it when I told them I was going to send it in to Williston…when I got to Walter at the end of the table and he noticed what it was was…he was a bit taken aback… as I’m sure he realized had I not sent him that in the early 1990’s he would not be doing meet & greets at sold out concerts in the present….

  3. I think that perhaps Rick is off a year in the writing of this. I was in the 1967-1968 Caterwaulers and I remember singing this piece.
    Doug Kelner

    1. Thanks, Doug — and Worthy Durgin, Dan Becker, and Steve Trudel — for getting a conversation going that resulted in the more accurate information now posted above. I was going by the signature in Dick’s score, which is clearly dated 1968. The information about the piece’s origins on Guam came from Dick himself, just this morning. By the way, he is looking forward to seeing all of you at Reunion, so please show up!

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