The Day the Music Almost Died

The sophomore class of 1959 receives a division award for their Step Sing performance on Vail steps.
The sophomore class of 1959 receives a division award for their Step Sing performance on Vail steps.

Banners hanging in the caf, hushed whispers of rumored themes for Dudes-A-Plenty, students scurrying around campus in bear costumes. From the start of the spring semester until performance weekend, Step Sing is all the buzz on campus. The show attracts three nights of sold-out performances attended by parents, students, faculty, alumni and people within the community. From carefully choreographed dances to humorous cultural references, Step Sing has become a source of great entertainment for Samford and the Birmingham community. In 1951 on the East Lake Campus, a director led a group of students in a half hour “All Campus Sing” on the steps of Renfroe Hall. Within a few years, a competition formed called the “Annual Step Sing.” Just rummage through some old Entre Nous, and you will see few Samford events generate as much excitement as Step Sing.

The sisters of Zeta Tau Alpha sit to perform their show, "Winter Wonderland", in protest against the new dancing policy.
The sisters of Zeta Tau Alpha sit to perform their show, “Winter Wonderland.”

But did you know that there was a time that Step Sing almost wasn’t?  On January 4, 1988, the administration announced a change in policy to a gathering of fraternity presidents and Inter-Fraternity Council representatives – henceforth they would no longer be allowed to organize social dances on campus. A protest ensued, and in a letter to the SGA, the fraternities announced their withdrawal from Step Sing, citing their decision to follow the new dance policy. Within days, the administration adjusted the policy, allowing for social dances in specific locations with the approval of the student affairs office.

The football teams sings the Samford Fight Song in uniform, gracing the Step Sing stage for the first time in 14 years.
The football teams sings the Samford Fight Song in uniform, gracing the Step Sing stage for the first time in 14 years.

Nevertheless, the fraternities remained true to their word and did not participate, thus eliminating a whole division from the competition. Sororities still participated, but opted only to sing while sitting or standing in place, much like the original Step Sing shows. These holes in the lineup offered other groups the chance to shine. The football team, after years of sitting in the audience, decided to suit up in their field uniforms and groove to songs like “Eye of the Tiger” and “We are the Champions.” Another group that elected to dance and sing was, ironically, the Ministerial Association, who performed a show on the majesty of Jesus featuring many new and old hymns with their moves.

Even with these valiant efforts, tickets sales were low – with groups performing to nearly empty audiences. The school witnessed the near collapse of Step Sing that winter, but you know the rest of the story.  The competition lived on, year by year reaching new levels of excitement and fervor. Such traditions, it would seem, do not fade away easily.

This year's banner drop in the Wright Center, kicking off another Step Sing season.
This year’s banner drop in the Wright Center, kicking off another Step Sing season.



– – 1988 Entre Nous, pp. 32-33:

– – 1985 Entre Nous, pp. 176-177:

-Photo credits are due to the Archived Entre Nous and the official Samford Step Sing Twitter account, who posted the last photo.



Step Sing and other Olympic Sports

As Samford students make the final preparations to compete in our time honored tradition of Step Sing this week, athletes in Sochi compete on the world stage in the tradition of the Winter Olympic Games.  In February 1980 these traditions overlapped as well, making for a very memorable Friday night.  As the Cold War dragged on in 1980, tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States manifested themselves in every form of competition – from weaponry to space exploration.  The Winter Olympics of 1980, set in Lake Placid, New York, proved to be no exception.    When the puck hit the ice for the United States v. Soviet Union men’s hockey game on Friday, February 22, 1980, the atmosphere in the packed-out arena was tense. To the crowd’s surprise and delight, the ragtag American team tied the Soviets in the first period, allowed their competition only one point in the second period, then rallied in the final period to put two more in the net, claiming victory, 4-3.

To accommodate both Soviet and American viewers, ABC decided to delay the broadcast of the afternoon game until prime time.  In a world with no instant internet news, most Americans had to huddle around their TV that night to learn the outcome of the fated game. But as the world watched the United States claim victory, Samford students were a bit preoccupied, watching Step Sing, a competition of almost Olympic proportions, in the Wright Center. Jim Barnette, Samford Alum and current faculty member, recalls the spirit of competition that overtook campus during Step Sing:

“It was a big thing because we didn’t have a football team at the time; basketball was it. So it was a big event. As I recall, unlike now. . . there were no boundaries, no strictures as far as the amount of hours people put into it, so people would practice for hours at their health’s expense, you know. . . Intramurals were big too, but in a way, to me, it was an extension of intramurals, because if you’re in the fraternity that lost or the class. . . it was a big to-do, a big deal. Lot of animosity between the team that won and the ones that didn’t. . . It was much more competitive, fiercely competitive- if there’s competitiveness with it now, it pales in comparison to back then.

Despite the fierce competition of Step Sing, everyone rejoiced when news of the US victory reached the Wright Center:

“Phi Mu Alpha, the music fraternity, was always the finale – just before they came out, the news arrived that the US had defeated Russia, or the Soviet Union I should say, in hockey in the ’80 Olympics, which was huge. . .  So they came out and announced that, and the place erupted. I was in the balcony, and I thought, this is gonna cave in, we’re all gonna die, because, literally, people cheered, and I’m not making this up, I’d say ten minutes. People cheered, went wild, ‘U.S.A., U.S.A.’ screaming at the top of their lungs. And it was one of the more memorable things in my four years here. . . And not just the students, like everybody. And so okay, we’ve had this huge, ten minute craziness. Well, then Phi Mu Alpha comes out and does the salute to the armed forces, and it’s 1980: Reagan and national defense and patriotism, the hostages are back and all of that. And when they would begin every branch, you know, people would go crazy. And at the end they sang “America the Beautiful” – they started very, very, very quietly, and then they did this loud, fast crescendo of “AMMEEEEEEERRICA” and they went on singing for another two or three minutes, but you didn’t hear anything – the people just went crazy.  It’s one of the loudest places I’ve ever been, because the pitch over there is pretty precise anyway.  So that was really memorable for Step Sing. And what was fun too, it had nothing to do with competition.  I think that’s why I loved it so much, was that it was not extended intramurals for a moment.”

As Step Sing 2014 draws near, we wish good luck to all the groups competing, but we hope that the spirit of friendly competition of today’s Step Sing doesn’t prevent you from celebrating the things that bind us together as a Samford family.

Step Sing 2014

Adapted from Oral History Interview with Jim Barnette October 18, 2012.