May 5, 2010

Music to the Slope’s Ears

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Spring is here, the flowers are blooming, the birds are chirping and the entire University is anticipating the summer Every year this anticipation comes to a head with one event: Slope Day. Just like children counting down the days until Christmas, each spring Cornellians ritualistically count down the days of school left until Slope Day. It is the one day dedicated to relaxation, friends, fun and the slope, but Slope Day wasn’t always about skipping class, music and drinking — actually, it was!

The tradition of migrating to the slope can be traced back to 1901 when John Senior, Willard Straight and Henry Schoellkopf organized the festivities for the annual Navy Ball. Sphinx Head claims to have been the brains behind starting the tradition and Straight and Senior were both members, but Schoellkopf was in Quill and Dagger, making it hard to credit the event’s creation to any one organization in particular. Due to the success of the Navy Ball and associated festivities, attendance in classes that day was dismal at best — and thus a tradition was born.

The following year, in 1902, the newly coined Spring Day became an official event, one that would survive as an annual celebration for years to come. Spring Day had a unique theme each year; however, these themes, which were basically recycled every five or six years, were along the lines of modern fraternity party themes — cowboy, Greek (toga!), Asian, sports and various other classics.

Even during the annual celebration’s early days, the (over) appreciation of alcohol at the festival was an integral aspect of the event — a fact still evident today from the surge of poems and songs dedicated to beer and the slope. What, you ask, was the music selection back then? None other than Cornell’s own Glee and Mandolin Club!

Starting in the early 1920’s Spring Day became a more formal event featuring a classy dance and live music in Barton Hall until 4 a.m. One of the first particularly noteworthy live acts was Glenn Miller, who was featured in 1940’s Spring Day. Despite (ostensibly) having become a classier affair, the event still included an organized circus, along with other similarly carnival-style activities.

Even after the passage of the 18th Amendment resulted in Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, alcohol continued to play a large role in Spring Day. Frequent liquor raids created trouble for several fraternities, especially at the end of the semester. However, neither the new federal legislation nor the subsequent University policies were enough to create a dry Spring Day. Even during World War II, when there was a much more effective ban against alcohol on campus, University administrators still allowed students to throw parties and drink during Spring Day weekend.

This formal, University-sanctioned Spring Day lasted until 1955, but for the next 20 years, the event struggled to survive. Although there continued to be annual spring concerts on the slope and although students continued to enjoy drinking and ditching class in favor of the annual celebration, there was no longer an event on the magnitude of the former (or current) festivities. Around that time, student unrest over the Vietnam War and civil rights protests interfered with the annual organization of a University-wide party, but nonetheless classes were cancelled in 1965 for Spring Day and also various smaller festivities still took place other years.

In 1977, Spring Day was revived in the form of Spring Fest. The weekend included a concert on the slope and, two days later, the famous Grateful Dead concert in Barton Hall — a performance regarded by many Deadheads as one of the band’s best shows of all time. Spring Fest continued to grow and Cornell had the event catered with food and alcohol.

Unfortunately, after the initial reappearance of Spring Fest in 1977, the music selections for the remainder of the 1970’s and into the early 1980’s were comprised mostly of B-list bands that don’t even have Wikipedia pages today.

One noteworthy exception — aside from the 1977 show — was the 1984 event, which featured the Ramones as well as the lesser known group, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.

Unfortunately, the University scaled back its support for Spring Fest in 1986 when the federal drinking age was raised from 18 to 21. In subsequent years, the University repeatedly attempted to deny the continued existence of Spring Fest. The absence of official support resulting from the increased drinking age led to the unofficial creation of a student-led event — an event which would come to be called Slope Day. Without sponsored music, the event had truly become a day of drinking and debauchery on the slope. Each year students across the campus would gather to enjoy the end of the semester and to relax in the warm spring weather.

Scott Pederson ’89 said, “Slope Day is a rite of passage, I haven’t missed a single one since ’86!” Pedersen also said that, in the nearly 25 years that he has been attending the event, he has seen Slope Day change from a relaxed day without rules or planning to what it is presently — a myriad of University-regulated events and festivities with free live music, although now it is only free for current students. Pedersen, reminiscing about the event’s early days when it was subject to less official litigation, said, “We knew our limits, there weren’t as many regulations and less people got sick and had to go to Gannett.”

Throughout the 1990’s, Slope Day continued to remain an open, relaxed event with little planning or administrative intervention: Cornellians simply congregated on the Slope to drink. In fact, some of the more industrious and ambitious students even took the trouble to bury kegs on the slope the night before Slope Day in order to maximize their potential alcohol consumption during the concert. Such stunts were mostly the result of fraternity ingenuity and thus new members would be sent out at night to bury kegs. The next day frat members would carry couches over to the slope, put them on top of the buried kegs and run the tap up through the couch.

Providing a snapshot of Slope Day in the 1990’s, Jessica Strassberg ’96, described the event in the 96 Cornellian: “Slope Day was one of Cornell’s rare stress-free days. No one needed to search for an ID, no one needed to hide their open containers from the police or other C.U. officials. Actually no one really needed to worry about much except maybe how to find their way home before they passed out on the slope.”

In 2000, another reinvention of the end-of-year concert event led to its current incarnation. The past decade of Slope Days have featured major headline bands more frequently than in years past. Other changes have included the installation of fences of the slope, the use of catered food and drinks and the creation of Slope Fest. In addition to Slope Fest, recent years have seen the creation of a myriad of alcohol-free events designed to enable students to enjoy Slope Day without the pressures of drinking.

To some extent, though, Cornell has continued its tradition from earlier decades of getting B-list artists to perform at Slope Day. Some of the top performances since 2000 have included Kanye West, Talib Kweli, O.A.R., Snoop Dog, Ben Folds and T.I.; however, among the less famous performers you will find Pilfers, Stroke 9, Nada Surf, Rusted Root, Dilated Peoples, The Starting Line, Acceptance, TV on the Radio, Catch 22 and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.

Despite complaints about the musical line-up, no one can say they don’t enjoy Slope Day, because in the end it’s not about the music or the drinking or ditching class (well, actually it kind of is …) but rather it’s about taking a break from your work and relaxing with your friends.

Perhaps it is because we go to school in Ithaca that we have an entire day dedicated to celebrating the (brief) warm weather at the end of the semester, or perhaps it is because we need it as a form of recuperation from another year of Ivy League coursework or maybe it’s just because it’s another excuse to party — but no matter what, for some reason, time and tradition have shown that Cornellians need Slope Day … or Spring Day or Slope Fest or Spring Fest.   RLD

Original Author: Ben Bissantz