The Mystery of the YIS School Song

The Mystery of the YIS School Song

by Liz Mason, Elementary School Music teacher

Over the past few weeks, Upper Elementary and Lower Middle School students have been very curious about an old YIS school song that has been recently rediscovered. The song, which appears to have petered out over the years, was shared by an alumnus to the alumni Facebook group in the form of a photo of the original music manuscript. The music was then included in a set of nostalgic photos which honour the origins of our school and are currently on display around the YIS campus. Upon viewing this photo hanging in the foyer of the Main Building, I was struck with curiosity as to how the song had been lost.

My curiosity was further piqued as I noticed that the music was composed by a student named Dorothy Guyver Britton, who attended YIS from 1931-1933 but the lyrics, however, were not written until the mid-1950s by a teacher named Katherine Latta. This time discrepancy begs the question: what words originally accompanied Dorothy’s melody?

music sheet for YIS school song

In an effort to answer these questions, I contacted both Dennis Stanworth, YIS historian and former High School Principal and Lester Yoshinami-Hitachi, Chair of the Board of Directors for YIS. Both have a vast knowledge of the history of YIS and personal experience of having been connected with the school community over a long period of time. 

In regards to the mystery of the music being composed 20-odd years before the lyrics, Mr. Stanworth writes; “In the 1930s the school was very much finding its feet - leadership, strategic, and operational - and importantly, an identity. I think the music created by Dorothy was trying to landscape that identity at the same time remembering the roots of all those connected with YIS at that time.” Mr. Stanworth continues: “In terms of Katherine's lyrics, in the 1950s, the school was, in the post-war period, heralding 'internationalism', focussing on its mission and values which embedded the ideals of interculturalism and, in those days, an attitude or belief of cooperation amongst nations and peoples. ‘Home’ was very much Yokohama and the school as expressed in the words.”

Without evidence of the original 1930s lyrics, it is difficult to gauge how a change in mission and values over that time period may have been reflected in the school song. However, by analysing the musical elements of the melody, which is based largely on an Asian pentatonic scale, combined with Western functional harmony accompaniment, it is evident that efforts were being made to recognise both our host country of Japan and the European roots of the school community within the original music.

Insight into when the song had stopped being sung as a regular part of YIS school life was provided by Mr. Lester Yoshinami-Hitachi. Mr. Yoshinami-Hitachi was an Elementary student during the early 1960s. He wrote that during that time; “the entire school sang this composition at the beginning of every school day, in the present playground, under the conductor, former Headmaster, Mr. De Hahn. It was also sung before school assemblies and on other occasions.” However, by the time Mr. Yoshinami-Hitachi’s first son entered the nursery in 1997, singing the school song was no longer part of the YIS experience. 

In order to mark the transition from the old campus to the new, I decided to share the song with my students in grades 2 to 4. I made a recording to bring the music to life and the students have embraced inquiring into the history and meaning of the song with a passion I had not anticipated. Through discussion, students have shared their initial reactions to the music, as well as their knowledge about the role a school song can play within a school community; “my mum showed me some pictures of the school a long, long time ago from when they first started singing the song - it actually reminds me of the pictures and I can really tell it's from the school”, says Tiger, 2S. “The last part was really good and it sounds like a school song”, comments Rina, 3C. “It sounds very old and I can imagine the old school”, adds Yeseo, 3C. They also touched on the importance of sharing traditions across generations; “I think my Dad knows this because my Dad was in this school”, says Mashu, 3C. “My Dad was here too. I like this song, I like the melody”, offers J.J, 3C. For others, the intrigue surrounding the song has proved engaging; “I like the old school song because I like mysteries”, says Tyke, 4W.

Students have also started sharing the song amongst themselves, with one Grade 3 student reporting that she had learned it from a fellow student in Grade 7 when she was at her house, that student having learned it in Music class recently. When songs start to gain momentum and travel, through aural transmission, between students at home, in the playground and across grade levels, I think of this as a song “going viral”. This causes me to take particular notice and wonder what it is about the song that has so entranced the students. I believe in this case, it is because children know the importance of belonging to a community and the role that traditions play in bringing people together and marking occasions. Songs can be just such a tradition and music helps us to deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Is the school song a tradition that might have a place in the next chapter of our YIS story? In the words of the students; “I think we should sing this song when we are breaking the old school and when we are at the new school” states Sunny, 2S.