Today we fly to Virginia to visit family in Fredericksburg and, forty miles to the west, Woodberry Forest School, on the Rapidan River, north of Orange, south of Culpepper. There our youngest son will spend a night in a dormitory, and we’ll tour the campus and meet with the admissions people. The history there is thick. Chief among the Woodberry Forest alumni is the great lyricist Johnny Mercer (1909-1976), who graduated from the school in 1927. Time and internet availability will leave blogging uncertain, so I will post in advance material by and about Mercer for the next several days. First, this from the late Gene Lees’ Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer (Pantheon Books, 2004):
“Just before he turned thirteen, John was sent to Woodberry Forest School near Orange Virginia. His father and his Uncle Walter had also gone to Woodberry Forest. The school was located on property that had once been called Woodberry Forest Estate, a farm found by James Madison’s brother. At Woodberry, John studied European, ancient, and English history; the New Testament, the Old Testament, Caesar, Cicero, mathematics and sciences; Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Silas Marner; Irving, Macaulay, Emerson, Tennyson, Franklin, Milton, and Shakespeare; and three years of English grammar and two of composition.
“It was at Woodberry Forest that John wrote his first song. Or so he said. Written one night when he was fifteen, it was titled `Sister Susie, Strut Your Stuff.’ The lyric went:
“Sister Susie, strut your stuff.
Show these babies you’re no bluff.
Let these fellows see you step,
Do that dance with lots o’ pep.
Toss your toe and kick your heel.
This ain’t no Virginia reel.
Do your walk—and your strut.
Shake that thing—you know what.
Ain’t she hot, boys?
That’s my gal!Sister Susie, Susie Brown.”
Mercer was never awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.