The White School on the Sands

1950's-era Ocracoke School Song enjoys a revival.

by Philip Howard

Local blogger, artist, historian, raconteur, and businessman Philip Howard writes the Ocracoke Island Journal and monthly for his Ocracoke Newsletter. He gave the Current permission to share this blog post. 

Full disclosure: Sundae is the Current's publisher/editor.

A few days ago, Sundae Horn, our local community librarian, sent me a copy of the sheet music for “The Ocracoke School Song.” Arnold Sundgaard wrote the words; Alec Wilder composed the music. With the annual PTA Variety Show coming up, Sundae thought it would be fun for the kids to revive the song that she remembers hearing about fifteen years ago. Principal Leslie Cole located a copy in the school files and shared it with Sundae, who asked me, “Any idea who Arnold Sundgaard was?” 

Not only did I have no idea who Arnold Sundgaard was, I had never seen or heard of the song.

The original Ocracoke School, built in 1917.
The original Ocracoke School, built in 1917.

These are the words: 

There’s a school on the sands,
on the sands by the sea; 
You can see where it stands 
by a green cedar tree.

There a mocking bird sings
and the gulls fly above;
O the school on the sands 
is the school that I love.

There’s a light on the bay,
and it shines from the shore.
It will show you the way
to the bright school house door.

Though you travel from home
to the far distant lands,
You will always recall 
the white school on the sands.

Thanks to the world wide web I soon learned that Arnold Sundgaard (1909-2006) was a nationally recognized American playwright, librettist, and lyricist. In addition to writing short stories and children's books, he taught at Columbia University, Bennington College, and the University of Texas. He specialized in drama and theatrics, and was probably best known for his role in the production of six Broadway plays. He even has his own Wikipedia page.

Just as on the “Ocracoke School Song,” Sundgaard often collaborated with the prominent composer, Alec Wilder.

This new wealth of information led to the even more puzzling question, how did a prominent, celebrated lyricist come to write a beautifully simple song in homage to Ocracoke’s tiny school?

After a little more research I discovered "The Lowland Sea,” a one-act folk opera (Libretto by Arnold Sundgaard, Music by Alec Wilder), written in 1952. You can listen to it here, as performed May 16 & 17, 1963, in Dolton, Illinois, at the Thornridge High School Spring Musicale.

According to the liner notes, “’The Lowland Sea’…was written as a remembering of the sea and sea songs – of dunes, of harbors, of voyaging, of loneliness, of waiting. It is hoped that it will seem familiar to anyone who has walked (or wanted to walk) the streets of Nantucket, or has waited for the evening mail boat at Ocracoke.”

I contacted Arnold Sundgaard's son who said that his father and Alec Wilder visited Ocracoke, probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s, and mentioned the island frequently. Our isolated island village seems to have made quite an impression on them. Sundaard's son explained that his father and Wilder enjoyed the island and working in the peace and quiet. Unfortunately, no one alive remembers having met them. Nevertheless, it turns out that some of the school’s alumni remember singing “The Ocracoke School Song.” Mr. Theodore Rondthaler (school principal from 1948 to 1962) included the song at various school gatherings, the elementary teacher, Ms. Davis, taught it to her students in the 1960s, and Ms. Mary Ellen Piland discovered it and introduced it to her students in more recent years

The old 1917 schoolhouse, painted bright white, was replaced in the early 1970s with the current, larger and more modern building. Recently, the school students are again learning to sing “The Ocracoke School Song.” Maybe now it will be recognized and preserved as the official song for the Ocracoke School.

A small choir of girls performed the school song at the Ocracoke School PTA Variety Show last week. Thanks to Essie O'Neal (4th grade), Juliette Jordan and Angela Flores (5th grade), Elsie Kattenburg and Mariah Temple (7th grade), and Katie Kinnion and Iris McClain (8th grade) for learning and sharing this little piece of Ocracoke history and culture.

The White School on the Sands
The White School on the Sands


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