Lions, Rotarians, and Kiwanis, Oh My!: Service Club Singing
September 04, 2012
Kiwanis International, Lions Club International, and Rotary International comprise the "big three" of American service clubs. Although often confused with fraternal organizations, service clubs differ in that they do not have a lodge system with a ritualistic initiation ceremony. Instead, service clubs were, and continue to be, voluntary membership organizations whose aim is connect with other business people, promote ethical business practices, and use their professional skills to give back to their community through a variety of service-oriented programs.
Rotary, the first service club, was founded in 1905 and was later followed by the Kiwanis Club (1915) and the Lions Club (1917). Service organizations caught on quickly after that - by 1920 there were 300,000 Americans who belonged to a service club. Ten years later, in 1930, service club membership worldwide numbered in the millions. As Jeffrey A. Charles argues in Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions, the emergence and success of service clubs in the first few decades of the twentieth century was tied to the continuing nineteenth-century "appeal of the fraternal order and the emergence of the women's club."
The mission of service clubs focused primarily on a "service" ideal - for example, by establishing community charities to improve towns and neighborhoods. The businessmen (service clubs did not allow women to join until 1987) who were members of service clubs planned, organized, and carried out events, while also donating supplies, time, and labor to complete projects. Taking root in the 1920s and 1930s, service clubs reacted to and created a certain type of social change following World War I. Fraternal organizations reacted to these changes as well, placing a greater emphasis on the type of service that Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis were committed to. It is no coincidence, for example, that one of the most well-known Masonic charities - Shriners Hospitals for Children - was first established in 1922 and throughout its history has treated patients who have no connection to the Shriners or Freemasonry. (Acceptance for treatment at a Shriners Hospital is based solely on a child’s medical needs.)
But on a lighter, more whimsical note, what about service clubs and singing? We have two wonderful booklets in our library collection that suggest a rich singing tradition in service clubs. Songs of Kiwanis, "the Official Song Book of Kiwanis International," was published in 1927 and distributed to members. Songs for Lions, published in 1926, is, according to the foreword, the first song book that was published for Lions Clubs. The songs in both books include patriotic songs, peppy tunes about the club, and familiar pop hits from the teens like "Ain't We Got Fun" and "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles."
But when, exactly, did service clubs sing? The Kiwanis songbook provides a lot of guidance on this topic in noted musicoligist Sigmund Spaeth's "Foreword to Song Leaders" at the beginning of the book. Noting that there should never be a lack of songbooks at a Kiwanis luncheon and that the meeting should start with a patriotic number and also include at least one Kiwanis song. Spaeth also suggests that
"Singing during the progress of the meal is entirely feasible, but the leader should be careful to ask for cooperation only when most of the members are not actually eating, i.e. between courses. Even with the inevitable noise of waiters and dishes, one can do much with 'gang songs' and the livelier, more obvious type of music."
Spaeth wasn't just interested in Kiwanis members singing. In the 1940s he wrote a series of articles for the official Rotary International magazine, both encouraging members to sing and talking about the history of some of popular songs that were sung in Rotary meetings.
Of course, singing is a small, but important part of service clubs. As Sigmund Spaeth noted about the Kiwanis in 1927, "no matter how vital the other activities may be, the fact remains that the spirit of congeniality and good fellowship, which is the foundation of every club, finds its best and most natural expression in the common bond of music."
As for service clubs today, some clubs still incorporate singing into their meetings while others do not. It appears that there has been some recent interest among service club members to connect to their singing roots - at least among Lions and Rotarians.
Songs of Kiwanis: The Official Song Book of Kiwanis International. Chicago: Kiwanis International, 
Call number: M1920 .K5 
Songs for Lions. Chicago: Lions International, 1926.
Call number: M1977 .L53 1926