One hundred years ago, Louis Elbel, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, thought his school’s teams could use a little musical inspiration. And so he wrote “The Victors,” the first college fight song of any repute and one that survived to be recognized as among the best.p. “It’s my personal favorite,” says fight song compiler professor William Studwell. “It’s rousing and stunning; a very proud song.” Nonetheless, Studwell, 62,principal cataloger at Northern Illinois University, ranks it second to the “Notre Dame Victory March.”
p. “I’m no fan of Notre Dame,” he says, “not a hater, just not a fan. But I couldn’t ignore the fact that the Notre Dame song is known nationally and perhaps the most borrowed.”
p. Studwell’s dispassionate, professional point of view comes from years spent researching and writing the just-published “College Fight Songs: An Annotated Anthology,” which he compiled with Bruce R. Schueneman, head of library systems at Texas A&M at Kingsville. In 18 previous books, Studwell has ranged over the musical landscape, examining everything from state songs to Christmas carols. Among the dozen projects he has in the works: a book on circus music.
p. Fight songs grew out of a tradition of singing on campus, the most prominent manifestation of which was the drinking song. After Elbel’s 1898 contribution, fight song writing began to flourish. Studwell estimates that “within the next decade or so most of the great ones were written — Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, Illinois. By the end of World War II, it was pretty much over.”
p. There was a flurry of activity in the late 1930s and early ‘40s traced to Francis Drake “Pat” Ballard, who wrote the pop tune “Mr. Sandman,” and Fred Waring, who besides leading the choral group, The Pennsylvanians, invented the blender and wrote songs for the University of Missouri and San Jose State. Together, Waring and Ballard wrote fight songs for the universities of Akron and Kansas, Lawrence University, City College of New York and a number of others.
p. Another songwriter offered “Bingo Eli Yale” and “The Bull Dog” to his alma mater, but Yale University chose to stick with its classic, “Down the Field,” No. 4 on Studwell’s list. The rejected songwriter was Cole Porter.
p. Not that fight songs were never replaced. The University of North Carolina made a change; so did the University of Alabama, which switched all the way from “Fight, Alabama” to “Yea, Alabama.”
p. Most were written by students or faculty members. A lot were appropriated.
p. “The Eyes of Texas,” used unofficially by both the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at El Paso and No. 9 in Studwell’s ranking, comes from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Clemson University (No. 20) uses “Tiger Rag.” Studwell hears the opening bars of “On Wisconsin” (ranked third), in the first act of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
p. No. 6, the “Stein Song” of the University of Maine, has its origins in a drinking song, which, Studwell says, can be traced to Brahms. Surprisingly, No. 17 Georgia’s “Glory, Glory to Old Georgia,” is set to music that had been very unpopular in the South, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
p. Studwell and Schueneman discuss 200 songs, and give words and music to 66 of them, in their book, which is available through Haworth Press (1-800-HAWORTH).
p. Here are Studwell’s Top 10, judged on characteristics such as distinctiveness and impact:
1. “Notre Dame Victory March.” “Best known and perhaps the most borrowed.”
p. 2. “The Victors,” Michigan. “Most rousing.”
p. 3. “On Wisconsin,” “Smooth and much borrowed classic.”
p. 4. “Down the Field,” Yale. “Another classic.”
p. 5. “Anchors Aweigh,” U.S. Naval Academy. “Dynamic and uplifting.”
p. 6. “Stein Song,” Maine. “Great melody.”
p. 7. “Fight on USC,” the University of Southern California. “Brilliant, sparkling and innovative.”
p. 8. “Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech,” “Fine tune, great sense of humor.”
p. 9. “The Eyes of Texas,” unofficial, Texas. “Lots of sweep and energy.”
p. 10. “Across the Field,” Ohio State. “Takes you pleasantly across the field.”
He put his employer’s “Huskie Fight Song” at 23d, calling it “lively and distinctive.” The fight song of the University of Illinois, “Illinois Loyalty,” was 13th, “sensitive and flowing.” Studwell ranked 25 songs out of the 200 in the book. Northwestern, along with Michigan State, got honorable mention.
p. “Fight songs,” Studwell said, “are part of the popular folk culture and, like any folk song, the truly bad ones die.”