By Patrick Williams
For college football fans, the early winter weeks can be brutal— not just because half of our teams will inevitably lose their final games, but because the weekly tradition of rooting for those teams recedes into memory as players declare for the NFL draft, coaches get fired, and we get a lot less marching band in our lives.
This week is Bowl Week at Sound Beat, and we’ll be listening to some of the music behind the collegiate football traditions we celebrate each and every fall. Of course, five days of episodes only allows us to scratch the surface of the connections between music and football. But behind every fight song, marching performance, and baton toss, there is a story.
We’ll look into the Naval Academy’s “Anchors’ Aweigh” in an episode this week, but that song it is only one of the Service Academy tunes football fans are used to hearing. West Point’s “On, Brave Army Team,” composed by Philip Egner, a West Point music teacher, was written in 1911 and was recorded the same year.
The Air Force Academy’s “The US Air Force Song,” (originally penned as “Army Air Corps” by Captain Robert M Crawford) might be better known than either of those two tunes. With its familiar “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…” opening, the song was a last minute stand-out among over 700 entries in a 1939 contest for an Air Force theme (“Many of the songs were submitted by persons of unquestioned patriotism, but with obvious signs of illiteracy.”).
The US Coast Guard Academy’s “Semper Paratus” (composed in the 1920s by Captain Frances Von Boskerck), which welcomes the USCGA Bears onto the field each fall, is an equally bombastic song, if not as well known.
A Familiar Tune
The Old Dominion Athletic Conference powerhouse Washington and Lee’s fight song, “The Washington & Lee Swing” might be familiar to fans of other schools, and not just those who are frequent opponents of the Generals. “The Swing” is the result of a multi-year collaboration among several early 20th Century W&L students, but its reach extends far beyond the campus.
Over the years, dozens of schools have adapted the popular song for their own teams. Perhaps best known, Gonzaga University was among this group until recently, debuting a new alumnus-penned rouser in 2010.
The Seawolf Growl
Not every new fight song recalls the brassy and brash tunes of the early 20th Century, though. In the 1980s, University of Alaska Anchorage enlisted the assistance of an advertising firm to attract fans to Seawolves athletic events. The resulting minute-long rocker (complete with noodly guitar flourishes and the growls of angry Seawolves) eventually found its way into the UAA basketball warmup playlist, and was adopted as a fight song for all of the Seawolves’ teams.
A Very Specific Competitive Spirit
Like the UAA Seawolves song, many collegiate fight songs attempt to capture something unique about the character of the school– they might mention regional geographic features or team colors; they may invoke the names of mascots or stadiums– all in the name of firing up their home crowds.
But some schools’ fight songs seem specifically engineered to fire up the opponents, taunting them, by name, in their lyrics. This 2009 Bleacher Report Feature highlights 14 such fight songs that directly call out their teams’ rivals.
The Texas / Texas A&M rivalry features fight songs in direct, focused dialogue with one another. “Texas Fight” was written as a response to “The Aggie War Hymn,” which will be featured in one of this week’s episodes. But some songs’ taunts are more diffuse; Georgetown’s checks nearly a half dozen opponents’ names.
It may be that the only marches and fight songs that get us more worked up than those of our own, are those of our rivals, played in celebration of a victory. Let’s just be thankful they tend to cut those from the TV broadcasts.
For more information of the origins of your favorite fight songs, check out Studwell & Shueneman’s College Fight Songs: An Annotated Bibliography, a helpful source for this post.