Hail, alma mater

I have a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and a master’s from the University of Michigan. Rival colleges. But I don’t struggle with divided loyalties at football games and other sporting events when the two compete, because I’m not much of a sports fan. More accurately, I’m not a sports fan at all.

I live in East Lansing, where the MSU Spartans rule. Supporters of the U of M Wolverines don’t have it easy here. One household in my neighborhood, home of a collegiately mixed marriage, handles it this way:

Tomorrow is the football matchup between the Spartans and the Wolverines. So today when I make my usual Friday visit to a senior living community, I’ll play the generically titled “Michigan State Fight Song.” Then, for Maury, I’ll follow it up with the University of Michigan’s fight song, “The Victors.” (According to some sources, John Phillip Sousa called “Victors” the greatest college fight song ever written; the University of Wisconsin Badgers claim he favored “On Wisconsin.”). Maury graduated from U of M with a degree in music, and maintains his loyalty to the school, along with his good nature in the face of the ribbing he’s sure to get when he joins the others to watch Saturday’s game on the facility’s wide-screen TV.

In contrast to the boisterous fight song used for athletics, most colleges also have a more solemn song called the “alma mater.” For Michigan State, that’s “MSU Shadows”; for U of M it’s “The Yellow and Blue.” Hearing “Varsity,” the alma mater of the University of Wisconsin, can still make my little family of three teary-eyed. Twenty years in Madison does that.

Sometimes composers best known for their contributions to the Great American Songbook also wrote college songs. For example, Nashville bandleader Francis Craig composed Vanderbilt’s fight song, “When Vandy Starts to Fight!” It’s also called “The Dynamite Song,” because it starts with a yell: V-A-N, D-E-R, B-I-L, T-N-T. Craig’s best known piece is “Near You,” Milton Berle’s theme song.

Some college songs borrow liberally from other music:

  • The University of Texas’s “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You,” is based on “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.”
  • Cornell’s fight song, “Give My Regards to Davy,” adds new lyrics to the tune of “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
  • Clemson University uses “Tiger Rag” as its fight song. They call it “the song that shakes the Southland.”
  • The University of Wyoming’s school song is “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.”

There’s even a fight song for a school that doesn’t exist: “Buckle Down, Winsocki,” from the 1941 Broadway musical Best Foot Forward. It’s by composer Hugh Martin and lyricist Ralph Blane, who also wrote “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The college song I play most often is not a fight song or an alma mater, but one that started as a fraternity song, with a Michigan connection. Byron Stokes, a member of the Sigma Chi Fraternity at Albion College, wrote the lyrics to “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” around 1912; fraternity brother F. Dudleigh Vernor set the words to music. First sung only at Albion, the song eventually spread to Sigma Chi chapters across the country, then crossed over to popular music with hit recordings by Gene Austin and by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians in the late 1920s.

Each fall, when it’s warm enough to open the windows in my home office, I can sometimes hear the MSU marching band rehearsals. Sports fan or not, I like that. I live in a college town, and an October weekend in a college town means football. Go Green!

Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Music and emotion, Music history, Volunteering and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Hail, alma mater

  1. Jessa says:

    On Wisconsin! State is doing very well! 🙂 But there is nothing that can compare to Fifth Quarter with Mike Lecrone.

  2. dad says:

    what about dear old U of D?

  3. Aunt Evie says:

    Hard to believe that I was serenaded by Bud’s fraternity brothers with “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi”, not once, but twice, since I was on the sweetheart court at both Michigan State and University of Florida. Thanks for reminding me of happier days.

  4. I’m pleased to think that my post brought back such a lovely memory for you. Music can do that.

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