This is My Fight Song, This is Your Fight Song

I often think how #blessed I am to be cohabiting with a long-term partner who shares my sense of humor, ambitious life goals and compulsive acknowledgement of every dog that passes by on the street (“DOG.”)

I often think this. But during football season, I often *also* think: oh my God is it still on? How is it still on? How could this season be so long? Is this a re-run?

“Watch this,” he says, and points to the TV. “Look at that guy just take off – two seconds left! Can you believe it?!”

“No,” I say. “I cannot believe it. An amazing feat! There was no one near him!” I am hoping that my enthusiasm comes through.

“Wait, what?” he says. “There were two guys on him. See?”

Oh. I have been watching the wrong person. In fact, I have been watching the wrong team.


Despite this faux pas, I recently had a breakthrough. I asked a Smart Question, a comment borne in the murky land between complaint and critical cultural observation – totally my sweet spot, I’m well aware.

“Hey,” I said. “Hey. Hey. Why do all college football fight songs sound the same?”

Neither of us knew, but we both agreed it was true (so if you can’t tell one marching band’s drumrolls from another, you’re in good company), and a research question was born. If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, you know, Mohammed’s gotta get on Google.


Turns out,  most college fight songs were written around the same time – the turn of the 20th century – and accordingly, they borrowed from modern popular musical taste, which was brassy, percussive and upbeat, a veritable John Paul Sousa paradise. But they also borrowed from each other. Unabashedly.

I should have known this, since my alma mater, Georgetown’s fight song contains an entire verse riffing off of other school songs:

We’ve heard those loyal fellows up at Yale brag and boast about their Boola-Boola
We’ve heard the Navy yell, we’ve listened to Cornell
We’ve heard the sons of Harvard tell how Crimson lines could hold them

Nary an original thought in there!


The first major fight song was the University of Michigan’s “The Victors,” written by music student Louis Elbel in 1898. This set off a Hot Trend – soon everybody wanted one, and they wanted it to sound just. like. that.

Many schools held contests to determine a fight song, which is why many fight songs were written by undergrads at the time. Journalism student Dewitt Gilbert wrote one for University of Oregon, USC’s was written by a dental student, Milo Sweet, and engineering student Ethelred Sykes wrote “Yea, Alabama.” That last one was overdue; until 1926, Alabama’s band had been playing a fight song borrowed from Washington & Lee.

This was pretty common. I guess there’s only so many noises you can make with a trombone and a snare drum. Yale’s “Boola Boola,” also written by students, had been around for five years when Oklahoma University student Arthur Alden thought it would make a *great* fight song for his school. Obviously, he needed to change the words; so he kept the music and stole the lyrics from UNC’s “I’m A Tarheel Born.”

In our beloved SECland, three schools have at times shared a fight song with slightly different words, sung to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” originally an abolitionist Union army hymn during the Civil War (wrap your head around that.) Georgia’s fight song is “Glory, Glory to Old Georgia,” and Auburn University plays “Glory, Glory to Old Auburn;” when the teams play each other, the marching bands will join on the field and play it together. Ole Miss added “the South will rise again” until university administrators put the kibosh on that in 2009.


Out west, University of Colorado’s fight song has the same tune: “glory, glory Colorado.” This song is low-hanging fruit for any school that can make its name into the right number of syllables.

Finally, the University of Wisconsin fight song “On Wisconsin,” as plainly worded as it is (“Fight, fight, fight! We’ll win this game”…not exactly groundbreaking) has become the official song of the state, and has been adopted by over 2500 high schools and colleges nationwide. So even if you’ve never set foot in Wisconsin, you’ve probably heard it. And even if you’ve never heard it, it probably sounds somewhat similar to most other college fight songs, so just say you’ve heard it!

All of this should be reassuring to those of you, like me, who look over at the TV each crisp fall Sunday, mystified that the same two teams could be playing the same football game eight hours later. It’s different teams! It’s been different teams all along!


I can’t help you get out of watching them, though. It’s going to be cymbals and trumpets for months.


1 Comment

  1. One of my favorites is Sewanee’s fight song: “Sewanee, Sewanee, leave ’em in the lurch. Down with the heathens and up with the Church!”


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