Well it's football season again, and not only do we get to enjoy all the awesome games but also all the tradition, pageantry, fandom, and music that go into the package as well. I love fight songs in particular. Fight songs are a very particular genre of music, even within the larger set of college songs. Some are plain great, some are plain awful, and most fall in the middle. So here, for absolutely no reason, is the official unofficial listing of my national top ten (along with some comments on each), followed by my ranking of all of the B1G's fourteen fight songs. Enjoy!
NATIONAL TOP TEN:
1. THE VICTORS (Michigan). Can’t disagree with John Philip Sousa’s assessment of it as “one of the finest military marches, and the best original college song I ever heard.” Michigan’s secondary song, “Varsity,” is spectacular for its Tin Pan Alley bent on the college song genre.
2. VICTORY MARCH (Notre Dame). Okay, basically call these top two choices numbers 1 and 1A, because they’re clearly the two best fight songs in the country, and it’s not close. I’m giving the edge to “The Victors” for a few reasons: (1) duh; (2) John Philip Sousa’s assessment; and (3) Notre Dame’s very wind-heavy band makes the “Victory March” sound a bit tinny in live performance, and also as if there’s a rest at the end of each phrase of the chorus which leaves each phrase sounding unfinished. Notre Dame has two extraordinary secondary songs: “Hike, Notre Dame” would appear on this top ten list all on its own; and “When Irish Backs Go Marching By” is great as well. Add in the “Victory Clog” and a gorgeous alma mater, and Notre Dame might have the most glorious top-to-bottom array of original football music in the country.
3. YEA ALABAMA. Very original in the meter of setting its lyrics to a rollicking tune. Up-tempo and fun. Uses Alabama’s 1926 Rose Bowl victory as a rallying cry, and references rivals Georgia (“Go teach the Bulldogs to behave”) and Georgia Tech (“Send the Yellow Jackets to a watery grave”). The song begins with a mini-fanfare that’s very effective after touchdowns.
4. FIGHT ON (Southern California). A classic. Though simple and repetitive in its lyrics, the tune is extremely catchy and morphs over two repeats from firstly a standard orchestration, then to a more delicate setting, and finally to a rather grand affair complete with fanfare ornamentations on each phrase.
5. (FIGHT THE TEAM) ACROSS THE FIELD (Ohio State). Another classic. As a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan opera I’m not going to argue with a fight song that includes the music of Arthur Sullivan by way of borrowing from “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.” “Set the earth reverberating with our mighty cheer” is a great lyric. OSU’s secondary fight song, “Buckeye Battle Cry,” is good enough to have made this list on its own.
6. SONS OF WESTWOOD (UCLA). UCLA stole this tune from one of Cal-Berkeley’s secondary fight songs, “Big C.” But UCLA gave it some great lyrics and a wonderful arrangement. A spectacular tune full of fun and interest in its treatment by UCLA, particularly in the ultra-legato “True to thee our hearts will be…” leading into an almost dissonant set of three connecting chords.
7. OSKEE WOW-WOW (Illinois). Maybe the country’s most underrated fight song. Great lyrics and great melody, and based on the school’s classic college cheer. Great use especially in conjunction with the clock’s buzzer at basketball games, which usually rings on the same pitch as the held chord at the start of the chorus. (Despite the common perception due to Illinois’s controversial use of native imagery over the years, the words “oskee wow-wow” are not meant as a faux American Indian exclamation. “Oskee” or a variation thereof was a not uncommon inclusion in schools’ traditional athletic cheers -- a genre of expressing spirit now almost entirely arcane… think “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” as one of the few that still exist as being somewhat famous other than when the decrepit old cheerleader comes back to lead the student section for homecoming. Notable among other schools using “oskee” in cheers and still in their athletic traditions are Cal-Berkeley and Tennessee. Illinois’s cheer went something like this: Oskee wow wow, Skinny wow wow, Illinois Illinois, Wow! “Oskee!” is apparently also traditionally used in some parts of the country, particularly at the high school level, as a shout to defenders after a turnover, alerting them that the ball has changed hands and that they need to block.) Illinois’s secondary song, “Illinois Loyalty,” is pretty good too.
8. ISU FIGHTS (Iowa State). The clear dark horse on this list. But a wonderfully catchy, up-tempo tune, with lots of great ornamentation accompanying the melody. A very effective meter and rhyme scheme in the last few phrases: “And when we hit that line, we’ll hit it hard, every yard for I-S-U!”
9. RAMBLIN’ WRECK FROM GEORGIA TECH. Classic! “Like all good jolly fellows, I drink my whiskey clear.” Can you argue with that lyric? This song has its origins in an old drinking song, and it mostly still is one. Melodically it’s a coincidental cousin of West Point’s “On, Brave Old Army Team,” another classic fight song (but which I find a bit too boring in its melody and saccharine in its lyrics to make a modern top ten list).
10. FIGHT ON, STATE (Penn State). I had a tough time deciding which song to include in the ten spot. There are several honorable mentions listed below, but each of those I think has one glaring flaw or other reason not to include it on the list. “Fight On, State” is simply a really good tune, with an excellent orchestration in its usual presentation. “Strike your gait and win” is a great lyric.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order):
“I’m a Tar Heel Born” (North Carolina)
“Tiger Rag” (Clemson)
“Boomer Sooner” (Oklahoma)
“War Eagle” (Auburn)
“I’m a Jayhawk” (Kansas)
ALL B1G RANKED (see above for comments on 1-4):
1. THE VICTORS (Michigan).
2. (FIGHT THE TEAM) ACROSS THE FIELD (Ohio State).
3. OSKEE WOW-WOW (Illinois).
4. FIGHT ON, STATE (Penn State).
5. DEAR OLD NEBRASKA U (THERE IS NO PLACE LIKE NEBRASKA). Really solid melody, and there’s something charming about starting off with the whimsical lyric, “There is no place like Nebraska…”
7. MSU FIGHT SONG (Michigan State). Ditto. Pretty good tune, but loses out to Iowa’s for the weak lyrics; more rhyme in the chorus would go a long way here, and the natural spoken stresses of the lyrics don’t very well match the meter of the tune.
8. THE BELLS MUST RING (Rutgers). Again, ditto.
9. GO U NORTHWESTERN. Here we get to the subpar songs of the conference. This is a generally annoying melody, but it redeems itself at the very end with some interesting meter.
10. INDIANA, OUR INDIANA. Unexciting melody, blah lyrics.
11. HAIL PURDUE! The chorus is annoying, and boring in the extreme. The melody and lyrics of the verses are actually quite good. Of course, it’s the chorus that gets played. Purdue gonna Purdue.
12. MINNESOTA ROUSER. The opposite of “Hail Purdue!” This one is boring, and annoying in the extreme. Without the word “rah,” half of this song couldn’t exist. It only beats “On, Wisconsin!” for its reference to the school’s classic “Ski-u-mah!” cheer. And for not sucking so hard.
13. ON, WISCONSIN! Boring, boring, boring, boring. Both music and lyrics. And to think this song competed with the “Minnesota Rouser” in the big 1909 fight song contest in Minneapolis to find a fight song for the Gophers before the writer pulled it out of the running to sell it to Wisconsin. Apparently, fight song writing talent was severely lacking in the Upper Midwest in the early days of the last century. Often this fight song is rated pretty highly, but I just don’t understand it. Wisconsin still uses “There’ll Be a Hot Time In the Old Town Tonight” as its secondary song (many schools, including Michigan, used it for their fight song in the 1890s); there’s no way it’s worse than “On, Wisconsin!”