Rivalry Week: Fight songs offer a window to the past
On top of the passing routes, blocking patterns, code words and assorted trickery in Coach Kyle Whittingham's playbook, University of Utah football players have to master another piece of pigskin arcana. It's called "Utah Man," an anonymous century-old saloon song that seemingly has nothing of relevance to today's college experience.
But the old song's call to camaraderie and school spirit remains a vital part of U. campus life, sung more loudly perhaps than ever before. Ute players now belt the song with its primal "Ki! Yi!" cry to fellow students at the end of every home game.
"They have to pass a written test on the 'Utah Man' song," Whittingham said. "That's something that we make sure they do."
The origins of "Utah Man" have been lost to history, but legend has it that in 1904 Utah coach Harvey Holmes and his players wrote the words, which were superimposed on an old folk song, "Solomon Levi," composed by Fred Seever.
There isn't much football spirit in the song, but there is a lot of plain old spirits. Was Holmes channeling the tailgate revelry the currently precedes Utah home games?
That cloudy history contrasts with that of Brigham Young University's fight song, which is shrouded in less mystery and more copyright protection.
"The Cougar Song" was penned in 1932 by BYU grad Clyde Sandgren, who later served as BYU general counsel. It unashamedly celebrates gridiron victory with none of the chauvinism or muss found in "Utah Man."
Sandgren's song was registered for copyright protection in 1947 and, safeguarded from commercial abuses by son Dee, replaced Annie Pike Greenwood's 1899 "The College Song" as BYU's official school song.
That tidy story contrasts with "Utah Man," which has always won the people's choice award, despite early administrators declaring "Hail, Utah" the official school song. Through the years, "Utah Man" has continued to triumph despite its inherent sexism and painfully quaint verses, such as:
"We may not live forever on this jolly good old sphere,
But while we do we'll live a life of merriment and cheer."
Further, "Utah Man" once contained the line "We drink our stein of lager and we smoke our big cigars," betraying its origins as a drinking song and a not-so-subtle thumb in the eye of the school's Mormon leadership. The line was replaced with "Our coeds are the fairest and each one's a shining star," giving a nod to ladies and upright behavior in a song otherwise devoted to the primitive rites of male bonding.
Calls to abandon the song or alter it have gone nowhere, and now memorizing "Utah Man" is required of all 5,000-plus U. students who join the MUSS fan club every fall.
"I don't see the sexism. It doesn't bother me one bit," said Brynn Whitchurch, a 2005 graduate who coordinates the MUSS for the U. Alumni Association. "Changing 'man' to 'fan,' that would would change the tradition of the song. It's what I heard growing up. It would change the feeling of it."
The great college songs were composed around the turn of the last century, according to cultural historian William Studwell, a retired librarian at Northern Illinois University.
"The most celebrated songs, in fact, the majority were written before World War I. Not by coincidence that was the time of the flourishing of circus songs, the time of John Philip Sousa," said Studwell, referring to the great bandleader and composer of marching songs. "This was a time when the band was a big thing, but recordings weren't popular until 1920. Then radio broadcast started, talking movies came in the late 1920s, the whole world changed after that."
This was a time when U.S. college students were almost exclusively young, male, privileged and white, and collegiate football was becoming a national obsession. Some fight songs reflecting old prejudices have been revised to make them more palatable, said Studwell, who co-wrote two anthologies of college fight songs.
am a Utah man, sir, and I live across the green.
Our gang, it is the jolliest that you have ever seen.
Our coeds are the fairest and each one's a shining star.
Our yell, you hear it ringing through the mountains near and far.
Who am I, sir? A Utah man am I.
A Utah man, sir, and will be till I die.
We're up to snuff; we never bluff, we're game for any fuss,
No other gang of college men dare meet us in the muss.
So fill your lungs and sing it out and shout it to the sky,
We'll fight for dear old Crimson, for a Utah man am I.
And when we prom the avenue, all lined up in a row,
And arm in arm and step in time as down the street we go.
No matter if a freshman green, or in a senior's gown,
The people all admit we are the warmest gang in town.
We may not live forever on this jolly good old sphere,
But while we do we'll live a life of merriment and cheer,
And when our college days are o'er and night is drawing nigh,
With parting breath we'll sing that song: "A Utah Man Am I."
THE COUGAR SONG
Rise, all loyal Cougars
And hurl your challenge to the foe.
We will fight, day or night,
Rain or snow.
Loyal, strong and true,
Wear the White and Blue.
As we sing, get set to spring.
Come on Cougars, it's up to you!
So Rise and Shout, the Cougars are out
We're on a trail to fame and glory.
Rise and shout, our cheers will ring out
As we unfold our vict'ry story.
On we go to vanquish the foe
For Alma Mater's sons and daughters.
As we join in song,
In praise of you, our faith is strong.
We'll raise our colors high in the blue
And cheer our Cougars of BYU.
Rah! Rah! Rah-rah-rah!
Rah! Rah! Rah-rah-rah!
Rah! Rah! Rah-rah-rah!