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Off Beat Empire: East Fight Songs

A formal analysis why your fight song is trash and mine is great

America’s Fight Song (Thanks Maryland)
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

A weekly round-up of B1G Marching Bands and related topics.

Win! Fight! Try!

I know that everybody instantly believes that the fight song played by their school’s marching band is the best ever. You are of course 100% correct, and whoever composed your fight song was a musical genius on par with the combined talents of Beethoven, Motzart, Tchaikovsky, Sousa, Copland, and Nickelback. However, did you ever stop to consider what exactly it is about your fight song that makes it so fantastic whereas all of the others suck? This week I figured that I would put each Eastern Division school’s primary fight song under the microscope to objectively show you how your fight song is the BEST EVER and why everybody else in the conference is clearly inferior (the West will come next week).

First, the criteria:

  • Range: How high and low in pitch do the notes go? Does the song cover a wide scale with room for high, middle, and low voices, or does it fall into a limited set of notes?
  • Counter-melody / flourishes: Aside from the main theme, is there something else going on musically that adds depth and / or a counter-balance?
  • Rhythm: Is everything on a downbeat, or does the song do something to add some unique rhythm or tempo to the piece?
  • Crowd Participation: How does the home football crowd respond to the song? Do they sing-along? Do they have a chant? Do they just clap?
  • History / Backstory: Anything special about how the song came into being or do the lyrics highlight something of historical deeper meaning to the school / state?
  • Is it your team?

So, let’s get started (Edit: For those wondering why I used song “X” versus song “Y”, these are what your own schools designate as the official fight songs)...

Indiana, Our Indiana

Premiering in 1912 (the early 1910’s are pretty much the era of the Fight Song), Indiana our Indiana was adapted from the “Viking March” composed by Karl King, Conductor of the Barnum & Bailey Circus Band. Somehow, having Indiana Football’s song based upon a three-ring circus makes a whole ton of sense. The song has OK range, mostly due to using the lower voices in the third section to carry the melody. The counter-melody is quite active and adds a lot of depth to the composition. Rhythm has some off-beat activity, particularly with syncopation (emphasis on the half beat) in the fourth section, but nothing too wild. The crowd claps to the tune, but I don’t believe anybody really sings it at the games, and there don’t seem to be cheers associated with it. It’s a catchy, upbeat number, but kind of loses some points for not being original and not really having a bridge or break from the main theme.

Maryland Fight Song

Not a very original title. Composed in 1939 by then-student Ralph Davis, this song shares the limelight with the Maryland Victory Song (another wildly original title name) and the now officially defunct Maryland, My Maryland (Oh Christmas Tree, with a whole lot of Southern Confederate propaganda mixed in). Another short song without a bridge, this tune doesn’t cover too much musical range and the counter-melody, while there, is fairly muted. However, at times, there is plenty of off-beat movement, which makes the rhythm a bit more interesting. The a cappella verse in this recording is great, but apparently the only crowd participation is really the chant “Go Terps!” at the end of the verse. The song moves down the musical scale in its verse, which runs counter to many fight songs. I guess that is original, but to me it is kind of a deflating sound versus other songs that build up the range.

The Victors*

*Does not accurately describe games versus Ohio State and sometimes MSU...

OK, let’s admit it... if you are a University of Michigan fan this is the greatest fight song ever. If not, you probably retch a little every time that you hear this. However, let’s take a moment to break it out into its components. First and foremost, everybody focuses on the main verse toward the latter half of the tune. Musically speaking, that’s a bit of a mistake because that is probably the least interesting part of the fight song. Written in 1898 by Michigan student Louis Elbel, this is a full and complete march with an extensive opening fanfare, the verse that we are all familiar with, and a really nice bridge in between two verses. The fanfare has a lot of depth going for it... a great counter-melody, woodwind flourishes, mixed rhythm, and low voice counter-punch. So does the bridge, which has a great counter-play between the high and low voices in building interest for the return of the bridge. The main verse? Well... it’s the Cousin Orson of verses... “Smathing Beedles” on the downbeat with some woodwind flourishes, but no real counter-melody. Still, that’s all right... the rest of the tune has depth so a unified main theme works. Taken as a whole, it’s fine. The main verse by itself? Not so much.

Anyway, the song debuted with John Phillip Sousa conducting, so that itself pretty much guaranties that it should be held in high regard as a march. Clearly, the crowd sings along, so it has great crowd participation. It also has an upward slope throughout that makes the tune kind of soar. I can see why so many hate the tune simply because of what it represents, but be honest with yourself... musically it’s a darn good fight song.

Victory for MSU*

*Tee-he... not last week!

I have to confess that I have really come to appreciate the originality of MSU’s fight song over the years. Despite being written in the same era as so many other fight songs (1915 to be exact) and adhering to many common elements of the marches that were popular at the time, Victory for MSU just doesn’t sound like any other fight song out there. Right from the get-go, you get this little initial punch combined with a tease of the main verse, traversing into a melodic fanfare that has great counter-melody in the low and middle voices. The verse, when first introduced, is left almost entirely to low voices (a cappella in this version, but usually trombones and baritones in other versions) and is just very understated relative to most of the rest of the piece. The bridge is unified with an emphasis on movement and does a good job setting up the final verse, which in turn features trumpets and other high voices carrying the main theme. Crowd participation (other than clapping) usually includes singing / chanting just a couple of measures of at the end of each verse as well as the random “Green” chant that Spartans like to emphasize. It’s a very unique composition, and I can’t think of anything else that even remotely sounds similar.

Buckeye Battle Cry

Written in 1919 by a vaudville performer in order to win a contest, Buckeye Battle Cry is a fairly simple fight song with a fanfare followed by two verses (no bridge). The fanfare in this piece is actually much more melodic than the verses, which is somewhat unique for fight songs (the absence of drums after the lead-in is also unusual for a fanfare). The main verse itself starts on the beats, but puts movement toward the end of each phrase and the end of the verse. All throughout, there is a very nice counter-melody with an emphasis on middle voices. However, I don’t get a sense that there is much crowd involvement outside of clapping when this tune is played. It’s a nice tune, but overall less musically complex than Michigan’s or MSU’s.

Fight On, State

All I can ever think of when Penn State plays their fight song is Broadway, probably with some sort of kicking line as part of a “Zany’s Chorus” or something of that ilk. Written in 1933, it has a very unique rhythm and pace that makes it stand out from the more traditional marches that other schools use. It’s also the only fight song that I know where they slow down tempo and bring the song to a pause for dramatic effect (which is exactly where I picture the kicking line going to work). Range is very limited for most of the tune, but it has a nice counter-melody that sustains throughout. I can hear some modest singing around the “Roar, Lions Roar”, but am not aware if the crowd really carries it much further than that.

The Bells Must Ring

Written in 1931 by two students in response to a contest, “The Bells Must Ring” is a very catchy straight-forward couple of verses, with a nice chant section mixed into the middle. Range is pretty good and there is a continual, albeit not particularly aggressive counter-melody that sustains throughout. However, with a few modest exceptions, just about everything is set to a continuous beat so there isn’t much going on rhythm-wise that would set the song apart. Crowd participation seems to be mostly clapping, while joining in on the chant section toward the middle and a couple of other random chants at various points in the main verse. This pretty much matches what I think of when I think of 1930’s-1940’s era football (that might be because it reminds me heavily of one of my favorite childhood cartoons, a 1944 Disney short film “How to Play Football” - it’s amazing how similar the song is in that clip to Rutger’s fight song).

So, if I’m keeping score, this is basically where I would rate each fight song according to its various attributes...

There you go, scientific evidence that your favorite is the best...

Poll

Which East Fight Song is the Best?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Indiana, Our Indiana
    (8 votes)
  • 6%
    Maryland Fight Song
    (14 votes)
  • 14%
    The Victors
    (30 votes)
  • 24%
    Victory for MSU
    (51 votes)
  • 11%
    Buckeye Battle Cry
    (24 votes)
  • 12%
    Fight On, State
    (25 votes)
  • 8%
    The Bells Must Ring
    (18 votes)
  • 17%
    All of these are terrible and make my ears bleed
    (37 votes)
207 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which is the Worst?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Indiana, Our Indiana
    (13 votes)
  • 6%
    Maryland Fight Song
    (12 votes)
  • 34%
    The Victors
    (63 votes)
  • 3%
    Victory for MSU
    (7 votes)
  • 10%
    Buckeye Battle Cry
    (19 votes)
  • 12%
    Fight On, State
    (22 votes)
  • 9%
    The Bells Must Ring
    (18 votes)
  • 14%
    All of the Above!
    (27 votes)
181 votes total Vote Now

Halftime

Wisconsin

Although the Badgers were at Illinois this past week, we did catch up on video for their October 21st show in the game versus Maryland. They played a set of Rolling Stones tunes, starting off with “Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, morphing into “Paint it Black”, and then pretty much going into a bunch of other tunes that I don’t know (I was never much of a Stones fan... I can tell you everything about the Beatles, but not the Stones) and couldn’t make out the announcer saying in the video. Drill was vintage Wisconsin... lots of emphasis on the steps, lots of straight lines, no curves. Sound seemed to hold together throughout, although it all sounded kind of monotone (with that tone being loud). I really wish they could build more contrast for their hits, particularly in “Paint it Black”. Still, an entertaining show that is very typical of Wisconsin.

Northwestern

We also have some very dated video from Northwestern’s Oct. 7th show that was finally posted which also represented the show performed versus Iowa (minus the homecoming alumni, of course). For these shows, the ‘Cats performed selections from West Side Story. Most of this show was pretty much in direct contrast to Wisconsin (and Wisconsin’s performance of West Side Story a few weeks ago) in that the melodies are very smooth, but because the band is so small, the hits don’t quite seem to have the impact that they should (you can even hear a difference when the alumni join for the final two tunes). The drill was good and sustained, and also unlike Wisconsin, it featured curves (for the Iowa version of this show, they also used fire extinguishers as part of the “moving jet”). Mambo got a bit disjointed at points, but otherwise most of the music held together.

I know that Northwestern played Rhapsody in Blue last week because I was there live, but video is not posted, yet. I will also say that this is the sixth or seventh time that a B1G band has played Rhapsody in Blue this year. I get it... it’s a nice song... but yeesh - does everybody have to do their own version?!

Illinois

For their game against Wisconsin, Illinois performed a couple of tunes from the group Chicago, including “Make Me Smile” and “Free” before performing a standing show with the alums and transitioning to the Three-in-One. I have said it before and this week was no exception... the Illini are a very clean band, both musically and when transitioning from one shape to another in drill. It’s really impressive how everything seems to just fit right at the right time. I wish the drill had been longer, but that’s just the reality given their commitment of time to the Three-in-One. Still, a very good job by the Illini.

I also want to point out for those who were arguing over flip folders earlier this year, this is the first time I saw smart phones being used for music. I guess it’s not a bad idea, but man... the way that I abused my flip folder in college... I would be scared to death to put my phone at risk doing the same things.

Ohio State

For their epic match-up versus Penn State this weekend, Ohio State pulled out all of the stops and did a great little collection of skits around various movies. The props were absolutely fantastic, including full-on pyrotechnics for the Bond show and a cheesy blue tarp to substitute for ocean water for the Titanic (although I was really, really hoping that they would use it to “sink the ship”). The drill was outstanding as usual, including Travolta doing the splits for Saturday Night Fever, a great Transformers sequence, and the candlestick servant from Beauty and the Beast. I literally only have one gripe with the show, and that is that I don’t understand why “Hey Baby” was thrown into the middle. I don’t think it added anything, and I was kind of shocked to see OSU do park n’ bark... it feels like the show would have been better without it. Overall, another great performance by the Buckeyes.

Everybody Else

When I started these, I did not fully appreciate how little some bands would post over the course of the year. Iowa, Maryland, Purdue, and Nebraska (albeit Nebby was away this weekend) have all proven to be difficult bands to obtain footage on, and I’m starting to think what little footage we have on them thus far might be it for 2017. Michigan was in action this week and they’re usually good about posting footage, but it isn’t up yet (although I have seen a clip of the band performing with alums, so they might not actually post a full show). Penn State did travel to Ohio State, but their performance hasn’t been posted yet, and travel shows are usually a repeat of a home show that has already been performed.

Overall

Despite the title in their show, Wisconsin got some satisfaction. Northwestern told a West Side story (where they will inevitably finish second to Wisconsin). Illinois pretended for a moment that they were Chicago’s B1G Ten Band. Ohio State showed us why they deserve two thumbs up. Others did stuff, but were too shy to post video.

Finally, although it has been a long time since we have seen a full show from Iowa, this clip has popped up honoring one of their new traditions during halftime...