Every March, university campuses embrace an enduring tradition. No, not spring break. I'm referring to college basketball, and those few weeks when our attention turns to bubbles and bracketology, office pools and buzzer-beaters, Cinderella stories and Final Four mayhem.
As we watch marquee teams and those making their only TV appearance of the year, we're constantly serenaded by marching bands furiously trumpeting fight songs during breaks in the action. Their feverish displays showcase collegiate spirit at its best.
We might find ourselves whistling the tunes of teams surviving well into the tournament, but how many of us know the words to these fight songs? What do these verses reveal?
First off, it's evident that most songs celebrate sport and drinking, but not necessarily in that order. Penn's battle cry of Fight on, Pennsylvania, put the ball across that line," is matched by a ditty called "Drink a Highball," which concludes with scores of literal-minded Quakers tossing slices of bread onto the court during the line, "Here's a toast to dear old Penn." Similarly, Georgia Tech pays tribute to imbibing with the line, "Like all the jolly good fellows, I drink my whiskey clear" in its "Ramblin' Wreck" anthem.
That statement is preceded by the claim that the singer is a "helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva engineer." Maine has its own "Stein Song," which exhorts students to "drink to all the happy hours, drink to the careless days!" And New Mexico State enthusiasts promise to "buy a keg of booze" and "drink to the Aggies 'til we wobble in our shoes."
I also noticed that some songs reference other schools. Penn mentions Harvard's and Yale's colors, while neighboring Swarthmore, in its memorable "Hip, Hip, Hip, for Old Swarthmore," adds Cornell and Haverford to the mix. Lafayette promises to "dig Lehigh's grave both wide and deep, wide and deep," and "put tombstones at her head and feet, head and feet." But Illinois manages to offend the most with this ballad:
Don't send my boy to Harvard, a dying mother said,
Don't send my boy to Michigan, I'd rather he were dead.
But send my boy to Illinois, 'tis better than Cornell,
and rather than Chicago, I would see my boy in hell.
Many songs reveal their age. Cal Tech implores its football team to "smash the line of our old enemy," yet no longer fields a football team. The only things they smash these days are atoms. Harvard students still play "Ten Thousand Men of Harvard" even though the university now enrolls more women than men.
I suppose lyrics written at the turn of the last century made sense at the time, but today they fog the brain. Folks at the University of Tennessee sing of a girl who's "half bear, the other half cat" and "wild as a mink but sweet as soda pop." It takes a St. Olaf grad to comprehend the meaning of "Um Ya Ya." That song, written as a waltz, sports the clever line, "We fight fast and furious; our team is injurious." At Bowling Green, fans celebrate a win with the meaningful refrain, "Ay Ziggy Zoomba Zoomba Zoomba, Ay Ziggy Zoomba Zoomba Ze," followed naturally by "Ay Ziggy Zoomba Zoomba Zoomba, Ay Ziggy Zoomba Zoomba Zi." Not to be outdone, Texas A&M's "Aggie War Hymn" includes the phrases "Hullabaloo, Caneck! Caneck! Hullabaloo, Caneck! Caneck!" and "Chig-gar-roo-gar-rem! Chig-gar-roo-gar-rem!" Even sophisticate Cole Porter, Yale Class of 1913, couldn't escape mental midgethood when composing literary lines for his alma mater. "Bulldog! Bulldog!" he wrote. "Bow, wow, wow!"
Another recurring theme is death. In Chapel Hill, UNC devotees vow, "I'm a Tar Heel born, I'm a Tar Heel bred. And when I die I'll be a Tar Heel dead." How morbidly comforting. Rhode Islanders follow suit ("we'll be Rhode Island dead"), as do fans at the University of Richmond, who die as spiders.
Finally, upholding their educational mission, some universities offer spelling lessons in their songs. " 'T' is for 'Temple,' " sing the folks in Philly. Can you guess what the "U" is for? Across town, "V" stands for "Villanova" as well as "victory," while "B" stands for "blue" and "Double-U" refers, of course, to "white."
So when you tune in to watch this year's tournament, ignore the game itself for a moment and listen carefully to the bands. They're responsible for the true march madness.