As university traditions go, music has charms to do more than soothe the savage breast. In fact, music has the ability to invoke nostalgia for the old “alma mater,” pump up school spirit at athletic events, and stitch together collegiate memories in ways that override the years, joining together students of different eras by melodic means. School songs can form the core soundtrack of a student’s college experience. At Vanderbilt that musical history parallels the history of the institution.
Most histories place the first composition written expressly for a college to “Fair Harvard,” written in 1836 to mark Harvard’s 200th anniversary. Harvard may have had to wait 200 years for its first college song, but Vanderbilt had its first song practically from the moment it was founded. In 1879, just four years after Vanderbilt opened its doors, the “Vanderbilt University Grand March” was published by James A. McClure. It was followed as an instrumental anthem by the “Vanderbilt University March” in 1895 and the “Phi-Delta Theta Two-Step” in 1896, if a two-step qualifies in that area. However, the 1889 Commodore notes a song titled “Vanderbilt” with words by William Rice Sims (ThG’80, BA’84, PhD’88—that’s 1880, 1884 and 1888) and music by A. Oscar Browne that sings the praises of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Bishop McTyeire in a witty way. The first stanza goes:
They called him “Commodore,”
He ferried people up and down
Along the Harlem shore.
And when his pockets were well filled,
And lined inside with gilt,
He thought a college he would build,
And call it VANDERBILT.
The first song written expressly to commemorate a Vanderbilt milestone (other than its founding) was “O Alma Mater, Autumn Ode to Vanderbilt,” composed in 1900 for Vanderbilt’s 25th anniversary. The words were written by Olin Wannamaker, who received his master of arts degree that year. The music was written by Emma L. Ashford and possibly was the first of as many as seven Vanderbilt titles for which she composed the music.
The Ashfords were not Nashville natives but became thoroughly entrenched in Vanderbilt life. Emma Ashford was the wife of John Ashford, an engineer from Bath, England, who became Vanderbilt’s superintendent of buildings and grounds in 1884. She was well known as a musician before coming to Vanderbilt and was prolific as a composer of piano and organ voluntaries, sacred cantatas, hymns, and instructional works for piano and organ, composing more than 600 pieces of music during her lifetime.
Ashford’s compositions for Vanderbilt include “Old Vandy,” with words by Sadie Luff, BA 1904; “Vanderbilt Hymn,” with words by Dean Herbert Tolman; and “Come On, You Commodores,” with words by famed sports writer Grantland Rice, BA 1901. Rice actually wrote the song with music composed by his friend Frank Crumit. While the reason Ashford rewrote the music is unknown, it apparently happened quickly; issues of the Alumnus from 1923 report both the writing of the piece by Rice and Crumit as well as sheet music listing Ashford as the composer.
“O Alma Mater, Autumn Ode to Vanderbilt” was the most acclaimed of the Vanderbilt works that she wrote. In 1926, four years before her death, the Nashville Symphony and Chorus performed it at War Memorial Auditorium in downtown Nashville. According to materials in the Emma L. Ashford papers kept at Heard Library’s Special Collections, Chancellor James Kirkland remarked, “As long as men love the beautiful in music, so long will your name live and be cherished by Vanderbilt men and women.”
Vanderbilt men and women would seem to have short memories: Ashford’s composition is not Vanderbilt’s official alma mater. That song, which opens with “On the city’s western border,” was written by Robert F. Vaughan in 1909. Vaughan, BA 1907, LLB 1909, was president of the Vanderbilt Glee Club and wrote the lyrics at the suggestion of its director, Charles Washburn, to the tune of the song “Amici,” according to the January 1923 issue of the Alumnus. The tune, however, is actually “Annie Lisle,” an 1857 ballad by songwriter H.S. Thompson about a consumptive young maiden who dies. Cornell University seems to have been the first to adapt this music to its alma mater around 1870, and from then on Vanderbilt, William and Mary, Syracuse, Swarthmore, and any number of state universities and high schools jumped on board to attach odes written for their respective schools to the lilting, memorable tune. All of which explains why so many alma maters sound alike.
Vanderbilt’s alma mater, aside from being played at Commencement and Reunion, is tied into the athletic fans’ experience of football and basketball games. The Svengali of spirit at these events is the soft-spoken Dwayne Sagen, director of bands at Vanderbilt for more than 25 years and assistant dean for admissions at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. It is he who orchestrates the sound for the games, whether it’s made by the 200-plus Spirit of Gold Marching Band at football games or the smaller pep band that plays inside Memorial Gym.
“It’s not just any song any time. There’s a reason for it,” says Sagen. “[The music] pumps up the crowd. We play the alma mater at every football pregame show, and at the end of the game, we play the alma mater. When they win, the football team takes off their helmets and sings the alma mater with the student body. That’s been going on since Coach [Gerry] DiNardo was here.”
Does everyone know the words? “No,” laughs Sagen, “no one knows the words. About 10 years ago our band fraternity, Tau Beta Sigma, took on a project where they taught the words of the alma mater to all the fraternities and sororities at their dinners and Monday meetings, and they’d hand out leaflets with the words. At some games the athletic department would put the words on the JumboTron or print them in the program. But nobody knows the words.”
Actually, everyone knows at least three words. “The Third Down Cheer,” as it’s labeled on the most recent Sounds of the Stadium CD recorded by the band, is the first line of the second stanza of the alma mater, played instrumentally followed by the next lyric—“CONQUER AND PREVAIL”—yelled loudly.
Vanderbilt is also rich in fight songs written expressly for the Black and Gold. The most famous is “Dynamite,” written by Francis Craig, BA’24. Craig, who was a well-known band leader back in the 1930s and ’40s, was responsible for launching the careers of Dinah Shore, BA’38, Snooky Lanson and Phil Harris, among others. He wrote “Dynamite” in 1941. According to the January–February 1947 issue of the Alumnus, the song took off at the time of the Tennessee–Vanderbilt game in 1941. Fred Waring and his orchestra played the song on a national hook-up the night before the game, and at halftime the next day, Craig himself directed the Vanderbilt band in the local première of the song. “Craig, incidentally, ranks that as the biggest thrill of his eventful career,” states the article.
It certainly was the beginning of a beautiful and long-lived relationship between the song and alumni, to paraphrase the Casablanca line. Craig was honored for the song at last fall’s homecoming football game with his daughter, Donia Dickerson, BA’54, and her daughter and grandchildren in attendance. It is still the primary Vanderbilt fight song, although there are two others: “Cheer for Old Vandy,” written in 1953 by Joe Landess, D’24, as a gift to Vanderbilt upon his son Tom’s graduation (Landess and Craig, by the way, were classmates and fraternity brothers), and “Spirit of Gold,” composed by the former assistant director of bands, Joe Laird, who died in December.
Sagen has incorporated many newer songs into the band’s pep routine, including “Louie, Louie,” “Hey Baby,” “Space” (aka “Also Sprach Zarathrustra” by Richard Strauss), several fan favorites by the band Chicago, and the current Star Walk favorite, “We Ready,” based on a rap song.
Perhaps the oddest Vanderbilt song in existence—and one that was played at the Vanderbilt–LSU football game as recently as 2007, per fan request from an LSU alumnus with Vanderbilt ties—is “Miss Vandy,” written in 1934 by Huey P. Long, the famous Louisiana populist governor and U.S. senator. The story is that in 1934, after bringing several trainloads of LSU fans to the Vanderbilt–LSU game at Dudley Field, Long was so mesmerized by the beautiful Vanderbilt coeds that he was moved to write the song. (He was often moved; Long is a member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.) The sheet music features a photo of Lucy Ann McGugin, daughter of then-Head Football Coach Dan McGugin, on the cover. The next year, during his run for the presidency, Long was assassinated. Apparently, no evidence connects that event and his songwriting abilities or the possibility that an LSU fan held the writing of the song against him.
Vanderbilt songs are quite numerous and, in the early 20th century, often dealt with Vanderbilt’s bitter rivalry with Sewanee. Perhaps the new era in football at Vanderbilt will yield similar songwriting inspiration. Until then, nothing says it better than Vaughan’s alma mater: “Hail to thee, Vanderbilt, all hail!”