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Battle Sounds

Examining the origins of the South’s football fight songs — and the lasting memories they provide year after year. 

by Carrie Allen Tipton

When I was 13, we moved within earshot of Davis Wade Stadium, football field of the Mississippi State University Bulldogs. Quite suddenly, fall afternoons became punctuated with roaring crowds, blaring brass and stentorian announcers. From our yard, individual words and notes issuing from the stadium dissolved into an undifferentiated sonic mass, yet together they constituted the sounds of battle.

Urging the troops forward was “Hail State,” written by Joseph Burleson Peavey in 1939, shortly before he began building the guitar amps that would make him famous. Peavey’s tune leapfrogs up through an octave in four quick opening notes, a distinctive melodic contour still indelible in my mind. After graduation, I found myself in Athens, Georgia, foolishly and optimistically attempting to use the university library on the afternoon of the first University of Georgia home football game. Mired in traffic that inched torturously through a sea of red tents, I smelled fire from the grills, saw Sanford Stadium rear its leonine head, heard the band bleat “Glory to Old Georgia,” and knew at once that although I might not make it to the library, I was on solid ground. I was home again.

Unlike MSU’s “Hail State,” the University of Georgia’s signature song claims much older antecedents. The rousing tune had been associated with the 19th-century abolitionist song “John Brown’s Body,” various folk hymns and, in 1861, Julia Ward Howe’s text “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which lent it further Yankee resonance. Indexing military action and sectarian conflict alike, the “Glory Hallelujah” refrain was heard at many Southern collegiate sporting events in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the early 1900s, UGA students regarded “Glory to Old Georgia” as the institution’s particular theme song (although, interestingly, not its official fight song). In addition to the straightforward band version arranged by Hugh Hodgson in 1915, a Dixieland version can also be heard at UGA’s athletics website, which recontextualizes the former Union marching song in the framework of Southern musical practice.

As scholar Michael Lanford has shown, other Civil War tunes such as “Dixie” and “Marching Through Georgia” were also played at Southern college football games, from the region’s adoption of the sport in the 1890s well into the 20th century. Lanford and sports historian Andrew Doyle explain that these songs (along with other extra-athletic rituals) linked Southern football prowess with unreconstructed regional pride and “Lost Cause” mythology. According to both scholars, the post-bellum use of Civil War melodies implicated Southern college football in an imagined continuation of sectional conflict, one in which the South finally emerged victorious after the University of Alabama’s stunning 1926 and 1927 Rose Bowl victories.

“Dixie,” often heard on the University of Alabama campus at the turn of the century, was played by the Pasadena Elks Band in Bama’s honor at the 1926 Rose Bowl. The Tide’s Southern-ness was, at that time, more important than its University-of-Alabama-ness.

After the mid-1920s, Southern college football became animated more by inter- and intra-state clashes rather than a supposed rivalry with the North, where collegiate football had begun. Southern schools began to produce new, sui generis fight songs that diffused pan-regional identity into the micro-personalities of specific institutions. “Yea Alabama,” which my father calls “the ‘Star-Spangled Banner of Alabama football,” dates from this new era. Aside from briefly describing the Tide as “Dixie’s football pride,” the lyrics mainly focus on other rival schools rather than on delineating Bama’s southern identity. The snappy song was written in late 1925 by Ethelred “Lundy” Sykes, editor of one of the campus newspapers, and was judged the winner of the school’s fight song contest. A few weeks later, Bama made national news with its first Rose Bowl victory. The highly syncopated song crossed into popular culture, too: In 1928, the Snooks Friedman Memphis Stompers recorded “Yea Alabama” as a “stomp” for Victor.

My dad remembers playing the catchy song a half-century later, during the Bear Bryant era. He recalls that Col. Carleton Butler, the director of Alabama’s Million Dollar Band, from 1936 to 1969, “wore us out playing ‘Yea Alabama.’ To this day when I hear it – especially when Bama scores – I find myself humming the trombone part, with my right hand sliding my invisible slide up and down,” he says. My Uncle Dale played in the Bama drumline in the 1970s and particularly recalls “one game my freshman year. It was mid-October and Alabama was playing Tennessee in Legion Field at Birmingham. Alabama scored an early touchdown and the crowd went wild. We played ‘Yea Alabama’ so loud. Being a drummer I felt like my hands were on automatic pilot.” (His son Nathan, a current member of the Million Dollar Band, refers to his tuba as a “war machine,” which says more about the subject at hand than I ever could.)

Speaking of the Tide and the Vols, it was at the 1972 Alabama-Tennessee game that “Rocky Top” was first performed in connection with UT football. In 1967, country songwriters Boudleaux and Felice Bryant tossed off the song in 10 minutes. It was immediately canonized by UT fans following the 1972 halftime performance, quickly usurping the university’s official fight song to become the institutional earworm. W.J. Julian, longtime UT band director, stated that “not playing it would cause a mutiny.” A latecomer to the Southern fight song repertory, the song looks backwards with unabashed nostalgia. The Bryans wrote it during a period of great and lasting social change in the South, and the lyrics bemoan the plagues of smog, urban density and new technology. The enemy is no longer the North, or even (in this instance) other football rivals, but the threat of urban modernity — another iteration of the us-vs.-them dynamic that has long fired the Southern psyche.

These and other Southern college fight songs represent multiple compositional models — “Glory to Old Georgia,” appropriated from the mists of 19th century folk tradition and smelling more than a little of cannon smoke; Peavey and Sykes, amateur musicians who made lasting contributions to Southern popular culture in an era when schools needed individual sonic footprints; the Bryants, commercial songwriters who, in tossing off a hasty ditty intended for other professionals, accidentally created a collegiate legacy. But embedded in a matrix of other symbols, images, rituals and traditions, these songs all hit us pretty much the same way. In nearly 20 years of living in Southern college towns, the sights, sounds, smells and memories encompassing the fall football spectacle became to me a way of marking time, a liturgical rhythm to the years that slip away ever faster. Even now, when I hear those songs, a flood of memories is unleashed. I’m guessing I’m not the only one.

Photo credit: Dale Allen, front, plays snare drum in the Million Dollar Band during an Alabama  home game for the Crimson Tide’s 1973 national championship season, as pictured in The Tuscaloosa News. 

Carrie Allen Tipton writes and lectures about music, religion, arts, and culture, especially of the U.S South. Her work has appeared in Pop Matters, the Southern Foodways Alliance blog, Religion Dispatches, the New Encyclopedia of the South, My Table, the Black Music Research Journal and the Journal of the Society for American Music. Tipton currently serves as director of education for the Houston Bach Society and is on faculty at a Houston music studio, where her piano students have performed in the Houston Symphony’s Jones Hall Spotlight Series and the Houston Children’s Festival. Read her prior pieces in Deep South here

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  • MissMartineau / September 2, 2015

    The band image (painting?) reproduced at the top of the story — by who? date? medium?

    • Erin Z. Bass / September 3, 2015

      Sorry, the credit got left off. It’s a 1973 photo from The Tuscaloosa News of the writer’s Uncle Dale playing in the Alabama band.