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Irish fight song deemed better than M's 'Victors'

Published September 10, 2003

DETROIT (AP) - Notre Dame is better than Michigan.

Now those are fighting words, what with the Irish heading to Ann Arbor to play the Wolverines on Saturday in a game that matches the two winningest programs in Division I-A.

But Bill Studwell, a 67-year-old professor emeritus of library studies, isn't looking for a fight. He's simply offering his educated opinion on fight songs.

And in his estimation, the "Notre Dame Victory March" edges Michigan's "The Victors" by the length of a football.

"Really, 'The Victors' is probably my personal favorite," said Studwell, author of the book "College Fight Songs: An Annotated Anthology" in which he ranks his top 25 college fight songs. "But Notre Dame is more borrowed, more famous and, frankly, you just hear it more.

"Anybody who says that Notre Dame's isn't one of the top five songs is out of his gourd. That's like saying Shakespeare didn't know how to write."

Studwell, retired and living in Bloomington, Ind., has for many years been considered the country's leading expert on Christmas carols.

Then, a decade ago, he began to research the history of college fight songs, and now - as he works on a third edition of his fight song anthology - he can hum more than a few bars from hundreds of them, from Maine's "Stein Song" to Texas A&M's War Hymn. ("Chig-gar-roo-gar-rem, Chig-gar-roo-gar-rem, Rough Tough! Real Stuff! Texas A&M!")

At the urging of colleagues, Studwell produced his first rankings several years ago and gradually added to it until he had his top 25, mostly for argument's sake.

His former employer, Northern Illinois University, made the list at No. 23, but lest he be accused of playing favorites, his alma mater, the University of Connecticut, did not.

Studwell's top five also includes "On Wisconsin," Yale's "Down the Field" and "Anchors Aweigh," the Navy fight song that, as he notes with a laugh, once belonged to the Army.

He's full of such trivia, of course, and fight songs in general make for good conversation pieces. The music runs the gamut, from Clemson's "Tiger Rag," a curious little ragtime ditty, to "Glory, Glory to Old Georgia," which is based, oddly enough, on the "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"On Wisconsin" borrows from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," though Maine's "Stein Song" is an old drinking song that can be traced to Johannes Brahms. ("Drink to all the happy hours, Drink to the careless days! Drink to Maine, our alma mater.")

A quick survey of fight songs shows them to be perhaps the last bastion of politically incorrect speech on many college campuses.

The "Stein Song" certainly isn't the only one to mention alcohol.

Georgia Tech fans sing about barrels of rum and proudly announce, "Like all the jolly good fellows, I drink my whiskey clear."

Of the top two on his list, Notre Dame and Michigan, Studwell can make a case for each, while also rattling off historical dates and miscellaneous trivia.

"The Victors" is the oldest of the best, Studwell says, and was written in 1898 by Louis Elbel, a native of South Bend, of all places.

Notre Dame's "Victory March" was written by two graduates, Michael Shea and his brother, John, in 1908, and was first played publicly in a Protestant church in Holyoke, Mass.

Asked to compare the two songs, Studwell offers an answer that rings true.

"Notre Dame's fight song makes you feel good and cheery and lively and all that," said Studwell, also a former professor at Kirtland Community College in Roscommon, Mich.

"The `Victory March' also moves along well and has terrific words - it's a very jolly song, you know?"

"`The Victors' isn't jolly. It just kind of overwhelms you. It stomps, like `Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,' or something like that. It makes for a terrific fight song."