‘A Parting Breath’ for “Utah Man”?

WEB-Utah Man Conor Barry
Archive photograph of fans at a football game in the 1950's. (Courtesy Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

Archive photograph of fans at a football game in the 1950’s. (Courtesy Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

It could be the end of an era for “Utah Man.”

The fight song, which has been sung at sporting events at the U since the turn of the century, is under review at U President David Pershing’s office. The proposal came after last year’s ASUU Assembly and Senate passed a joint resolution that “strongly [encouraged] the U administration to change the Utah fight song to be more inclusive of all students on campus.”

The student government concluded the title and repeated use of the phrase “Utah Man” excludes female students, while the line “our co-eds are the fairest” both objectifies women and expresses preference for women of lighter skin tones. When the bill passed, then-student body president Sam Ortiz cried with joy.

The vote set off a tidal wave of reactions from students and alumni on Twitter and Facebook.

Pershing said in a prepared statement that he has gathered a committee under the Office of Student Affairs to make a recommendation for updated lyrics that support both tradition and inclusion by the end of June. The committee accepted input from the public until May 31.

Potential changes are still up in the air, but speculation centers on a title and lyric change from “Utah Man” to “Utah Fan.”

For now, the song is sitting in limbo, a spot the song has become familiar with over the past 110 years.

John Fackler, director of business and outreach for the Student Alumni Board and “godfather” of the MUSS — the U’s student cheering section, founded in 2002 — said this is not the first time the song has come under fire.

“It’s not something that just started months ago or even years ago,” he said.

Fackler said the difference this time is that ASUU was on board. This shift could be the magic bullet against lyrics that have been on the chopping board for decades.

‘Who Am I, Sir?’

Clint Bailey, manager of archives and records for Special Collections at the Marriott Library, said he has not been able to find any official document from the U administration crowning “Utah Man” with a stamp of approval. The song is not even copyrighted.

Stories do not line up for the origins of the song either. The most popular version of the song stems from 1904, when football coach Harvey Holmes is said to have written the lyrics. A similar urban legend points again to the 1904 football team, which supposedly made up the words around a campfire. Mary Webster, professor emeritus, supported this theory in an interview with The Chronicle in 1976. According to the article, Webster lived in a basement apartment on University St. when she attended the U before becoming a professor. She said she often heard the football team singing from where on the front porch above her apartment.

“We’d hear them — the whole block could hear them,” Webster said in the article. “When they sang that ‘ki-yi,’ they’d split the clouds … those husky fellows had pretty good lungs.”

An earlier theory about “Utah Man,” however, has its roots at The Chronicle. In 1977, a U archivist found that the newspaper hosted a contest in 1901 offering a grand prize of $3 and a Chronicle subscription to the writer of a new song. The contest required the song to be set to the tune of “Solomon Levi,” which is the traditional tune behind today’s fight song.

A press release from 1977 on the origins of the song said there was no record of the winning name, but the “best guess is that the entry was a fraternity effort,” which points to another close link. The first and third verses and the chorus to “Utah Man” are almost identical to “My Name is Sigma Chi,” a fraternity song written by Charles H. Eldridge in 1885.

‘We’re Game for Any Fuss’

“Utah Man” is not new to change. The current contended line, “our co-eds are the fairest and each one’s a shining star,” was originally “we drink our stein of lager and we smoke our big cigars.” According to Webster’s interview, the line was never particularly popular.

“Whenever they sang that line, they kind of mumbled,” she said in the 1976 Chronicle interview.

The “co-eds” line was established as a replacement by 1942 when it was printed in ASUU’s Freshman Handbook.

Even before then, students poked fun at it. The Chronicle’s “Utah Songs and Yells,” a compiled column of school chants from 1919, included a parody of the line, that replaced “lager” with buttermilk, a soothing syrup for teething infants, and “cigars” with Cubeb, a smokeable herb that relieved coughing.

In 1934, ASUU formed an Original Song Contest Committee that offered a $500 reward for a song submission of “an Alma Mater hymn which [students would] be proud to sing.” Archivists have not found the contest winner, or words or music to the most likely candidate, “Fair Utah,” which The Chronicle referenced in 1937 as the new song.

A university vice president attempted to change the lyrics in 1984 from “Who am I, sir? A Utah man am I” to “Who am I, friend? A Utah fan am I.” A fellow vice president vetoed the decision. The next major change came when Robert Cundick, Mormon Tabernacle Choir organist, wrote “The Utah Fight Song,” a more formal fight song with a different melody and completely revised lyrics, which also failed to pick up steam as students clung to their old pep song.

John Poelman, ASUU vice president from 2005 to 2006, also tried to pull together a lyric revision, but ran out of time.

Over the years, a commitment to tradition has pulled the fight song through many attempts at revision, but Susie Porter, current director of the gender studies major at the U, said girls no longer want to be referred to as “co-eds.”

“Student responses have ranged the gamut,” Porter said. “Students who come to me about the song feel it belittles them, and they are deeply troubled by the resistance to change.”

‘No Other Gang of College Men Dare Meet Us in the MUSS’

Sarah Paul, a senior in nursing and member of the MUSS board, said the potential changes to the song are disuniting fans that sing the “Utah Man” during U athletic events.

“Instead of focusing on being united as a school and solving more important issues, people are kind of hyperfocusing on a few words of the fight song,” she said.

If changes are made, she said there will be a cacophany in the MUSS because fans loyal to the song will continue singing the old lyrics, while a smaller progressive crowd will adapt.

While she understands where the concerns over the lyrics are coming from, she said she is not personally offended by the song, and she doesn’t know anyone else who was until ASUU’s resolution relaunched talk about change.

“They never would have felt offended before it was brought up in such a controversial way where people felt like they have to pick a side,” Paul said. “It’s an issue because it was made an issue.”

Brad Kiernan, a senior in management and president of the MUSS, has known every word of the song since his freshman year and feels that even if the words change, a large part of the MUSS will not sing them.

‘When Our College Days Are O’er’

The day the “Utah Man” resolution passed in ASUU’s Assembly and Senate, some U alumni stormed Twitter demanding a right to stand up for their fight song. Hundreds contacted the Alumni Association with concerns.

“[Alumni opinion] seems to be running much in favor of not changing [the song],” Fackler said.

The association has received threats to pull funding, though not from any big name donors.

Paul, who also works as Fackler’s assistant, said some alumni have vowed to not participate in U events if the song changes, though she does not know how many of those vows would prove true.

“[The song is] how they feel connected to the school when they go to the games,” Paul said.

The Crimson Club, an athletic club that supports sports at the U through ticket sales and donations, has also gotten a lot of feedback about the song. Ann Argust, associate athletics director, said the fight song is an important collegiate tradition and athletics will support whatever the U decides.

‘Arm and Arm and Step in Time as Down the Street We Go’

Justin Spangler, current ASUU president, and Madison Black, ASUU vice president, stepped into office just hours after the resolution passed. Spangler said they were ready to open the resolution up to a student vote if the previous administration had not chosen not to act on the song.

“There’s not too much that … the new administration can do about it,” Spangler said.

With the midnight vote on “Utah Man” left behind in last year’s legacy, Spangler and Black hope to focus on their own plans for the coming year.

“[The resolution] scared a lot of people because they thought that this student government has so much power over the school and so much influence,” Black said. “I think that made a lot of people nervous.”

As a result, the new officers in ASUU will spend more time educating students about the work they do to serve the school.

Pershing’s appointed committee will work through June to find a solution that will honor tradition and requests to make the song more inclusive. Until then, it’s a waiting game.

“Whatever happens, I’m sure the university will survive,” Fackler said.

a.drysdale@chronicle.utah.edu

@AnnaDrysdale