Michigan Fight Song: Break in Tradition?

Who really wrote “The Victors,” the University of Michigan’s fight song? Read Dale R. Leslie’s story that researches how it came to be.

A hallowed tradition says Michigan’s famous fight song, “The Victors”is composed by a victory-inspired student, Louis Elbel, in 1898. Presently, a small tremor kickstarted by band alumnus Jim Henriksen shakes U-M’s Little House, William D. Revelli Hall, home of the Michigan Marching Band.

Twenty-five years ago, in an expected, non-controversial interview, U-M Marching Band alumnus George Anderson dropped an unexpected bombshell. Anderson matter-of-factly noted the trio portion of Elbel’s “The Victors” is nearly identical–note for note–to a march, entitled “The Spirit of Liberty,” composed seven months earlier by George Rosenberg (Rosey), a ragtime composer out of Tin Pan Alley.

“There is legal proof [from the Library of Congress] that the familiar trio portion of “The Victors” was copyrighted by Rosey [in April 1898] before Elbel’s composition [copyright in June 1899],” comments Mark Petty, a former U-M band member. “The two versions are so similar that there is no doubt that one came from the other. That the remainder of “The Victors” is composed by Elbel is not disputed. The real question is how and why did Elbel use Rosey’s material?”

The melody of a trio is a music term for a subordinate division of a piece of music that is usually in a contrasted key and style. Every composed march has its own trio. In his paper, “The Authorship of ‘The Victors’ March,” Henriksen writes: “Several theories have been advanced as to just how the melody for the trio of ‘The Victors’ got into Louis Elbel’s head. While fascinating to ponder, none of these theories is likely to be proven, and they serve only to mitigate Elbel’s offense by explaining that any influence on ‘The Victors’ by ‘The Spirit of Liberty’ was most likely subliminal.”

Petty adds: “The reason that this issue should be publicized is that ‘The Victors’ is an important part of U-M’s heritage, and George Rosey’s contribution has been overlooked.”

Co-authorship of The Victors?

“There is no co-authorship of The Victors,” counters Joseph Dobos, a fellow band alumnus and past president of the U-M Band Alumni. “And whether or not he [Elbel] realized it, he used Rosey’s melody for the trio of ‘The Victors.’ But the final phrase of Elbel’s march has a slightly different ending than the ‘Spirit of Liberty.'”

Dobos adds this footnote: “The history of music is filled with such ‘borrowing’ and ‘quoting.’ Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler are just a few of the great composers who used tunes and motifs from pre-existing musical works written by other composers.”

Bill Studwell, who authored “College Fight Songs: An Annotated Anthology,” concurs with Dobos. Studwell states: “Who composed what and when isn’t always clear when it comes to music, especially college fight songs. I have no problem with Elbel being credited for ‘The Victors.’ He was a talented, inspired young man and a musician, so he had the credentials.”

He continued, “Back then, everybody copied Sousa [John Phillip Sousa], but George Rosey was a small, insignificant composer and a self-publisher, not close to Sousa’s stature. I doubt that Elbel would have ever heard of Rosey, least of all talked to him and be familiar with his work.”

And, adds Studwell: “By the way, make sure it’s noted that Elbel’s hometown is South Bend, Ind.,, the location of the University of Notre Dame.”

John Phillip Sousa Conducts The Victors

Petty, Henriksen, Dobos and Studwell do agree emphatically that “The Victors”–regardless of its solo or dual authorship–is one of the most stirring marches ever written.

The “March King,” John Phillip Sousa, conducted “The Victors” premiere in Ann Arbor in April 1899. Some boast that Sousa called “The Victors” one of the four greatest marches he had conducted. However, several other University marching bands claim the Sousa statement is about their fight song.

“The Victors” had a notable fan, President Gerald R. Ford, the 38th President of the United States. President Ford was a 1935 graduate of the University of Michigan, and he would often request the Naval band to play “The Victors” prior to state events instead of “Hail to the Chief.” Ford also selected “The Victors” to be played during his December 2006 funeral procession at the U.S. Capitol.

A much tamer rendition of the vigorous march is the background music for a recent U-M Health System (UMHS) television advertising campaign. Each of the creative TV commercials feature brief snapshots of U-M or C.S. Mott hospital child patients, smiling as their caregiver therapists and doctors stand next to them. A softer version of “The Victors,” is recognizable as the soundtrack.

The Legend of “The Victors”

The traditional lore about the origin of “The Victors” is the oft-repeated, Michigan band member pass-along story to new members, and it is generally accepted as accurate. It begins on the shores of Lake Michigan, in the windy city of Chicago and culminates on the U-M campus with “The Victors” debut under the baton of Sousa.

It was overcast and cold on Thanksgiving Day in Chicago in 1898. A typical blustery wind swirled inside the Marshall Field football stadium, the home of the University of Chicago Maroons. A valiant and underdog Michigan team faces the Maroons, college football’s version of the Monsters of the Midway. In the balance, was the league football championship.

At 1:30 P.M., the large crowd rises to its feet to sing the “National Anthem.” Then the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle signals the kickoff. The big game was a slug-fest, quite literally. Surprisingly, the Michigan
team kept the score close. The Chicago newspapers had boasted the Maroons were the heaviest team in college football history, but remember, in 1898, that was a span of less than 20 years from the sport’s founding!

As the sun dipped below the horizon, the air temperature sank too. But Michigan’s inspired play is breathing a lot of heat down the backs of the Maroons. With the sound of the final gun, the college boys from Ann Arbor, by the narrowest of margin (one point), had pulled a major upset over their league brethren, the seemingly invincible University of Chicago eleven, capturing Michigan’s first conference championship.

Elbel and a small, vociferous core group of fellow U-M students and fans cheered loudly and congratulated one another with hearty slaps on the back, despite feeling physically and emotionally drained from the game. Their moods ranged from ecstatic to being completely dumbfounded. The swarm soon doubled in number and formed a crazy and delirious snake line to weave through the streets of Chicago.

U-M Victory Inspires Elbel

Legend says that Elbel was truly moved by what he has experienced. The courage, determination, positive attitude and the dedication of the Michigan team and its followers had a major impact on the soul. As the victory party winds down, Elbel begins to walk slowly to his sister’s house in Englewood, Ill., about a mile-and-a-half from Marshall Field. While he’s walking, he reflects on the day’s events.

“When I got to my sister’s house, somehow I had the presence of mind to write down the notes of a fight song,” Elbel later recalled, “And, when I arrived in South Bend the next day, I played the piece on my piano and finished the entire refrain. Then the idea of a big march came to me, and I completed the whole work on the train back to Ann Arbor for Monday’s classes.”

Dobos, also a band historian, agrees with this storyline and its sequence of events, “On the train back to Ann Arbor, Elbel took his original melody jottings and turned them into a march. An arrangement for 23 instruments resulted.”

So, was Elbel solo in composing “The Victors?”

Henriksen summarizes his feelings: “Several theories have been advanced as to just how the melody for the trio of ‘The Victors’ entered Louis Elbel’s brain.” Most say,

a) He is the sole author of the composition; or
b) ‘The Spirit of Liberty’ had parts that ran through his mind and influenced his composition of ‘The Victors’; or
c) He committed plagiarism and purposely incorporated ‘The Spirit of Liberty’ in ‘The Victors.’

When the question of Elbel’s exclusivity rekindled, Dobos wrote a well-researched essay entitled “Did Louis Elbel Write ‘The Victors?,'”and it appeared in the fall 2007 issue of M-Fanfare magazine, a publication of the Michigan Band Alumni.

“Louis Elbel was a fun-loving ‘kid’ who was a true Michigan fan,” Dobos wrote. “It would never have occurred to him that he was ‘stealing’ someone else’s tune.”

He continues: “The Elbel march is more tightly composed than the Rosey march. Elbel’s march is definitely more of a ‘circus’ march; Rosey is more of a ‘two step.’ They are very different.”

Dobos does concede: “Elbel’s use of Rosey’s melody–except for that final phrase–is an interesting footnote.”