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The MSU Songs: Smashing Right Through the Myths

By Robert Bao, Editor

  • Published: 08/26/2013
Leonard Falcone (right) with assistant Bill Moffitt

          Does hearing the MSU Fight Song send chills down your spine?  How about MSU Shadows?

          Yes, me too. 

        Over the decades, some urban legends have arisen regarding their origin and it might be an opportune time to debunk them.  Thanks to John Madden, director of the Spartan Marching Band, and MSU archivists, we can now smash right through some of these myths.  

        The MSU Fight Song is credited to Michigan Agricultural College engineering students Francis Irving Lankey, ’16, and his roommate Arthur L. Sayles, ’15.  Sometime between 1914 and 1916, Lankey, an avid pianist, composed the music and Sayles wrote most of the words.  Lankey was MAC’s “Yellmaster,” or head cheerleader.  In 1919 Lankey’s girl friend, Claudice Mary Kober, had the song copyrighted and MAC adopted it as the official MAC fight song.

        Lankey and Sayles were inspired to write the song after MAC’s back to back upsets of Big Ten football powerhouses Michigan and Wisconsin in 1913.  By the way, after beating Michigan, the MAC marching band played on for hours in Ann Arbor.  Since MAC did not have a fight song, what do you suppose they played?  The answer is Hail to the Victors

        One myth is that the MSU Fight Song was lifted from an old hymn, Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus (words by George Duffield & music by Adam Geibel).  This theory was advanced by former MSU chemistry professor William McHarris, who supplied the score from a 1938 Cokesbury Worship Hymnal.

        “The accompaniment of the hymn tune reveals some chromatic usage similar to the melody of our tune,” notes Madden, who has closely inspected the score.  “But, there is no way that our fight song is related to this tune.”

        It’s important to mention that what we know as the MSU Fight Song bears a far greater imprint from Leonard Falcone, who arranged the current marching band and concert band renditions, and to his assistant Bill Moffit, who arranged a shorter, more fanfare like version that starts with the march’s break strain.  Moffit called this arrangement “Pre-Game Fight.” 

        “Lankey composed melody and chords,” explains Madden.  “What we are familiar with today are really the more complex arrangements by Falcone and Moffit.” 

        In 1919, the melody and chords that Lankey jotted down caught the fancy of J.S. Taylor, then director of the MAC Military Band.  He loved the song and orchestrated it for the band.  In the fall of 1920, Taylor played his arrangement of the fight song at all home football games.

       For the record, Lankey never lived to enjoy his composition.  He enlisted in the military and died in a training plane crash on May 1, 1919.  There is a plaque on a rock by Spartan Stadium honoring Lankey and fellow MAC students who died while serving their country during World War I.

        According to MSU archivists, Kober sold out all the sheet music in less than a year.  “Supposedly football players helped sell out the sheet music,” says Madden.  “This is a story I enjoyed telling during Band Day.”  By the way, Kober donated the rights to the song and future proceeds to the Union Memorial Building Fund. 

        Some of the fight song’s original words have been modernized.  For example, after 1925 “Aggie teams are never beaten” became “Spartan teams are never beaten.”  After university status was achieved in 1955 “Smash right through that line of blue” was replaced by “Go right thru for MSU.”  Also, “its specialty is farming” has been replaced by “its specialty is winning.” 

        Years ago, when I worked closely with the MSU hockey team, the icers would sing, “And those Spartans play good hockey (instead of ball).”  It would not surprise me if other varsity teams might make similar substitutions.    

        MSU Shadows is of more recent vintage—adopted officially as our alma mater in 1949—but its history is also clouded by some myths. 

        The song was composed in 1927 by Bernard Traynor, who was Michigan State College’s football line coach from 1925-27.  He also served as coach of MSC’s freshman basketball team.  Traynor went on to become an attorney in Chicago.  He composed the melody and wrote the words, but once again, Falcone did the song’s arrangement as played by today’s Spartan Marching Band.

        One controversy comes from a claim that is repeated by many websites that the music was borrowed from composer Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor—more specifically, the opera’s Sextet.

        Here again, Madden demurs.

        “This is supposed to be Shadows?” says Madden after listening to several renditions of the Sextet.  “No way.  Maybe two measures, that’s it.  You might say the ending phrase is reminiscent of the end of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, for just a few beats, but no one would say it was borrowed from it.”

        In the 1950s there was a slew of correspondence between MSU and various music companies dealing with copyright issues involving the song.  With MSU’s emergence as a football power and its appearances in Rose Bowls, MSU songs would gain national exposure, so the copyright issues emerged.  All kinds of claims and counterclaims were thrown around—including a dubious claim from out of the blue that a Lucille Morris was co-composer of the song.  Through it all, what emerges is Traynor’s insistence that he alone wrote both the music and the lyrics of Shadows.

        “As far as I can tell, Lucille Morris is the figment of someone’s imagination,” says Madden.

        Before MSU Shadows became our official alma mater, MAC had adopted Close Beside the Winding Cedar in 1907.  The music was taken from Far Above Cayuga’s Waters, Cornell’s alma mater (since 1870).  Wikipedia reports that Cornell used the tune of “Annie Lisle,” a popular 1857 ballad by H. S. Thompson that was also used by many other schools. 

        MSU students yearned for something original and many of them loved Traynor’s song.  In March 1949, the MSC faculty, State Board of Agriculture and Student Council ratified Shadows as the official alma mater after a student vote.  MSU archivists report that Shadows won with 6,087 votes, edging Close Beside the Winding Cedar, which finished second with 2,070.

        Shadowscontinues to be our alma mater today.  As with the fight song, some words have been changed over the years, and I suspect it will continue to evolve with time.  

        As for me, I wish we could go back in time and revive the original “smash right through” imagery.

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