Puck Swami Presents: 100 Years of the DU Fight Song

Puck Swami is the internet moniker of a longtime DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views periodically for LetsGoDU.

This year, 2016, marks the 100th anniversary of the DU Fight Song. Best known by the title “D-Rah/Fairest of Colleges,” the song’s words were written in 1916 by then-DU Student Dorothy Hickey during her senior year. The song sprang from the era of great college fight songs, most of which were written between 1895 and 1920, as college football rose to become the dominant fall entertainment force in America, well before the emergence of professional football.

As you can imagine, the University of Denver was a much different place 100 years ago. In the year 1916, Denver was small city of less than 250,000 people and DU was a much smaller school with only 1,695 total students. Campus life in that era was quite restrictive by today’s standards – chapel was compulsory, and there were University regulations prohibiting swearing, dancing, tobacco, intoxicants, card playing and “visiting places of immoral or questionable resort.”

That said, the DU football team was pretty big stuff for its day. The DU football program had started in 1885 with a game against, you guessed it, the Colorado College Tigers. That first DU vs CC football game is still believed to be the first college football game played West of the Mississippi River. DU lost that game by a score of 12-0, but it was later learned that Colorado College cheated by playing some non-CC students on its team, so the result remains ‘asterisked’ to this day. Cheaters or not, football soon became the dominant sport on American campuses, and remains so today.

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DU Football Team, c.1898 – Photo Courtesy University of Denver Special Collections

In 1908, the DU football team hosted the famous Carlisle Indian School team, featuring the great Jim Thorpe, widely praised as the greatest football player of the early era, (and later regarded as world’s greatest athlete after the 1912 Olympics). DU was the “Champion of the Rocky Mountains” that season, held Thorpe scoreless in the game and even forced him to fumble on the cold December day, but Carlisle escaped Denver with an 8-4 victory.

By 1916, the DU football team was playing its games each fall at a rickety wooden, off-campus football stadium on South Broadway in Denver, drawing about 10,000 fans per game. Remember, this was 35 years before DU started playing hockey, and about 45 years before the Broncos began playing pro football, so DU football was the biggest spectator sport in the city.

At that time, DU teams were informally called “the Ministers” or “Fighting Parsons” in honor of the Methodist founders of the University, and it would be about 10 years later, in 1925, before the name “Pioneers” would be voted in by the DU students as the official nickname. In 1926, DU opened its new concrete 30,000-seat football stadium, which hosted DU games until the sport was dropped in 1961. The stadium was demolished in the 1970s and stood where today’s DU soccer and lacrosse stadiums now stand.

In those years before World War I, fight songs were emerging as popular entertainment. Why fight songs? In those days before computers, television, sound movies or even radio, group singing had taken hold of the nation as an entertainment force. Barbershop quartets sprang up in almost every small town in America and reached their height of popularity between 1900 and 1925. The Yale Whiffenpoofs became the first collegiate acapella singing group in 1909, spawning many imitators. Whiffenpoof member Cole Porter (Yale Class of 1913) wrote the Yale Fight Song, (Bulldog, Bulldog!). In fact, most of the famous fight songs of that era were written by college students as a way of firing up spirit for their schools. Other famous fight songs from that era include Michigan’s ‘The Victors’ (written in 1898 by UM student Louis Elbel) and Notre Dame’s ‘Victory March’ (1905) written by brothers John and Michael Shea, who were Notre Dame students.

Whether gathered around a battered upright piano in the living room of a home, performing acapella in dorm rooms, around campfires or in taverns or belted from the bench seats of a football stadium along with the brass band, college fight songs galvanized the early bond between fellow students and their school.

There are no files in the DU Archives about the DU fight song’s lyric-writer Dorothy Hickey, DU Class of 1916. And while we don’t know much about her beyond her graduation year, or how or why she wrote the words to Fairest of Colleges, we do know that the song first appeared in 1916 sheet music. The song was later part of a 30-song compilation book entitled “Songs of the University of Denver,”  printed in 1917 by a group called the Evans Literary Club on campus, a group presumably named after DU’s founder, John Evans. This DU song book is still around in the DU Archives, and copies still pop up for sale online at eBay every once in a while.

If you listen closely to the the DU Fight Song, the tune sounds very similar to the chorus of “Hail Purdue”, the Purdue University fight song, which was first published in 1913, a few years earlier than the DU fight song. To see what I mean, click the following link and start listening to Hail Purdue just over 30 seconds into the song, as the chorus kicks in:

Hail Purdue Link:

DU Fight Song Link:

No one has, at least to my knowledge, ever been listed as the writer of the music portion of the DU fight song, so the musical origins of the song remain uncredited. Additionally, the music for both DU and Purdue fight songs clearly share some of the very same musical phrases. The Purdue song was first published (1913) some three years before DU’s fight song (1916), and when you put all of these facts together, we can pretty safely assume the DU fight song had its musical origins in West Lafayette, Ind., with the Purdue Boilermakers.

Hickey’s fight song lyrics, however, are clearly DU-centric. The DU song begins with a football cheer, spelling out the Denver name and asking fans to “give her three times three (rah, rah, rah) and ends with a call for loyalty (long may we cherish her, faithful and true) and unity (University of Denver, for me and you).

The song has waxed and waned in popularity over the years, reaching maximum popularity from the 1920s to the 1960s, when virtually every DU student knew the words. The loss of DU football in the early 1960s and the social change in America in the decades that followed saw the song fall out of wide use, and while the song popped up sporadically since the 1980s, it wasn’t until around 2004-2005 that a concerted effort was mounted by some alumni (full disclosure – I was one of them!) to help bring the song back to the DU mainstream at sporting events.

Around that time the DU pep band recorded the song with all the force and vigor that the song deserves, and DU began putting the words on the scoreboard at hockey games, and teaching the song in freshman orientation. In fact, the DU hockey team still uses the song to initiate freshmen players by forcing them to sing it at the annual ticket campout, as well as to entertain fellow travelers on airplane cabin microphones on the team’s first road trip of the season. The full team also been been known to sing it together in the locker room after a two-game sweep of an opponent.

Today, the song lyrics are printed on DU first-year’s t-shirts, played on the bells of the Williams Tower Carillon at the Ritchie Center before games and the first few bars of the song are even used to cue guests of DU’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts to take their seats at performances there.

There have also been many versions of the song recorded in recent years, including several campus acapella group arrangements and even a rock-pop version recorded by DU students.

All in all, there is something very special about playing and singing a song that has been in the ears and hearts of DU students, alumni and sports fans for 100 years that connects us all together in the rich tapestry of DU tradition. Few schools have a 100 year old fight song, and we are lucky enough to be one of them.

Long may we cherish it.