Fight on for Her Fame

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“On, Wisconsin!” turns one hundred.

“On, Wisconsin!” was first introduced as UW’s football fight song in 1909. The composer reworked the piece after originally intending to enter it in a contest to select a new University of Minnesota fight song. Photo: UW-Madison Archives

“On, Wisconsin!” was first introduced as UW’s football fight song in 1909. The composer reworked the piece after originally intending to enter it in a contest to select a new University of Minnesota fight song. Photo: UW-Madison Archives

Badgers everywhere know the tune instantly.

“On, Wisconsin!” evokes memories of dancing precariously in the student section, blasting music from car stereos at tailgate parties, sweet victories, and painful losses.

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the fight song, and UW-Madison is celebrating the occasion by giving fans the chance to post videos of their renditions, producing a documentary for the Big Ten Network, and offering a commemorative T-shirt (see sidebar). W.T. Purdy, who had never been to Wisconsin, composed the song’s melody in 1909. Here are more facts about the Badger favorite:

  • Purdy had intended to enter the tune in a contest for a new University of Minnesota fight song. The first line would have been “MINN-e-so-ta, MINN-e-so-ta.” Carl Beck, a former UW student and Purdy’s roommate in a Chicago boarding house, encouraged him to dedicate it to the Badger football team instead and contributed new lyrics.
  • “On, Wisconsin!” is featured in the Beach Boys’ 1963 hit song, “Be True to Your School,” but it’s a tribute to the Wilson brothers’ alma mater, Hawthorne High School, whose fight song uses the same melody.
  • An instrumental version of the song was used during a fight scene in the 1973 Disney animated film Robin Hood. Friar Tuck, portrayed as a badger, is cheering loudly.
  • Contrary to a persistent rumor that resurfaced after his death, Michael Jackson did not own the rights to “On, Wisconsin!” — at least in the United States. The song is in the public domain, and it has been adopted by thousands of high school bands and at least eighteen other colleges. UW officials aren’t certain if Jackson, or anyone else, owned the international rights.
  • John Philip Sousa, who composed “Stars and Stripes Forever” and many other famous marches, once called it “the finest of college marching songs.”

Published in the Winter 2009 issue

Tags: Alumni, Athletics, Campus history

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