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1936: Hail Varsity is born

By Joe Hudson
Nov. 21, 2016

Sometimes Husker history is made by people who will never play a single snap for the Cornhuskers. So it went exactly 80 years ago – Nov. 21, 1936 – when a new “university song” made its public debut

This composition was a march. It was written by a 37-year-old University of Nebraska music professor, Wilbur Chenoweth, and a 28-year-old Nebraska alum, Warren Joyce Ayres.

They called it Hail Varsity.

Even before it was ever performed in public, there was a buzz on campus that this was something special. But would it live up to the budding hype? The first test came at an annual student skit competition called the Kosmet Klub Fall Revue. It was there that the Men’s Glee Club gave Hail Varsity its first public performance.

Glee Club
Hail Varsity makes its public debut on Nov. 21, 1936, at the Kosmet Klub Fall Revue. Cornhusker yearbook photo

The varsity band also got cracking on the new number. In a matter of weeks, the Daily Nebraskan (1, 2) was making the case that Hail Varsity was precisely what the school needed: “a song able to express Cornhusker determination, and Cornhusker victory spirit.” It had a certain something that Dear Old Nebraska U seemed to lack. Students and faculty were urged to get on board and learn the lyrics.

1937ad (16K)
Ad for the musical score, January 1937

Little persuasion evidently was needed. The Glee Club's halftime performances of the song at Husker basketball games over the winter certainly helped the cause. The Innocents Society proclaimed it the school’s official football song. By the following September, with the 1937 football season fast approaching, Hail Varsity was already presumed to be part of the game-day drill on football Saturdays.

And so it remains to this day. Chenoweth and Ayres had indeed come up with a fight song for the ages.

Even so, a good chunk of Hail Varsity is largely forgotten, because very little besides the chorus portion is typically performed today except in an occasional concert setting. Making matters worse for lyricist Ayres, the Glee Club long ago was supplanted by the marching band and pep band as the song’s primary performers. It’s safe to say that few fans today know more than the first four words of the chorus.

So, in honor of Ayres and Chenoweth on this 80th anniversary, here are the complete lyrics as they appeared in the Daily Nebraskan in October of 1938:

words1 (22K)

And here is part of the original score that fans typically no longer hear, though the first four measures essentially form today’s brassy lead-in to the chorus:

sheet1 (38K)

The melody that goes with the lyrics leading up to the chorus can be heard here.

In 1945, Chenoweth and Ayres published a revised version which, among other things, made the chorus more singer-friendly, but the Athletic Department still lists the 1936 lyrics as the official ones. The 1945 chorus goes like so:

Hail to the team,
The Scarlet and Cream.
Cheers for a victory.
Echo our loyalty;
So, on, mighty men,
Let’s triumph again.
Fight on for victory,
Hail, mighty men.

After more than a dozen years at the university, Chenoweth moved to California in 1938 and spent the rest of his years there. Ayres stayed in Nebraska, where he enjoyed careers in music and advertising.

Both men have been gone for more than 30 years, but their composition lives on and continues to stir the spirits of Husker fans everywhere. On this day, it is more than fitting to offer up a special “hail to the team” – the two-man team of Wilbur Chenoweth and Warren Joyce Ayres.