Alma Mater Americana

GEORGE F. WILL

October 24, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

SEATTLE. — Seattle -- Seasonal sounds -- brittle leaves crackling underfoot, migrating birds calling overhead -- will soon surround us. None is more stirring than the strange music that issues from American campuses as football crowds serenade themselves with songs expressing eternal devotion to alma mater and a desire to eviscerate this Saturday's opponent.

However, here at the University of Washington, the music of autumnal mayhem is peculiar in one particular. Its song should be sung at the other edge of the continent, as the anthem of the federal bureaucracy. Titled ''Bow Down to Washington,'' it sternly says:

7' Heaven help the foes of Washington. They're trembling at the feet of mighty Washington.

Our boys are there with bells, Their fighting blood excels: It's harder to push them over the line Than pass the Dardanelles; Many fight songs are spiced with odd ejaculations like Oskee-wow-wow'' (Illinois) and ''Ski-U-ma'' (Minnesota) and ''Chig-ga-roo-gar-em!'' (Texas A&M).

Anachronisms, of language and sentiment, are part of the charm of such songs. Where but in pep songs do you still find fine old words like ''pluck'' (Bates), ''grit'' (Alabama), ''vim'' (Kansas) and even ''sand'':

+ We'll back you to stand 'Gainst the best in the land, For we know you have sand, Illinois Rah! Rah! The forces of political correctness probably have long since banished much retrograde language. (''Purdue has men who dare and do, and comely co-eds too.'' To call a young woman a co-ed is sexism; to call her comely is ''lookism.'') These days it is safer to stick to stuff like:

8( On the breast of Old South Mountain, Reared against the sky, Stands our noble Alma Mater, Stands our dear Lehigh. When a song begins ''Where the . . .'', expect a cataract of adjectives.

4$ Where the peaceful calm Chenango Starts its journey through the vale, There the gleaming light of Colgate, Flamed forth to never fail. Songs about alma mater are supposed to be syrupy. The second campus genre, the fight song, should be bloodthirsty. As in an ancient Arizona rouser: ''Smear 'em! Spear 'em! U. of A., you never fear 'em!'' Rummaging around in the Library of Congress' music collection, one learns that long ago Kansas combined fierceness with flair:

, Looning down the valley, The lord of all he views, The Jay-hawk sees some tombstones in the vale. (Beneath which lie Sooners and Cornhuskers.)

Some old songs show, alas, that the lyricist neglected to give his craft the old college try.

, So give a cheer for the orange and blue, Waving forever! -- Forever! Pride of old Florida, may she droop never! ''Droop''? Well, could have been worse. Could have been Davidson's ''You've got the stuff, men, and that's enough then.'' Or Arkansas' ''Here are the Razorbacks . . . never in duty lax.'' Oregon's song sounds defeatist: ''Rally, fellows, stand behind them, they are doing all they can.''

But only the stony-hearted can resist such scrumptious goo as:

:* Where the western lights' long shadows Over boundless prairies fling, And the mountain winds are vocal With thy dear name, Wyoming. Corny? You bet, and that's not all that's splendid about such anthems.

They are pleasant whiffs of local patriotisms, unrefined sentiments of our regions, robust hymns of preference for particular parts of the national mosaic. We are all members of the great American regiment, but we also are members of little platoons -- states, communities, colleges, even, each with its own marching cadences, such as South Dakota's alma mater:

I9 O, the pine-crested peaks of the storied Black Hills, The Missouri that ribbons thy plains; Where the slant summer sunshine so lavishly spills

Over prairie and pasture and grain. It is now possible to drive from sea-to-shining sea on clean, safe, convenient, antiseptic -- even the billboards have been banned -- highways. ''Limited access'' highways, they are called. They limit the traveler's access to America. Along we roll, our cars ''conditioning'' the air, our car windows sealing us off from the scent of northern fir and southern pine, stopping only for fuel at a franchised service station, eating at franchised restaurants, sleeping at franchised motels, listening all the way to network news blurbs and Top 40 music and arriving at the coast unmarked by any encounter with America's sweet particularities with anything not relentlessly contemporary and remorselessly homogenized.

How nice, then, to know that almost any turn off the turnpike will take us to some place where, if we open a window and cock an ear, we may hear something quaint and quirky and wonderful like:

- Oh, let us sing of Idaho, The Queen of all the West . . . Yes, lets.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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