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Gray Matter

West Point Songs

by J. Phoenix, Esq.
Thursday, 2 October 2008

With the June 2008 changes to the lyrics of The Corps and our Alma Mater to render them gender neutral, it may be interesting to consider the genesis and modification of West Point songs in general. As many may recall, the words to The Corps were written as a poem by West Point Chaplain, later Bishop, Herbert S. Shipman and reportedly read from the pulpit at the Baccalaureate Service for the Centennial Class of 1902. The poem then re-appeared in print in the Howitzer of the Class of 1904, at the end of a toast presented at dinner on 1 January 1904 by CDT Robert P. Harbold. Music by the Cadet Chapel organist and choirmaster, W. Franke Harling, was added later, especially so that the poem might be sung at the closing of the Old Cadet Chapel on 12 June 1910. The Corps became a West Point tradition after being performed at the Baccalaureate Service for the Class of 1911.

The music to our Alma Mater is based upon a popular old German song, “Treueliebe” (affection, devotion), composed by Friedrich Wilhelm Kuecken in 1827. It appears from time to time in old motion pictures, such as the 1938 “Three Comrades,” starring Margaret Sullavan, Robert Taylor, Robert Young and Franchot Tone and based upon the Erich Maria Remarque novel set in the tumultuous Germany of 1928. The actual music originally may have been written by either Georg Heinrich Lux or Friedrich Silcher, also in 1827, but the lyrics used by West Point were written as a “furlough song” by CDT Paul S. Reinecke, Class of 1911, while he walked the area in the fall of 1908 (in that era, cadets received a 90-day furlough between their second and third year at West Point). It was forgotten by his class and did not become part of the West Point tradition until the Baccalaureate Service for the Class of 1912 the following year.

The music for Army Blue is based upon the Civil War-era folk song “Aura Lee” or “Aura Lea,” later popularized in the fifties by Elvis Presley as “Love Me Tender.” The lyrics were written by George T. Olmsted, Jr., Class of 1865, L.W. Becklaw, and others in 1865, presumably as a graduation song, a popular tradition of the era. The music was composed by George R. Poulton. An earlier 1848 version, unlike the modern versions in words and rhyme scheme, is credited to Mrs. Winfield Scott, while an anonymous 1859 version follows suit. Stanzas to the 1865 version were added and deleted significantly over the course of the years.

The only two stanzas of Army Blue to survive all revisions from 1865 to the present are the opening stanza beginning, “We’ve not much longer here to stay, For in a month or two,” and the second stanza that begins, “With pipe and song we’ll jog along, Till this short time is through.” Gone are the stanzas that began, “To the ladies who come up in June,” and “Here’s to the man who wins the cup.”

A stanza beginning “Twas the song we sang in old plebe camp, When first our gray was new,” was added between the world wars. Even the chorus changed a bit from the 1865 to the 1908 version, substituting “Hurrah for the Army Blue” in the second line for the original “We’ll don the Army Blue” that was almost the same as line four.

The first stanzas of “Benny Havens, Oh” were composed by LT Lucius O’Brien, not a graduate but a friend of CDT Ripley A. Arnold, in 1838 at Benny Havens’ tavern located on the Hudson River just south of West Point. John T. Metcalfe and Arnold, both Class of 1838, and countless others through the years contributed at least 100 additional verses. These often were topical, mentioning the death of Scott and Custer or praising Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and many younger graduates. The music for Benny Havens long was believed to be based upon the traditional Irish air, “The Wearing of the Green,” but more recent research by George Pappas ’44 casts some doubt upon that source, although O’Brien definitely was Irish.

The music for Slum and Gravy is from the “Victory March/Song of the Vagabonds” in the operetta “The Vagabond King,” by Charles Rudolph Friml, and thereby hangs a tale, again thanks to the research of George Pappas ’44. It seems that operettas by Friml, Sigmund Romberg, Jerome Kern and others were all the rage in New York City between 1923 and 1928. Friml’s The Vagabond King opened in the spring of 1925 and ran for over 500 performances. In June of 1925, the Class of 1927 held their traditional furlough dinner in New York City before embarking on their 90-day summer leave following Yearling year. Several cadets lingered in the City to see The Vagabond King and escort several young ladies of the cast to dinner, some repeating the process upon their return from leave. Back at West Point in the fall, Cadets Francis Howard and Meredith Masters, both ’27, and Hamilton Hawkins ’26 got together and penned fight song lyrics to accompany the popular music of The Song of the Vagabonds. The adaptation was completed by the time of the 1925 Notre Dame game at Yankee Stadium on 17 October, and the three cadets arranged for tickets to see The Vagabond King again (and date young ladies from the cast again).

While backstage, waiting for their dinner dates to change out of their costumes, the cadets were approached by a gentleman in evening dress, none other than Friml himself. Hawkins, being the ranking cadet, asked for permission to use Friml’s music and their lyrics to create a new Army fight song. Friml gathered a few musicians and had them accompany the cadets as they sang “Slum and Gravy.” He not only gave the cadets the necessary permission (later confirmed in writing) but also offered to have his cast sing the Army lyrics during the performance on the night of the Army-Navy game if Army won. Army did, 10-3, at the Polo Grounds, and the cadet-modified lyrics of Slum and Gravy were sung by a professional cast during the Broadway production of The Vagabond King on the evening of 28 November 1925 (for many years the game was played on Thanksgiving weekend).

”On, Brave Old Army Team,” in contrast, was written entirely by bandmaster LT Philip Egner in 1910. Legend has it that the words came to him while he was walking, and he wrote them on his starched cuff so as not to forget them. He also composed the music. Later, in 1927, he composed/arranged the Official West Point March...