I must confess — I am absolutely clueless at football games. It’s a game made for television, and without the benefits of instant replay and ultra-zoomed-in shots of the defensive line, I can barely tell where the ball is. I presume that my fellow students at the Game tomorrow afternoon will face the same problem. But that’s okay, because football games are always about much more than the action itself. The music played by each school’s band is perhaps equally important as the game played on the field. And, keeping that truth in mind, I will now take it upon myself to carefully analyze the details of Harvard and Yale’s respective fight songs, for we all know that the real competition is not athletic, but musical: Which band can play better and more obnoxiously; which students can sing louder and more obnoxiously.
The Crimsons’ fight song is “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,” a title at once perplexing and downright incomprehensible. The last time I checked, Harvard has a scant 7,200 undergraduates — so not only do they inflate grades to no end, but also the size of their own student population. What, then, could this 10,000 possibly refer to? The 10,000 outnumbered Greeks who vanquished Darius’ invading Persians on the Plain of Marathon? I would not put it beyond the Crimson to equate themselves with those noble Hellenic forbearers, but in that calculation Yale becomes the analogue of the mammoth Persian army, which has lived on in cultural memory as the paragon of all that is unruly and savage about the earth. Now, I know that Cantabs harbor an innate tendency to speak ill of New Haven at every opportunity that arises, but the Elm City is actually quite nice, with little real savagery in any of its quarters — something I cannot honestly say about the gang violence of South Boston in the 1970s. Moreover, if we do ascribe to this historical dichotomy between the noble Greeks of Harvard and the wretched Persians of Yale, we unfairly dismiss all the achievements of the great Persian culture and fall into the trap of writing white-centric imperialist history. Not that I would expect any less from Harvard: Yale does have the better history department, after all.
Now back to the music itself. Like all fight songs, “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” is full of brash brass and messy orchestration. This model works quite well in most cases, but not in Harvard’s. The song sounds desperately in need of a real melody, rather than the monotone, vague chanting of the song’s verses, which straddles the uncomfortable line between joyous shouts and plodding Gregorian chants. There is a quasi-tune here, but it’s not very catchy, and fight songs should always be catchy. Harvard should decide whether it wants the rhythm-heavy, melody-light model of “Boola Boola” or the orchestral sweep of a more ambitious composition. Currently it has neither, and “Ten Thousand Men” thus comes across as an aimless, burnt-out rocket of sonic incompetence floating in its own orbit.
Another matter is at issue here — one of “Ten Thousand Men”’s verses is in Latin. Yes, Latin. I don’t know why the writers felt that the song cried out for a Latin verse, but they wrote one anyway. It is, of course, entirely unnecessary and completely pretentious, qualities not wholly dissimilar from Harvard’s deeply disappointing architecture; and also a rather transparent attempt to prove that Cantabs know more Latin than their one-word motto would suggest. Maybe they’re trying to make up for that — but instead they come off as irritating blowhards, self-consciously reheating the artistic formulae of ages long since past quieted.
If “Ten Thousand Men” feels like a semi-tune at best, I cannot say anything of the sort about “Boola Boola.” “Ten Thousand Men” formed in the brain of some Harvard graduate in the early twentieth century, but “Boola Boola” arose from the tradition of popular music in that same period, emerging a full eighteen years before Harvard’s song. The fuzzy recording of “Boola Boola” from 1910 I found on YouTube sounds like a gleeful romp, full of short little ditties and an accentuated, punctual brass section. The song feels free and loose, with none of the affected seriousness that bears down on “Ten Thousand Men.” This is a real song, too — even John Philips Sousa liked it. Another YouTube video, this of the Yale Glee Club in 2009, carries much of that same sense of spontaneity and apparent improvisation, as well as a much-appreciated lack of Latin.
The sole criticism I might lodge against the otherwise-consummate “Boola Boola” relates to the name of the song. What on earth is a Boola? Why are we singing about it? Why do FCC representatives insist on signing off on emails with those two words? How does this Boola help us defeat Harvard? Is this voodoo magic? These are all important questions, and I’m sure that Yale students have asked them for over a century. Ultimately, though, none of them really matters (except for the one about the inexplicable FCC signoff). Yale doesn’t take itself so seriously that its students can’t lighten up every once in a while, and naming our song after two nonsense words proves that. I also like to think that “Boola Boola” indirectly inspired the wonderful silliness of the Beatles’s much-maligned classic “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da,” which I actually quite like. Maybe Paul McCartney secretly admired New Haven. One can hope, I guess.
In the end, then, where does my judgment fall? For Yale, of course — was that ever in doubt? “Boola Boola” is the far superior song, with a nonsensical title that bests the bizarre mistruth that is “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” Musically, “Boola Boola” carries a feeling of vivacious energy entirely absent from Harvard’s choice of fight song — this does, admittedly, raise the question of how exactly Harvard’s football team has gone undefeated thus far this year. But tomorrow afternoon, I hope that the infectious cheer of “Boola Boola” rings out through Harvard Stadium, echoing around the bowl with the ineluctable hopes of an entire school, denied glory for seven years but which shall rush its way to victory on Saturday.