‘Mighty Oregon’ sings of the past

“The Mighty Oregon March,” the University of Oregon’s fight song with the well-known tune and often-mumbled lyrics, is more than just touchdown pomp.

The school’s rousing fight song has lyrics composed by a journalism student, two nearly unknown verses and traces its roots to a World War I pop hit.

The jubilant melody, which plays during football and basketball games and chimes out from speakers atop the EMU on weekdays at noon and 6 p.m., has a devoted following, but most students and alumni don’t know the story behind the song – or even the whole song at all.

“Mighty Oregon” comes with three full stanzas of lyrics, School of Music spokesman Scott Barkhurst said, but most people don’t even know the words to the second verse, the most commonly printed lyrics.

Barkhurst says that the song suffers from the reductionism of popularity.

“No one wants to learn the three verses to a fight song. No one wants to learn the three verses of anything,” he said. “There’s three verses to the “Star Spangled Banner.” How many people know the other verses to that?”

Barkhurst points out that “Mighty Oregon” has had a long and vibrant history.

The song was written just after the turn of the 20th century at a time when community, university and marching bands dominated the popular music landscape. In 1915, the University’s music school dean convinced Albert John Perfect, a musically educated Swedish immigrant living in North Dakota, to lead the Eugene Municipal Band and help organize the student-run band ensemble.

Community bands were very popular at the time, the era of musical leaders like John Philip Sousa, and marches like “Mighty Oregon” were the staple hits of those bands, Barkhurst said.

Perfect arrived in Eugene in late September 1915 and within months had established order in the University Band, signed-up to direct a band at Eugene High School and initiated the Eugene Municipal Band.

It was at that city band’s inaugural performance on Jan. 7, 1916, that Perfect unveiled his latest composition, “The Mighty Oregon March,” with lyrics written by sophomore journalism student DeWitt Gilbert.

The song is a full-length concert piece, directed at football players, originally included the lyric “Down the gridiron urge the heroes,” in place of the modern lyric, “On to victory urge the heroes.”

The tune was immediately successful and would gain national exposure by the mid-20th century. Nevertheless, “Mighty Oregon’s” lasting popularity has a secret, according to research by Robert Ponto Director of Bands.

For Mighty Oregon’s “trio section,” which encompasses the most popular section, Perfect fashioned a new melody to fit into the harmony from “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” a hit 1912 march about World War I.

Ponto speculated that the catchy popularity of the harmony was not lost on Perfect, who was well-educated in music theory. Indeed, “The Mighty Oregon March” was originally subtitled by Perfect as “The Tipperary of the West.”

Barkhurst said that during the University’s 125th anniversary in 2001 he had heard the two songs played back to back by the Oregon Wind Ensemble, and then both at the same time.

“They fit almost perfect,” he said. “It really was close to ‘Mighty Oregon.'”

The Mighty Oregon CD, a fundraiser for the School of Music, contains vintage and modern arrangements of the music and is available at the University Bookstore and at Duck Shops for $10.

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