Talk of the Town: Hail to the Victors - a borrowed song?
It's long been said that there's nothing new under the sun. That's certainly the case where music is concerned, according to music historian Michael Montgomery, who gave a lecture on the provenance of several classic University of Michigan songs today at the Kempf House Museum on S. Division.
In the last quarter-century, the authorship of the University of Michigan fight song, "The Victors," has come into question. Some critics believe Louis Elbel, author of the iconic song, borrowed a crucial trio from George Rosenberg's April 1898 "The Spirit of Liberty March" in composing the song. Michigan loyalists believe Elbel's work should be recognized as unique, distinct from "Spirit of Liberty."
But as Montgomery explained, this type of borrowing is commonplace in music. By the same standard critics use to argue Elbel stole "The Victors" from Rosenberg, Montgomery said, it could be argued the Star-Spangled Banner, America's national anthem, was also stolen.
Was "The Victors" stolen, or inspired? Judge for yourself. Listen to "The Spirit of Liberty March."
"The 'Star Spangled Banner' was actually based on an old British drinking song, 'To Anacreon in Heaven,'" Montgomery said. "Even our national anthem was stolen - but who's going to sue?"
Montgomery's interest in Elbel took form in 1977, when he wrote a piece on what would've been Elbel's 100th birthday for the "Michigan Alumnus."
On the train ride back to his sister's home in South Bend after the Michigan-Chicago game on November 24, 1898, Elbel decided Michigan needed a true fight song, Montgomery said. The closest thing U-M had was "There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town tonight," which was far from inspiring for a football crowd.
Elbel, Montgomery said, was part-owner of a music store in South Bend, and, as such, he would've heard all the music of the time. That, Montgomery said, could explain why portions of "The Victors" sound a lot like George Rosenberg's "Spirit of Liberty."
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But to say Elbel stole Rosenberg's work is a stretch, Montgomery said. It's fairer to say "Spirit of Liberty" was an inspiration, an influence for the song that would become U-M's fight song.
"Louis Elbel was a yellmaster, or cheerleader, at U-M football games," Montgomery said. "It's tough to imagine that he would have been carrying sheet music around with him on the train as he wrote 'The Victors.' But it's just as tough to imagine he hadn't heard 'Spirit of Liberty.'"
While Montgomery's lecture focused on Elbel's authorship of "The Victors," he also discussed the backgrounds of classic U-M songs "The Yellow and Blue" and "Varsity", a 1911 song that, according to Michigan legend, was written to update "Victors," as the "Champions of the West" line grew outdated once Michigan left the Western Football Conference.
James Dickson | AnnArbor.com
Montgomery's lecture wasn't designed to provide the final word on the controversy, but rather to show how common it is for artists to borrow lyrics, trios and inspiration from one another. Those who claim strongly that songs like "The Victors" were either stolen or are completely original are using black-and-white language in a shades-of-grey discussion, Montgomery said.
A graduate of the U-M Class of 1955, Montgomery's musical training doesn't extend beyond a few music appreciation classes at the university. He played the ancient Steinway piano at the Kempf House Museum by ear.
After his days in Ann Arbor, Montgomery took to collecting sheet music, Michigan yearbooks and collections of old fight songs - a passion he continues to this day.
Montgomery plans to put all of this into book form one day, and clarify the debate on Elbel and the authorship of "The Victors." Though he has all the source materials on hand, putting it all together has proven a challenge. "I'm not well organized at the moment, but I'm going to get better-organized," he said.
John U. Bacon, popular University of Michigan historian and author, opined on the Victors controversy in the fall 2009 issue of "LSA Magazine."
"Elbel wrote with amazing efficiency" in composing the song, Behee wrote, "perhaps because he seems to have lifted" from 'Spirit of Liberty.'
"Whether Elbel did so consciously or not is debatable," Behee continued, "but no one questions he penned all of the powerful lyrics, which give the song its trademark punch, and made it famous."
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com