Penn’s fight song turns 100.
“Let’s do a football song.”
That, according to David Zoob C1923’s recollection for a 1969 Daily Pennsylvanian article, is what his Quad hallmate Ben McGivern W1923 told him when both were freshmen in the fall of 1919.
And so they did, collaborating on a fight song inspired by the ones McGivern had heard at college football games in the Midwest. What they came up with long outlasted either one of them. “Fight on, Pennsylvania!”—which celebrates its 100th anniversary this November—was not only accepted as an official song of the University but became a century-long staple at all Penn sporting events.
“It has the elements of a fight song you kind of walk away whistling,” says Kushol Gupta C’97 Gr’03, the Penn Band’s assistant director. Adds longtime band director Greer Cheeseman EE’77, who’s taught the notes to students for five decades: “It’s short, it’s punchy, it’s to the point. It’s not some long ballad.”
Anyone who’s been to the Palestra or Franklin Field surely knows the tune. It’s played after touchdowns at football games, and it greets basketball players when they run out onto the court. Gupta says former men’s basketball coach Fran Dunphy used to tell him how much the song galvanized the team, especially at away games, where the Penn Band often represents the majority of the Quakers’ cheering section. Current head coach Steve Donahue tells him the same thing today. And alumni often request it whenever they’re at an event with the Penn Band.
“It’s a thread that binds the entire Penn community,” Gupta says. “Whether you’re the class of ’60, the Class of ’70, the Class of ’90, everyone knows the song.”
In its early days, “Fight On” was known even beyond Penn. With Franklin Field the site of the first football radio broadcast and football telecast, and often packed with as many as 80,000 fans in the 1930s and ’40s, “the song was heard ubiquitously, the way we hear Michigan and Notre Dame now,” Gupta says. Today, Michigan’s “The Victors” and Notre Dame’s “Victory March” are far more prominent than “Fight On,” but Cheeseman believes Penn’s fight song is easily the best in the Ivy League—and stacks up well against many others. “It’s just been omnipresent,” the Penn Band director says.
The song has evolved in other ways. The lyrics that McGivern wrote—“Fight on, Pennsylvania! Put the ball across that line. Fight you Pennsylvanians! There it goes across this time. Red and blue, we’re with you. And we’re cheering for your men. So it’s fight, fight, fight, Pennsylvania. Fight on for Penn!—used to be sung by the Penn Glee Club, with the crowd joining in. These days, the words aren’t really known or sung—unlike two of the other iconic songs in Penn’s canon, “Drink a Highball” and “The Red and Blue” (which turns 125 next year).
But the melody composed by Zoob—who later wrote music for the Mask and Wig Club as well as Broadway productions—has endured for one century. And Cheeseman believes it can survive another. “It’s got the legs,” he says. “I think it’ll last.” —DZ