Conquer and Prevail

Vanderbilt’s school songs parallel its history

Vanderbilt Band
Vanderbilt marching band performs during the Austin Peay football game at Dudley Field(John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

School songs can form the core soundtrack of a student’s college experience. At Vanderbilt that musical history parallels the history of the institution.

The first song specifically written for Vanderbilt debuted in 1879, four years after the university opened its doors. The “Vanderbilt University Grand March” was published by James A. McClure, followed by the “Vanderbilt University March” in 1895 and the “Phi-Delta Theta Two-Step” in 1896. However, the 1889 Commodore yearbook notes a song titled “Vanderbilt,” words by William Rice Sims (ThG 1880, BA 1884, PhD 1888) and music by A. Oscar Browne, that sang the praises of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Bishop McTyeire.

“O Alma Mater, Autumn Ode to Vanderbilt,” was composed in 1900 for Vanderbilt’s 25th anniversary. The words were written by Olin Wannamaker, who received his master of arts degree that year. The music was written by Emma L. Ashford, wife of John Ashford, an engineer from Bath, England, who became Vanderbilt’s superintendent of buildings and grounds in 1884. It was possibly the first of as many as seven Vanderbilt titles for which Ashford composed the music.

However, Ashford’s composition is not Vanderbilt’s official alma mater. That song, which opens with “On the city’s western border,” was written by Robert F. Vaughan in 1909. Vaughan, BA 1907, LLB 1909, was president of the Vanderbilt Glee Club and wrote the lyrics at the suggestion of its director, Charles Washburn, to the tune of the song “Amici,” according to the January 1923 issue of the Alumnus. The tune is actually “Annie Lisle,” an 1857 ballad by songwriter H.S. Thompson.

Vanderbilt’s alma mater, aside from being played at Commencement and Reunion, is tied into the athletic fans’ experience of football and basketball games. While most students do not know all the words, everyone knows at least three. “The Third Down Cheer,” as it is sometimes called, is the first line of the second stanza of the alma mater played instrumentally followed by the next lyric—“CONQUER AND PREVAIL”—yelled loudly.

Vanderbilt’s most famous fight song is “Dynamite,” written by Francis Craig, BA 1924. Craig, who was a well-known band leader in the 1930s and ’40s, was responsible for launching the careers of Dinah Shore, BA’38, Snooky Lanson and Phil Harris. He wrote “Dynamite” in 1941. According to the January–February 1947 issue of the Alumnus, the song took off at the time of the Tennessee–Vanderbilt game in 1941. Fred Waring and his orchestra played the song on a national hook-up the night before the game, and at halftime the next day, Craig himself directed the Vanderbilt band in the local première of the song.

It is still Vanderbilt’s primary fight song, although there are two others: “Cheer for Old Vandy,” written in 1953 by Class of 1924 alumnus Joe Landess as a gift to Vanderbilt upon his son Tom’s graduation, and the more recent “Spirit of Gold” composed by the former assistant director of bands, Joe Laird.