USC alumni and students have been singing the university alma mater for more than 110 years. But what, exactly, is an alma mater, and how did USC end up with one?
If you’ve ever been to a USC football game or even just watched on TV, you’ve no doubt heard the Carolina fight song.
It’s a rousing tune that gets played after every Gamecock score. But there’s another song that Carolina students and alumni have been singing for more than 110 years.
I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and we’re kicking off this podcast’s seventh season with a closer listen to the University of South Carolina’s alma mater, a song that was composed in 1911. The alma mater is sung at the end of every major sporting event, freshman students hear it at First Night Carolina, a welcome-to-college celebration their first week on campus, and it’s performed at graduation ceremonies and many other university events.
So what exactly is an alma mater? The phrase comes from two Latin words that mean ‘nourishing or fostering mother.’ Ancient Romans referred to their goddesses such as Minerva, Venus and Diana with that term. By the 1700s in Great Britain, the phrase alma mater had come to be associated with universities like Cambridge or Oxford. A university is, in a sense, like a nourishing mother, imparting learning and wisdom to her students, so what better way to pay tribute to that alma mater than with a song?
The tradition had crossed the Atlantic by the late 1800s and early 1900s as colleges and universities in the United States began penning their own alma maters. Tayloe Harding is dean of the School of Music at USC. He says American public colleges and universities back then didn’t have as many distinctive differences as they do today. Having one’s own alma mater was a way of helping to create what we might now call a brand identity.
Tayloe Harding: “There was this this awareness of leadership at higher ed institutions, at public schools, that perhaps they should have more identity, a distinguishing identity from one another, since they had built their educational and academic models on each other. And part of that individuality, part of that distinguishing from one another, was this to be observed in some way by mascots and in other ways by some kind of music. And an alma mater song became what that was all about.”
At USC, professors had offered up a prize of $50 to anyone who wrote lyrics for an alma mater that would be adopted by the university. That was quite a sum of money in the early 1900s, but The Gamecock student newspaper reported in its March 1911 issue that very little progress had been made. Later that same year, George A. Wauchope, an English professor at Carolina, must have decided that if you want something done, you should probably just do it yourself. He wrote lyrics of praise for the university, which were to be accompanied by the tune of a song from the 1800s.
That tune had originally been written to accompany a poem called ‘Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,’ by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It’s a harmonious tune that Tayloe Harding says is simple to learn.
Tayloe Harding: “It is easy to sing. It's typically pitched in a key that not only makes it easy to sing, but gives it sort of a character in that easy to sing key that makes it really popular and resonates nicely. It's very easy to arrange for multiple voices or instruments, and we've got any number of different arrangements. We've done here in the School of Music, the famous one that most people hear when you hear it sung in parts was done by James Pritchard, a director of bands in the in the 1970s and '60s.”
You might be humming along with the tune now, but let’s turn our attention to the lyrics for a moment. As a I mentioned earlier, USC English professor George Wauchope penned the alma mater’s words of tribute. Here’s the first verse without any music.
‘We hail thee Carolina and sing thy high praise. With loyal devotion, rememb’ring the days …’
I’m sure you caught it but just to make sure, that phrase ‘Rememb’ring the Days’ is where the title of this podcast comes from.
“When proudly we sought thee, thy children to be. Here’s a health, Carolina. Forever to thee.’
That last line is interesting — “Here’s a health, Carolina. Forever to thee.”
I always thought those lyrics meant something like — Here’s to your health, dear University of South Carolina. I hope you exist forever.’ I talked to David Shields, an English professor at Carolina, and it turns out that interpretation is partly correct. The alma mater’s lyrics are intended to be a toast.
David explained that in Great Britain, the tradition of toasting to one’s health began hundreds of years ago at spas, which featured natural springs that enthusiasts associated with good health. Aristocrats and their families would go to these spas and drink to one another’s health while hoisting mugs of the supposedly healing water. It’s why students and alumni hold their hands up as if making a toast when they sing the words, “Here’s a health Carolina.”
Keep that in mind as David further explains the first verse and refrain of the alma mater:
David Shields: “What's interesting is you have to remember that the first verse is in past tense. So it's like they're alums. ‘We hail the Carolina and sing thy high praise.’ That's straight out of ode formula, 'with loyal devotion, remembering the days, when proudly we sought thee thy children to be.' Maybe it's a scene you're remembering from freshman year — who knows? ‘Here's a health Carolina, forever to thee.’ And you have to remember that people go to these springs because they're unhealthy. They want the waters to repair themselves. And so the idea of long livedness or longevity being associated with drinking the healing waters is something which is right there. And another thing, too, is that if this is, you know, imagining a kind of deity or idealized figure, it isn't Carolina's foreverness. She's already quasi-immortal. It's the alumnus or the senior pledging that as long as they live, their loyalty and devotion will be healthy and vital and will last long.”
So the line, ‘We hail thee Carolina, forever to thee,’ does not mean, as I erroneously thought, ‘We hope you live forever, dear university.’ It means as long as I live — or however long any other alumnus singing the song is alive — that we will remain loyal and devoted to our alma mater.
There is an interesting footnote to USC’s alma mater. About 10 years ago, a retired biology professor at USC named John Herr was inspired to compose an original tune to the alma mater. He reasoned that the university shouldn’t have to borrow a 19th century melody — pleasing though it might be.
So Herr took his painstakingly crafted tune to the School of Music, which graciously agreed to perform it. The tune employs a choral arrangement called voice leading that is intricate but doesn’t roll easily off the tongue. Here’s a sample.
Herr passed away in 2016, still convinced that the university alma mater needed its own tune, but probably aware that after more than a century of singing it with the borrowed tune, old traditions die hard.
Here’s one final thought from music dean Tayloe Harding about USC’s alma mater and perhaps something to think about when you hear it again.
Tayloe Harding: "The lyrics themselves contains something that I think is really important to think about beyond just that single linguistic meaning. 'We hail the Carolina and sing thy high praise.' We don't 'solve for x thy high praise,' we don't 'buy low, sell high for thy high praise.' We sing thy high praise. I would love for people when they're singing it for them to feel a sense of community that they're feeling around music and to be conscious of the fact that that community is built around that music rather than just built around the fact that they happen to be standing next to each other. That's what I hope."
That’s all for this episode. Next time, bring your gloves and shovel because we’re going to going to go on a digging expedition — not for treasure, per se, but for time capsules buried on campus.
That’s next on Remembering the Days. I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.