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“Old Wabash”: History of a school and its song

Dr. Richard Bowen leads the Wabash College Glee Club in singing an early version of "Old Wabash."

Dr. Richard Bowen leads the Wabash College Glee Club in singing an early version of “Old Wabash.”

“From the hills of Maine to the Western plain, or where the cotton is blowing;
from the gloomy shade of the northern pine, to the light of the southern seas…”

And so it goes.

It’s a tune that can flow out of the mouths of students and alumni without hesitation. But, interestingly enough, that familiar tune is not the original.

Dr. Richard Bowen, Glee Club Director and Assistant Professor of Music, did some research over the past several weeks and, with the help of the Wabash College Glee Club, shared some of the song’s secrets at his Chapel Talk on Thursday, “Will the Real ‘Old Wabash’ Please Stand Up: Reflections and Revelations Regarding Wabash’s Favorite Song.”

Bowen said that when he announced his Chapel Talk title to the Glee Club, he was not prepared for their reaction, which was, “Wow! We didn’t know you were so hip Dr. Bowen.”

“Really? I’m hip?” he asked.

“Yeah, you lifted your title from Eminem,” they responded.

Bowen shared that he had no idea what they were talking about, and just like that, he wasn’t so hip.

But unlike “Slim Shady,” there aren’t necessarily imitations of our current “Old Wabash.” There is one version written sometime in 1896 that is very different from today’s, which was written around 1900, yet this one was also titled “Old Wabash.”

The 1896 version has no known author, but, Bowen asked, “Is this the real ‘Old Wabash?’”

“Such a claim, however, fails on two accounts,” Bowen explained. “It did not capture enough attention to ensure widespread performance, and it was not designated as the official song.”

Bowen and the Glee Club sing today's version of "Old Wabash."

Bowen and the Glee Club sing today’s version of “Old Wabash.”

That designation went to Carroll Ragan and Edwin Meade Robinson’s version, which is similar to the song that is sung today. But not exactly.

Ragan originally composed the music to be a played as a concert band march for former Wabash President William Patterson Kane’s inauguration in 1900. But then the school offered $50 (which was a lot back then) to whomever could write a new school song. So Ragan gave the music to Robinson, who wrote the lyrics to “Old Wabash.”

Generally, words come first in songwriting. And if they don’t, normally the composer knows the music will be partnered with vocals. Since this was not the case, Robinson had a difficult time finding a proper flow for the lyrics. Despite later admitting parts of the song were rough and awkward, it must’ve impressed Wabash because his words live on.

“Old Wabash” was originally composed in the key of E flat, which gave it a range similar to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It also had a two-step style to it because of the march it was originally composed to be.

Because of its difficulty, the song’s key was lowered in 1915 and the style was changed to swing. In 1970, a tenor descant was added, while revisions to the piano accompaniment were made in recent years.

“‘Old Wabash’ continues to evolve,” Bowen said. “Does ‘Old Wabash’ sound the same today as it did in 1900? Certainly not. In the future year of 2082, will ‘Old Wabash’ sound exactly the same as it does today? I kind of doubt it.

“Is ‘Old Wabash’ a better song today than it was 116 years ago?” Bowen asked. “My answer is a resounding yes. ‘Old Wabash’ remains today a vibrant, relevant, almost-living organism that continues to occupy a vital place in the larger life of Wabash College. If it had not changed, I wonder if we would still be singing it?”


Competing for a Greater Cause

Christina Franks – On Saturday, the Little Giants will fight to keep the Monon Bell for the eighth year in a row. But on Tuesday, the Wabash community came together to help people who are fighting for their lives.

Aaron Stewart-Curet '17 donates blood regularly, but the rivalry "Bleed for the Bell" incorporates makes it a little more fun.

Aaron Stewart-Curet ’17 donates blood regularly, but the rivalry “Bleed for the Bell” incorporates makes it a little more fun.

Every year during Monon Bell Week, Alpha Phi Omega puts together a campus blood drive or “Bleed for the Bell.” And keeping true to the spirit of the week, DePauw hosts the same event on their campus, and it turns into a competition for a great cause.

“Yes, it’s really cool that we could beat the school down south in donations,” Nicholas Morin ’18 said. “But at the same time, what it comes down to is helping people out.”

As Alpha Phi Omega Vice President of Service, Morin is the coordinator for this year’s event and loves the idea of giving back in such a big way in a small amount of time.

Last year, 96 people showed up to donate blood during “Bleed for the Bell.” Morin’s goal this year was to reach 100 donors.

“Every pint donated is three lives saved,” he said. “If we have 100 donors, that’s 300 lives. Wabash can make a difference.”

Students, staff, and faculty filed into Knowling Fieldhouse throughout the day. Some of the students had never given blood before and thought this would be the best opportunity. For others, the fact that this was a competition against DePauw just made their regular habit of giving that much better.

Robert Reed ’19, who had given blood before believes the concept of “Bleed for the Bell” with DePauw during Monon Bell Week says a lot about the character of the two schools. “Getting both the schools together and doing this all as a group says something not just about ourselves but us as a group,” he said, “that we can come together for something bigger, which I like.”

Workers saw a steady stream of donors throughout the day and, for the most part, were able to get students into chairs and on their way fairly quickly.

“It’s always beneficial,” Tim Riley ’19 said. “Blood banks always seem to be short, and it’s something we can easily do with about half an hour of our time.”

To which another donor quickly pointed out:

“And it’s one more way to beat DePauw.”


Puzzled by a crossword? Look to math.

Christina Franks — A crossword puzzle is solved one word at a time. Letter by letter, the answers start coming together. And with more letters comes more answers. How do we know? Math.

Crosswords vary in their degree of difficulty, so under what conditions can that person expect to be able to complete solve a puzzle?

Dr. John McSweeney of the Mathematics Department at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology set out to find that answer a while ago and shared his findings with Wabash students and faculty on Tuesday.

crosswordsWhat McSweeney was able to prove was that, dependent on a puzzle’s difficulty level, there is a certain number of letters from clues that, once obtained, will make a crossword puzzle almost completely solvable.

“Mathematics is really not about numbers – it’s about patterns,” Professor of Mathematics & Computer Science Emeritus David Maharry said. “And a crossword puzzle has huge patterns in it once you start looking.”

The graphs McSweeney used also showed the initial qualities of a puzzle can be so random that a person, even if he or she is not great at solving the crossword one day, the next day might be better. Even if the crossword puzzles are of the same difficulty level, if that person is able to figure out more clues or the letter arrangements make a bit more sense, McSweeney’s research shows that the second day’s puzzle just might go smoother than the last.

McSweeney used crossword puzzles from the New York Times, where Crawfordsville native and 2010 honorary Wabash graduate Will Shortz serves as the crossword puzzle editor. He graduated from Indiana University with the nation’s only degree in Enigmatology, and just a few years later, at age 25, Shortz founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

So if math has shown that once a person gets a certain amount of letters a puzzle becomes completely solvable, Shortz might have to start making sure the Times’ crosswords are even more puzzling.