‘The Songs of California: The UC Berkeley Traditon’

By Zelda Bronstein, Special to the Planet
Friday March 07, 2008
“Gr-rr-rah, Gr-rr-rah Gr-rr, ... rr-rah!”  A new Cal song book, Songs of California: The U.C. Berkeley Tradition, has just been published. See story, page six.
Contributed photo
“Gr-rr-rah, Gr-rr-rah Gr-rr, ... rr-rah!” A new Cal song book, Songs of California: The U.C. Berkeley Tradition, has just been published. See story, page six.

What venerable UC Berkeley tradition, having fallen onto hard times, has its fans hoping that it’s on the verge of a comeback? 

The likeliest answer is of course Cal football. 

Since last October, however, the question has had a less predictable but perhaps equally plausible reply: the Cal song tradition. 

What’s that, you ask? 

From the 1890s until the 1940s, Berkeley students—not just members of organized performing groups, but Berkeley students at large—knew a sizable repertoire of distinctively Cal songs and sang those songs at all manner of occasions: at athletic events, class gatherings, university events and any time they pleased. 

During World War II, many male students were in the armed forces and many students had come to Cal from other schools. Worried about a falling-off of school spirit, President Robert Gordon Sproul, himself a former Cal Band drum major, commissioned the Glee Club and Treble Clef director, Roschelle Paul, to create a portable song book. Songs of California, edited by Ms. Paul and Professor of Music Albert I. Elkus, appeared in 1944. The book guided noontime student singing by the Campanile and later on Faculty Glade. 

In the 1960s the song tradition, like many other campus traditions, waned. The repertoire was regularly performed by the Cal Band, along with the Glee Club, Treble Clef and other student singing groups. But your typical student no longer knew how to sing most of these songs or was even aware of their existence. 

Now a new era of campus vocal literacy may be about to dawn, thanks to the publication of a new edition of the Cal song book, Songs of California: The U.C. Berkeley Tradition. Published by the Class of 1957 and compiled by the Cal Song Book Committee under the leadership of attorney and Kensington resident John Vlahos ’57, Songs of California brings together in a handsome format twenty-one pieces. 

Each song is accompanied by a brief account of its origins, which in some cases lie outside California and collegiate culture—and its career at Berkeley, as well as an evocative photograph or other illustration. “California, We’re For You” (1919) is prefaced by the most intriguing photo in the book, which shows the 1921 Senior Women’s Pilgrimage: young women garbed in floaty, calf-length white dresses and holding white parasols parade against a backdrop of trees, while in the foreground Cal bandsmen march off in another direction. 

But the bulk of the illustrations depict sporting events and associated activities. That’s because the major inspiration for most of the songs was school athletics—above all support for Cal athletes competing against their Stanford rivals. Some of these tunes will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has attended, watched or listened to Cal football or basketball games, because they are regularly played by the Cal Band. “’Big C” is traditionally the first song the band plays at football games as it marches onto the field; “Fight for California” is struck up after every Cal score. 

Others are far less familiar. The newest song is “California Triumph,” its music written in 2004 by a four-year Cal Band trombone player, Hiro Hiraiwa, and its lyrics written in 2005 by fifth-year percussion player Aaron Alcala-Mosley. 

One piece, California Indian Song,” is still played by the band but no longer sung—at least not at official events—due to its lyrics’ politically incorrect references to scalping and tomahawks. Song book editor Vlahos says that the decision to include even the score came after much debate. Vlahos wanted to include the music and the lyrics. “This is history,” he says. “It may have been wrong, but that’s what it was.” Other members of the Cal Song Book Committee wanted to cut the song entirely. “Nuts to that,” says Vlahos. “The band still plays the music.” The compromise was to print the score but not the words. 

The song book also reflects another new attitude: a critical approach to the student consumption of alcohol. The University insisted that “California (The Drinking Song)” be prefaced by a substantial disclaimer that emphasized the “historical” character of the piece, marked the school’s “multiple efforts to shift the college drinking culture and address problems as serious issues rather than as a harmless ‘rite of passage,’ ” and noted that neither UC, the alumni association nor the class of 1957 “intends that publication [of the song] condones the improper use of alcohol.” A glance at the lyrics, which, unlike the words to the “California Indian Song,” made it into the song book, indicates why the UC administration would want to clarify its policies. “The Drinking Song” is about getting plastered (“One keg o’beer for the four of us”). The irony, says Vlahos, is that “if there is one song that is known today and still sung, it’s that song.” 

If Vlahos gets his wish, that will change. He hopes the new song book will be “the inspiration for young people” at Cal to sing. To that end, he’d like all student living groups to receive copies and singing instruction. Recent observation suggests that the book should be made available at athletic events as well. At the February 23 game at Haas Pavilion between the Cal and Stanford women’s basketball teams, with over 10,500 people in attendance, the crowd seemed to know only one line of “Big ‘C’”: “Gr-rr-rah, Gr-rr-rah Gr-rr,__rr-rah!” 

Songs of California is the work of many hands. Vlahos gives special credit to Class of 1957 President John Edginton, who provided legal and technical expertise, taking the lead in securing financial support from the Class of 1957. The Class Council donated about $38,000 toward the publication of the song book—$8,000 from the class treasury, which has since been repaid, and $30,000 in special fundraising from the class. 

But the chief impetus for the project came from Vlahos. The new edition was his idea—no surprise, perhaps, considering how Cal athletics and vocal music have both played a central role in his own life. Since the mid-Sixties, Vlahos has called Cal football games in the press box. He’s also president of the Lamplighters Musical Theatre, which he joined in 1963. He started working on the song book in 1992, dropped it due to other commitments, and then “got cracking again” in late 2005, determined to have the book ready for the Class of 1957’s fiftieth reunion. He made his deadline. 

Songs of California can be purchased for $20, including tax, from the California Alumni Association.