Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

The Birth of “The Yellow and Blue”

By James Tobin
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How a $20 prize inspired Michigan’s alma mater

In the mid-1880s, the student editors of the University of Michigan Palladium,forerunner of the Ensian,announced a contest.

It was time, they said, for Michigan to have an official alma mater,a song of loyalty and love to rival Yale’s tearjerking “Bright College Years.” They offered a prize of $20 for the winning entry, $5 to the runner-up.

Two young friends, both of them instructors in the literary department (forerunner of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts), took up the challenge.

One was Fred Newton Scott, barely out of U-M and now an instructor in English composition. Scott imagined a song to be sung by pals in an Ann Arbor saloon. He scratched out lyrics to a drinking song he titled “Elixir Juveniatis” (“Elixir of Youth”). Its boisterous chorus went like this:

Here’s health! Clink-clink! Here’s wealth! Clink-clink!
As much as we can spend!
Here’s a wife! Clink-clink! Long life! Clink-clink!
And weal to every friend!

True colors

Charles Mills Gayley

Meanwhile, Scott’s friend, Charles Mills Gayley, 27, was in a more contemplative mood. As he wrote the lyrics of his own entry, he was thinking of the school colors—”azure blue and maize,” chosen by a committee of students in 1867—and the look of farmers’ fields around Ann Arbor at harvest time.

Gayley was the son of a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian missionary and a mother whose New England roots went back to the Mayflower. After his father died in China when Gayley was only five, his mother married an Irish parson who taught the boy to love Latin and English literature. In school he was guided toward a career in the British clergy. But he was an American by birth and, when he was 17, his great uncle, a prominent attorney in Ann Arbor, brought the bright youngster home to be educated at U-M.

In off hours at Michigan he boxed, rowed, and took long walks on the banks of the Huron, while in Latin and English he became a star. After his graduation in 1878, then two years as a school principal in Muskegon, he returned to Ann Arbor to teach. By 1884 he was an assistant professor of Latin, highly popular among students and much approved by his superiors.

“Hail to the colors we wear”

When Gayley saw the songwriting challenge in the Palladium,he “decided first upon the conception and image to be expressed in the song,” as he later recalled. Next he chose a melody—a soft, wistful air called “Pirates’ Chorus” from The Enchantress, an opera by the Irish composer Michael William Balfe. Then, line by line, he composed his lyrics.

They were a paean to the color and light of late summer in Michigan—the yellow grain in the fields, the yellow harvest moon, the varying blues of the sky at morning and sunset. These “ribbons that nature has spun” reminded him, too, of “the maid of the golden hair, and eyes that are brimming with blue.”

Sheet music

For his final refrain, long before Louis Elbel chose the word that famously launches “The Victors,” Gayley wrote: “Hail to the college whose colors we wear. Hurrah for the yellow and blue!”

Against this effort, Fred Scott’s “clink-clink” stood little chance. Gayley took first prize—Scott earned $5 for second place—and the words were published in the Palladium of 1886.

It might have ended there. But students loved the song and began to sing it. Leaflets with the words were printed, and within a few years it was, indeed, the University’s recognized alma mater.

The song remains the same

Gayley’s little sister Sara had remained at home in Ireland. Many years later, long after she had moved to Ann Arbor herself and married Shirley W. Smith, who became Secretary of the University, Sara remembered her brother singing “The Yellow and Blue” on visits home.

“As I often nowadays see and hear the song sung by thousands of loyal Michigan men, bareheaded at football games, in our great stadium,” she wrote, “my mind goes back to the first time I heard it in our little parlor … and I see myself as an adoring little sister full of pride in her brother, asking him how he ever came to write such a wonderful song, and hearing his hearty laugh as he answered, ‘Well! I needed the $10!’” (Sara misremembered; it was $20.)

In 1889, at the age of only 31, Gayley was recruited to head the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of California at Berkeley (which doubled his Michigan salary), and he became one of the great English scholars of his generation.

Gayley returned to Ann Arbor from time to time. In 1925, near the end of a long life, he wrote: “It has always been a great joy to me, revisiting Ann Arbor, to hear the song still sung in fraternity houses, and on the campus in the twilight … I have heard it in mid-ocean, on the streets of Florence and Rome, and hither and yon as I have traveled about the world. A song written in the days of one’s youth, if it by good luck expresses the emotion and enthusiasm of succeeding generations of young men and women, is a thousand times more worthwhile than many books of learning.”

Sources included Benjamin R. Kurtz, Charles Mills Gayley (University of California Press, 1943).

James Tobin

James Tobin

JAMES TOBIN, an author and historian, is a Michigan alumnus and professor of journalism at Miami of Ohio. His latest book is The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency ( Simon & Schuster, 2013). He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University.