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Episode 4: How we went blue

Episode 4: Albert Ahronheim — “How we went blue”

Albert Ahronheim: You know, I try to put myself back into that particular moment. I remember parts of it, but in general, what I would do is…. he sang to me. I’m assuming he’s singing “bom bom bom buh-dah, bom bom bom buh-dah, bom bom bom buh-dah bump bump bump.”

James Tobin: Yeah!

Ahronheim: And I’m not sure I guess that he probably shouted “let’s go blue,” actually. I told you I have the score – the original score – here in my sketch and I looked at it and I thought that this is definitely George’s handwriting. He wrote: “yell ‘let’s go blue.” And I thought that was very funny because I don’t remember if I realize that that was what was going to happen there or not. So probably after I finished the sketch and I showed it to him before I did the full arrangement, he probably wrote “yell ‘let’s go blue’” there. I recognized his handwriting immediately, and I thought wow that is really very funny because I did not remember that at all. So he would’ve sung that baseline to me or some version of it, and then I sat at the piano and I thought about it. I try to figure what it was structurally that we were trying to do. And I could have made a lot of different choices. I could have just repeated: “bom bom bom buh-dah, bom bom bom buh-dah, bom bom bom buh-dah…” You you, you can just keep going like that and get the audience more, and more riled up or something in expectation. I really have no idea what I was probably thinking at the time. But I settled on doing the baseline by itself once, in other words: “bom bom bom buh-dah”. And then doing it again an octave higher. Partly because I wanted to get the rest of the band in it. And if you start with just the baseline then it’s probably just the tubas. But you know, I took lessons with Jerry Bilik, you know who Jerry Bilik is?

Tobin: Oh yeah, that great arranger.

Ahronheim: One thing that he always taught, was that for the most part, everybody plays all the time because you know, you’ve got 100,000 people that are a 100 yards away – more than that and you’re not in a concert hall – so there’s no reverberation. And so you have to use all your resources as well as you can. So, at the very beginning, I had the tubas playing but I also had the trombones playing and alto horns playing and all the woodwinds down in the lower octave. This is getting very esoteric, probably. (laughs)

Tobin: No, it’s fascinating! Actually, maybe this is a good point to play the start of the 1977 version that you sent us.

Ahronheim: Okay.

(Music plays)

Ahronheim: Yeah look at that nice, easy, swinging tempo! (laughs) So you can hear, or maybe you can’t, that the tubas are playing *sings low* “bom bom bom buh-dah!” But the trombones are also playing down there. But the first trombones are playing *sings higher* “bom bom bom buh-dah!” I was singing it in falsetto. And together it makes a nice chunky sound, and carries for a long distance, and it cuts through with the more treble-y sound with the first trombones. And so that’s how the first statement goes.

Tobin: Let’s go to the next part.

(Music plays)

Ahronheim: The trumpets are up one more octave in unison and then the next two bars, I just wanted… I just got bored with that damn baseline. And so if the baseline is the melody, then it goes on for four bars and it goes “bom bom bom buh-dah, (louder) bom bom bom buh-dah!” And then I changed, I added my own melody, which is *sings third part melody* start at the beginning and it was counted through.

Tobin: Okay, gotcha

(Music plays)

Albert Ahronheim: So there’s the base, and the trumpet added. And that whole thing repeats.

Tobin: I see.

(Music plays)

Ahronheim: So I know that what I was thinking was, I wanted to come up with a substantial piece of music as opposed to just this repeating baseline idea.

Tobin: I see.

Ahronheim: So there’s the second section which is I guess you call the contrasting section. The baseline becomes just the baseline accompaniment of a completely different melody, where the trumpets go… and I’ll sing it for you… better do it in an octave that I can sing *sings new melody* “let’s go blue!” With the trombones having a different countermelody behind that. So the baseline just sort of becomes a true baseline as opposed to the melody.

Tobin: I see.

Ahronheim: I think that it was probably “what can I do after that baseline?” You know, I wanted to do something else. So I just started singing something that seemed to generate from that, came up with that thing for the trumpets, then I harmonized the trumpets. And then I realized that in sort of a true Michigan Marching band, Jerry Bilik fashion, (laughs) the trombones needed a countermelody not to make it too highfalutin-sounding but its counterpoint – like baroque music – was sounding very very artsy and highfalutin. It’s just that the trombones are going down while the trumpets were going up or while the trumpets are holding steady in this case. And that just gives the whole thing more movement, more fun, more volume, more interest. It’s arranging more than it is composition. But, composition and arranging are intimately related. What I did is an arrangement based on this baseline. I came up with that new melody, well I guess that’s composition, you know, but I don’t want to make too much of it. It’s not Beethoven.

Tobin: It’s not Beethoven, but it sure has had an enduring power.

Ahronheim: It’s a lot of fun. There’s no question that it’s fun. I had no idea how much fun it was going to be.

If memory serves

Michigan hockey goalie Robbie Moore in the net.

Michigan hockey goalie Robbie Moore had an ear for the hits. (Image: Michiganensian, 1974.)

The way Ken Burke remembers it, the whole thing started — though it certainly didn’t end — with the tuba players in the University of Wisconsin band.

It happened some time in the hockey season of 1973-74. Burke, a junior in the business school, was hanging out with a couple friends in his apartment at the corner of Tappan and Oakland.

One of them was Tom Blaske, a law student. He and Burke had both played tuba in the Michigan Marching Band.

The other guy was Robbie Moore, a neighbor of Burke’s. He was also the All-American goalie on Michigan’s hockey team.

Moore always got a kick out of the pep bands that played at hockey games. That night he got talking about a tune he’d just heard on a road trip to Madison.

Burke and Blaske both remember what Moore said: “There’s this cool thing the Wisconsin hockey band does.”

And he sang a catchy little tune that had stuck in his head, with three staccato notes at the end — bup-bup-bup.

That was it. Burke thought no more about it — until the following fall, when the Marching Band traveled to Madison. There Burke heard the Wisconsin horns play that ditty with the bup-bup-bup, the same one goalie Moore had sung.

Again, that was that — until one winter night when Burke walked down to Yost Arena to watch a hockey game.

In the stands he spotted the hockey pep band, a ragtag bunch of volunteers who pumped up the crowd with jingles and Michigan songs.

Burke walked over to a tuba player he knew named Joe Carl, one of the pep band’s unofficial organizers.

He said: “Hey, Joe, give me your horn for a minute.”

And he played the little tune that Moore had sung in the apartment.

Burke told Carl: “You guys should play that, and then after the bup-bup-bup, you could shout, ‘Let’s go blue!’”

And they did.

Bup-bup-blue

Modern-day tubas, MMB.

We’d be singing the blues if not for the tuba. (Image: D. Holdship.)

Now, Carl’s memory of what happened is slightly different. But he remembers that Wisconsin’s band was somewhere in the stew.

“The band traveled to Wisconsin for the football game,” Carl said recently. “And the Wisconsin band — they’re kind of rowdy, kind of interesting — and I do remember them doing something that ended with a bup-bup-bup, you know?

“It was their sousaphones as they’re marching into the stadium. We were waiting there to come in the stadium, and here comes the Wisconsin band, and they were doing something. I couldn’t recognize what the piece was … but I do remember it ended with this bup-bup-bup. I remember hearing that.”

That something with the bup-bup-bup came back to Ann Arbor in his head, Carl said, then to that hockey game at Yost.

“I don’t remember how that came around to ‘Let’s Go Blue,’” he said, “other than it was just kind of: They seemed to be goofin’ around, then we started goofin’ around.”

And that certain tune began to pop out of Michigan tubas that night.

Then, just after the bup-bup-bup — if Carl’s memory serves — an alto horn player named John Endahl yelled, “Let’s go blue!”

And the crowd loved it.

“Yeah, the crowd picked it up, absolutely,” Carl said. “And you get a crowd there in Yost Arena and it sounded like 10,000 people. It was really cool. It certainly caught us by surprise.”

A-plus arrangement

Let's Go Blue, original sketch, 1975

Let’s Go Blue, original sketch, 1975. (Image courtesy of Albert Ahronheim.)

By the following football season, George Cavender, director of U-M bands, had heard the “Let’s Go Blue” tune-and-cheer, and he loved it, too.

So one day he buttonholed Albert Ahronheim, who had been the Marching Band’s drum major. Now he was Cavender’s graduate assistant and the band’s principal arranger, and he had studied with Jerry Bilik, the U-M-trained composer, arranger, and musical director who conceived “M Fanfare.”

Cavender said: “Hey, Al, there’s this tune that this tuba player’s been playing at the hockey games, and it goes like this …”

Cavender sang it.

“I want you to do a full arrangement for the Marching Band.”

So Ahronheim sat down at a piano and got to work — singing notes, playing notes, and scribbling on a blank score.

Gradually, the arrangement emerged.

He started with the original tuba bassline — the low, thumping notes — and added trombones.

Then he wrote a new melody to burst in at a higher octave — trumpets playing a swinging Dixieland kind of thing. Then all the instruments ascended together into a riot of melody and counter-melody, punctuated at the end with those three popping periods — BUP-BUP-BUP!

Ahronheim got it down on paper. He handed it to Cavender, who looked it over and scribbled in the margin, at the appropriate point: “Yell ‘Let’s go blue.’” (See the upper right corner of the image, above.)

“It’s arranging more than composition,” Ahronheim said recently, “but the two are intimately related. What I did was an arrangement based on this bassline. I came up with that new melody, so I guess that was composition. But I don’t want to make too much of it. It’s not Beethoven.”

Listen in, Michigan

Listen to this mini-podcast as Albert Ahronheim — pictured here as drum major of the Marching Band — and writer Jim Tobin deconstruct this iconic tune, starting with Ahronheim’s initial conversation with Cavender. And then … keep reading below. (Image: Citizen Patriot file photo. Hear more “Listen In, Michigan” podcasts. Subscribe at iTunesTunein, and Stitcher.)

Credit all around   

Iconic MBB director George Cavender, 1975.

MMB director George Cavender, 1975, when “Let’s Go Blue” began to catch on. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

OK, so maybe it’s not Beethoven. But it’s closing in on half a century with no signs of age. It’s a Michigan calling card, of course, but it’s played all over the country. It’s popped up in movies from The Big Chill to Remember the Titans. (In the credits of Titans, Carl and Ahronheim are the very last names listed — thanks in part to Cavender, who urged them to get the tune copyrighted.)

“It’s a lot of fun, there’s no question,” Ahronheim said. “I had no idea how much fun it was going to be.”

So who gets the credit?

It looks like everybody deserves a piece of it, small or large — Robbie Moore, Ken Burke, Joe Carl, Michigan’s hockey fans, George Cavender, and Albert Ahronheim.

And maybe especially those tuba players at Wisconsin, even if we’d rather not admit it.

Burke’s friend Blaske put it this way: “As they used to say of the Panama Canal: Stolen, fair and square.”

And who’s to say Wisconsin didn’t swipe the tune from somebody else?

Epilogue

Robbie Moore, one of Michigan’s great goalies, was only 5’5”, but he went on to a career in professional hockey, including stints with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals.

Ken Burke, a native Detroiter, earned a master’s degree in business from the University of Virginia. He went into the investment field, with stops in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York before winding up near Boston. His friend Tom Blaske practices law in Ann Arbor.

Joe Carl, originally from Dearborn, has been director of the award-winning marching band at Sumner High School in Washington state for more than 25 years. Out of roughly 1,800 students at Sumner, one in nine plays in the band.

Albert Ahronheim, who grew up in Jackson, lives and works in New York City. He’s still in the midst of a successful career as an arranger, orchestrator, and musical director.

Comments

  1. Michael Stewart - 1987, 1988, 1991

    Great article and interview! I was always curious about the origin of the cheer and enjoyed reading about the contrasting memories of the initial beginnings. Moreover, I learned a lot about music composition/arrangement listening to the interview with Mr. Ahronheim. He clearly is a master of his craft and a good teacher. Thank you.

    Reply

  2. Richard Brouwer - '62, School of Social Work

    I had never given a thought to this bit of our history. The song and chant are definitely our sports signature, known around the country; probably around the world. A cool piece of research. Thanks for publishing.

    Reply

  3. Richard Harper - BBA 50, MBA 51

    During the early 50’s, I went to most away games and brought a sign
    which said “Let’s Go Blue” I have a page from an old Michigan sports
    publication which credits me with originating this cheer. Also have an old
    newspaper article which does the same, including a picture of me with
    a sign bearing this cheer taken in Minneapolis before the 1954 Minnesota
    game. I could send a copy of this document.
    Dick Harper

    Reply

    • Deborah Holdship

      That would be great! Would love to see it! — Ed

      Reply

  4. Mike Smith - 1969

    Great story, thanks. I know it can’t be, but I feel like this cheer was part of my own history at Michigan in 1964-69, when Yost was a field house where basketball was played. It’s that big of an influence.

    Reply

  5. Jim Hemsath - 1975

    Very cool. A lot of familiar names from my years in the MMB 71-73.
    Interestingly enough, I played the riff at a hockey game here in Anchorage when the Michigan Hockey team came up to play in a tournament. A one-person hockey band. A far cry from the first one in that white building before they moved to Yost
    Go Blue

    Reply

  6. cher kiesel - '75

    So many good memories! Robbie Moore, perched atop his goal, skates swinging, Albert and Joe (and Ellen) in Bursley, all of us at football games, hockey, basketball, loving on our own go blue song! Thanks, Toby, from an old fellow Daily staffer.

    Reply

  7. Alexander Chrisopoulos - 1974

    THIS IS GREAT.

    Reply

  8. Jane Namenye

    After playing “Let’s Go Blue” hundreds and hundreds of times, it’s wonderful to get even more of the story. The musicology from Albert is priceless!
    Now, I have some history to fill in.
    My first U-M hockey game was in the Fall of 1973. It was after the Marching Band (I mean FOOTBALL) season and I sat with the Hockey Band, though I didn’t perform in the band this time. A sousaphone player stood up and played the “Let’s Go Blue” tune and the crowd clapped along (enthusiastically, as if they had done this at earlier games), but no shouting “Let’s Go Blue!” at the end. The next game I attended was after the holidays, probably February. THIS time, the “Let’s Go Blue!” cheer was a part of it.
    The next year, Fall of 1974 I started playing in Hockey and Basketball Bands, and the Basketball Band director had the sousaphones (and electric bass and drums too, I think) play it. The Marching Band started playing Let’s Go Blue (Albert’s arrangement) the year after that which would be 1975. The annual High School Band Day was early that season, and many of the band took it back to their school and started playing it in one form or another.

    Reply

  9. John Birchler - 1985

    I remember attending games in the 70s with older siblings who were at Michigan at that time and the crowd clapped on the offbeat. Eventually, they started clapping on the downbeat which drives me crazy. It’s a great arrangement and I love to sing along with the various horn parts that are so interesting. And I still clap on 2 and 4, instead of on 1 and 3.

    Reply

  10. Johnny Klonaris - 1978

    I was in the band that fall of 1974 (admittedly, as a flag), and I remember Al arranging that – I thought for sure were were doing it at games before then (I also remember the Wisconsin trip – and the fans tossing rolls of toilet paper at us…). I remember when he made the arrangement, and I was only in the band that one year.
    Still, it’s been a while…

    Reply

  11. Jane Namenye

    Looking for an earlier piece of music that may have inspired “Let’s Go Blue”? Listen to the bass line in ” Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson (the jazzy part in the middle of the song.) It’s at 1:52 in this Boston Pops performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OATi34PKNPw
    Albert did an arrangement of another tune, especially for the Hockey Band, when he was its director. It was only played once, but it actually brought a fight on the rink to an abrupt halt. I put the story and a couple of pictures from that time in my Michigan Band Vintage Flashback blog.
    https://michbandflashback.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/michigan-hockey-band-a-true-story/

    Reply

    • Anna Ahronheim - 1976

      Jane — what a great story! It makes me wish I’d played in hockey band on a regular basis. I only played a couple times and don’t remember that at all. I guess I missed a big chunk of the fun.

      Reply

    • Karen Dunnam - MMB '74

      Here’s the alumni pep band doing “Sleigh Ride.”
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYTxd_7_DnA

      Reply

    • James Denson - 81 (Last game: 82 Super Bowl)

      Jane, YES, I did pick-up the jazzy Sleigh Ride phrase!
      If you see this, please stay in touch!

      Reply

  12. Dr. Stan Majewski - LSA 1961

    I remember chanting the phrase “let’s go blue” in the fifties, while a student.
    As a member in the Michigan Men’s Glee Club, we encouraged Dr. Philip Duey, our beloved director, to compose a song which would recognize and contain this cheer. He did, and my group was the first to perform it around 1959 (?). I love hearing it and singing it. Please request the Glee Club to sing it at their next concert. I believe the title of the composition is ” Go Blue, Let’s Go Blue,” and continues “we’re here to cheer for you.”

    Reply

  13. Karen Dunnam - MMB '74

    Here’s the tuba cheer.
    https://youtu.be/k-rA5HzsrJc
    And here’s how to do hands-only CPR
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLyxKFSwX5M

    Reply

  14. Karen Dunnam - MMB '74

    Here’s Joe Carl receiving fame and adulation at the HS where he teaches.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMWwj5v0cUE

    Reply

    • Jane Namenye Namenye

      Yeah Joe!
      Of course one good thing leads to another on YouTube. This MMB sousaphone section rehearsal of “Let’s Go Blue” came up next. (With a bonus of the trumpet section playing The Victor’s at the same time.)
      https://youtu.be/dSCH8UDEWdI

      Reply

  15. Jane Namenye

    This compilation shows the full spectrum of “Let’s Go Blue”.
    https://youtu.be/NfLGFceyEDM

    Reply

  16. Jim Pickering - 1978

    What a great article! Thanks to Jim Tobin and Albert Ahronheim, both of whom I knew back at Michigan. I played trombone in the ’74 and ’75 MMB, and we definitely had a lot of fun playing “Let’s Go Blue.”

    Reply

  17. Jeff Lutz - 1977 LS&A

    I also knew both Albert (I was a trumpet in the ’73-’76 bands) and Jim (he was a fraternity brother of mine and went to high school with my wife), and was in the first MMB that played “Let’s Go Blue!” It was great to hear both their voices again after so many years.
    I also seem to remember that there was a bit of a controversy about copyrighting the song. If my memory is correct, the University would not let Joe Carl and Albert copyright it for many years, by which time the tune was in the public domain so they missed out on huge royalties which they could have collected. Does anybody know the real story around this?

    Reply

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