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The Secret Source of that Silly Tune
The fall of 1956 was an exciting time to be a freshman at Yale. Judy Holliday was at the Shubert, Richard Nixon spoke on the green, and Herbert von Karajan and Billy Graham were booked at Woolsey Hall. (Adlai Stevenson tried to play Woolsey, too, but he was turned back by an unmannerly crowd of Eisenhower supporters.) The basketball team made the NCAA tournament, our oarsmen won an Olympic gold medal in Australia, and the football team was poised to win the Ivy League. President Griswold put out a brushfire started by the rumor that women would be admitted to the College, reassuring all concerned that the deans were “nowhere near” such a decision. And a real fire was extinguished in the basement of Wright Hall.
For me, there was an additional—more personal—reason for excitement: hearing the marching band play “Boola Boola” at the season opener against UConn. My grandfather, Allan M. Hirsh, Class of 1901, had written the song in the fall of 1900. It was published in early 1901, and along with his many other accomplishments, had long been part of our family lore. I heard him play and sing it many times as a kid; yes, it has words, lots of words. The repeated words “Boola Boola” that we think of as the entire song make up only a small part of the chorus, itself a fraction of the entire piece.
In fact, my grandfather wrote two Boolas, “Sentimental” and “Athletic,” each with its own words and tempo. A third version, “College Trio,” was “Bright College Years” set to the Boola tune. The original sheet music tells us that the words “can be sung with the Yale Boola March if accented properly.”
My grandparents had four sons, all of whom had gone to Yale, and now it was my turn. To be sure, I had heard “Boola” before at Yale games; once, standing at Grandfather’s side in the Bowl. But I was finally there as a true son of Eli, and I was going to savor the moment to the full.
The band played, and I swelled with pride; in retrospect, it seems embarrassingly grandiose. But I was in the grip of the moment, 15 rows up on the 40-yard line, sitting next to a grumpy alumnus who had been nursing a monogrammed silver flask through the disappointing first half. (We trailed 14–6.)
“Do you know who wrote ‘Boola?’” I asked.
He looked at me suspiciously and said: “Sure. Cole Porter,” and went back to his bourbon.
I was devastated. Later, I quizzed my father for some hard information on the origin of the song. My grandfather had died in 1951 when I was 13, and beyond having “Boola” song sheets from 1901, an obituary, and a few newspaper articles about his life, I didn’t have any hard information about the song.
Even the word “Boola” was unexplained. It meant “good” in some Polynesian language, I had been told. Sure. Maybe some friends had helped with the tune; but that wasn’t clear, either. It was said that Grandfather wrote the tune in Vanderbilt Hall and posted it on a tree before a football game, a common practice in the days when new competitive cheers were learned before each game. He is credited with starting “The Undertaker” that way. (“The Undertaker” was a wordless wail used to unsettle the opposition. The mournful cry went around the stadium much as the “wave” does today.)
A little digging produced the fact that John Philip Sousa played “Boola” at a concert in New Haven in April 1901. And it sold more sheet music in the first half of that year than any other song in the country.
But no one in the family knew anything more. Grandfather had always been evasive about it, my father said, because it suited his nature to be mysterious. He was an accomplished pianist who loved to say that he couldn’t read a note of music. Yet he played with Jimmy Durante (my grandmother hated Durante’s visits—the two men spent hours in Grandfather’s “music room” playing the piano, smoking cigars, and generally ignoring my grandmother), Fritz Kreisler was a friend, and Grandfather sometimes played jazz at Kelly’s in New York—until James Petrillo, the head of the American Federation of Musicians, threatened to pull the band if he didn’t join the union. Grandfather hated unions in general and Patrillo in particular; that was the end of the Kelly’s gig. Or so the story ran.
I was resigned to let the details of the song’s origins remain a mystery. But in 1992, my father’s brother, Malcolm, found a box of sheet music and sent it to me. At the bottom of the stack were dozens of Grandfather’s compositions, including marches and a clarinet piece, the words and music all written in his neat hand, dated and signed. So much for the “I can’t read a note” fable. Then in 1995, another brother, Allan Jr., then 86 and about to sell the family home in Montclair, New Jersey, called to say he had found a box of Yale papers and books hidden under insulation in the attic. Inside the box were class notes, baseball game pamphlets, a stash of photographs taken between 1898 and 1901, and a 1901 yearbook. The most interesting photograph was of 6 Vanderbilt, where “Boola” was written. The piano in the photograph later found its way to our house where it was known as “Mr. Practice.” My associations with it are not all positive. At age 10, in the middle of an otherwise uninteresting lesson, my teacher fell over dead of a heart attack. His face hit the keys with a mighty crash, a sound I’ll never forget.
Another photo in the box was a portrait of the Yale baseball team for which Grandfather was the catcher. One of his roommates, Frank Robertson, was the pitcher and team captain; he was also first tenor in the Yale Choir. Baseball was the reason Grandfather went to Yale in the first place, though the trail from Richmond, Virginia, to New Haven was convoluted. It started at Richmond College in 1894. He was a wizard baseball player, and for two years went on baseball barnstorming trips with the Richmond team throughout the east, taking on college, town, and industry teams.
In those days, Southern colleges generally weren’t academically what they are today, and in 1896 he went to Andover for a tune-up year before transferring to a northern college. Apparently, he wasn’t up to speed in Latin, and he returned to Richmond where he “prepared by tutor,” to quote the 1901 Yale yearbook. While being tutored, he went back to playing baseball for the C of R, even though he wasn’t enrolled at the time.
The Yale team came through on its spring tour expecting an easy win over Richmond. But they were beaten, and the coach was so impressed by Grandfather that he asked him to travel with the team for the rest of the tour. He did, and joined the Class of 1901 in the fall of 1897.
While he weighed only 135 pounds, Grandfather’s throwing arm was amazing. He was able to throw the ball to the second baseman from the catcher’s crouch—without standing up—with such a flat trajectory that the ball would pass under the pitcher’s arm. No one stole second on him, and pitchers had to be quick to get out of the way of his pick-off throw. He played semipro ball after Yale, but a foul tip fractured his larynx and ended his plan to play professionally.
But there was an item in the box even more fascinating than the old pictures: a carbon copy of a typed letter written to a schoolgirl in Midville, Georgia, dated May 7, 1930, responding to Miss Gertrude Coleman’s letter to the University asking for information about the history of the “Boola Song.” My grandfather answered that the song “came out in the fall of 1900, and was gotten up jointly by two of my classmates, F. M. Van Wincklen, A. H. Marckwald and myself.” He continues:
The game Grandfather referred to was the Harvard game, played on November 24, 1900. Yale won, 28–0.
Grandfather was an entertainer and a man who loved a practical joke. Keeping the details of “Boola” just a bit obscure no doubt played well with family and friends, but he did come clean for Miss Coleman—and saved the evidence. Perhaps he hid it on purpose; more likely, he simply put away some valued memories, then forgot about them. Either way, the song is still euphonious, and the mystery of its origin is solved.
The Rest of the Song
Well, here we are; well, here we are!
Now isn’t it a shame, now, isn’t it a shame,
“We Record, You Decide”
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