Greek Revival July/August 2008
by Mark Alden Branch ’86
Mark Alden Branch ’86 is executive editor of the Yale
Watch former Yale cheerleader Frank Gibson ’49 demonstrate the Long Cheer, a staple at football games for 75 years.
If you walked through the Woolsey Hall Rotunda on May
31, on Saturday of the first reunion weekend, just after the president’s
speech, you might have encountered an event that was not on the reunion
schedule. There, in front of a video crew and whoever happened to pass by, two
full-grown men were jerking their arms to and fro, bending down, leaping up,
and shouting a peculiar incantation:
Those of you who are Yale College alumni over the age
of, say, 70, already know what I’m talking about. The liturgical dancers were
performing the Long Cheer, a Yale ritual that was born in the 1880s and
survived until—well, we’re not sure, but probably the 1960s, when so many
vestiges of Old Yale bit the dust. The two men were teacher and student: Frank
Gibson ’49, a former Yale cheerleader, was showing Yale College dean Peter
Salovey ’86PhD the fine points of a cheer that was once shouted by thousands at
the Yale Bowl.
Robert H. O’Connor ’45W, ’48E, would like to see that
happen again. As football manager in 1947, O’Connor was responsible for
appointing the head cheerleader, and he chose Gibson. Like most Yalies of his
time, O’Connor knew the Long Cheer, but he never really knew it until the day
he was summoned to the office of then-university secretary Carl Lohmann ’09,
who complained to him that the student body had forgotten the proper way to do
the Long Cheer. “He came out from behind his desk and showed me,” recalls
O’Connor. Gibson himself remembers learning the intricacies of the cheer, from
Jonathan Edwards College master Robert Dudley French, not long after he arrived
as a freshman in 1944. (Click here to read Gibson’s story of how it happened.)
As students of ancient Greek will know, the seemingly
nonsensical words of the cheer have their origins in Aristophanes’ comedy The
Frogs, written in
about 405 BCE. “Brek-ek-ek-ex, ko-ax, ko-ax” is the sound a chorus of frogs
makes as Charon ferries Dionysus across a lake in Hades. (If you don’t think
frogs sound like that, by the way, try listening toPelophylax ridibundus, a marsh frog common in Greece.) In
January 1884, a group of sophomores studying their Greek got a little punchy
and decided the frog chorus would make a great cheer. To the “Brek-ek-ek-ex,
ko-ax, ko-ax” they added a couple of Charon’s lines: “o-op” (“avast”) and
“parabalou” (“lay to”). A few months later, they introduced the cheer during a
low point at a baseball game. It spurred the Bulldogs to victory and became a
long-lasting part of the repertoire, acquiring a coda of staccato “Yale”s and
“Rah”s somewhere along the way. (Click here for Judith Ann Schiff’s 1998 column about the cheer’s origin, and here to read the letters we got in response.)
It was O’Connor who organized the Woolsey Hall lesson
(which was to be a private one until the Yale Alumni Magazine heard about it and brought cameras). He had seen a photo of
Salovey directing the Yale band at a hockey game, he says, and thought, “If he
can do that, he can lead the Long Cheer.” O’Connor’s dream is that Salovey will
lead a renaissance of the cheer among his student charges.
If you want to learn the Long Cheer, watch our video as often as needed. The dean may need to consult it himself a few times between now
and football season.
Frogs in the pool
Thank you for your article on the Yale cheer. Until now I thought what followed the frogs’ croak was gibberish, but thanks to your commentary, I found both words in my Liddle and Scott Greek-English Lexicon, dated Oxford, October 1871.
“O-op” is translated as “the cry of the ‘keleustes’ to make the rowers stop pulling… The keleustes is the man who by his call (keleusma) gives the time to the rowers.”
“Parabalou” is the imperative “Put to land!”
Incidentally, there is no mention in the article that Monty Woolley ’11 directed a production of Aristophanes’ Frogs in the Yale swimming pool just before Pearl Harbor. Who knows? A stimulus for staging it may have been the then-popular Yale cheer “brek-ek-ek-ex.”
Walter B. Gleason, Yale ’47
There was another famous staging of The Frogs in the Payne Whitney pool in 1974 with songs by Stephen Sondheim—and Meryl Streep ’75MFA, Sigourney Weaver ’74MFA, and Christopher Durang ’74MFA in the chorus.—Eds.
The Dramat stages Aristophanes’ Frogs in 1941.
Growing up with the Long Cheer
I grew up with a family weaned on “Brek-ek-ek-exes.” My late mother also enjoyed an anti-Harvard dirge called “The Undertaker:”
More work for the Undertaker,
’nother little job for the coffin maker.
In the LOcal ce-me-TERY they are
VEry VEry BUsy…
NO HOPE FOR HARVARD.
Alas, “The Undertaker” is no longer heard in the Bowl. An earlier generation deemed it un-sportsmanlike, said Mother.
Surely there’s a small book with the words and music, life and death, of Yale cheers.
John Trumbull Robinson Pierson
Harvard ’59, Yale ’62MA
The Yale Glee Club, which includes “The Undertaker” in its Football Medley, offers for sale a recently updated edition of Songs of Yale that includes a number of traditional tunes, if not cheers.—Eds.
Read Frank Gibson’s story of how his college master taught him the
Hear the call of the frogs that may have inspired Aristophanes.