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Contest celebrates 100 years of ‘On, Wisconsin!’

October 16, 2009 By Gwen Evans

It is 32 bars of hummable, toe-tapping Badger spirit and it turns 100 years old this year. Yes, the song “On, Wisconsin!” has hit the century mark, and Badger fans with spirit to spare can create their own versions of the song and submit them to a contest that will run throughout the academic year.

Contest winners will be selected in the following categories: largest group performance, performance farthest from Madison and most creative performance. Prizes will be awarded for the best videos every month, with a grand prize awarded at the end of the academic year. Fans can upload recordings to YouTube using their own YouTube account. Once uploaded, send an e-mail with the YouTube URL to Fans also can upload to UW–Madison’s YouTube site, Visit the contest Web site for more details and instructions.

Over the years, “On, Wisconsin!” has been ranked among the best college fight songs. Countless high schools and at least 18 colleges have adopted “On, Wisconsin!” as their own — with their own lyrics, of course. The “march king” himself, John Philip Sousa, called it “the finest college marching song ever written” and “the most stirring, enthusiastic college melody I have ever heard.”

“On, Wisconsin!” was written by William T. Purdy (music) and Carl Beck (lyrics), who were roommates in a Chicago rooming house. Purdy had intended to enter his composition in a contest offering a $100 prize for a new song for the University of Minnesota (gasp!). Beck, who attended Wisconsin from 1908-09, wrote new lyrics after hearing the melody and convinced Purdy to abandon his Minnesota plan. The rest is history.

The fact that the song was originally intended for Minnesota is ironic, considering that the Badgers and Gophers have met consecutively since 1890, which is the longest-running rivalry in all of college football.

Because the song is such a cultural icon, the melody is ripe for off-label use. The Cub Scouts used it to encourage fitness and Two Rivers, Wis., wrote a ditty to defend its claim as the birthplace of the ice cream sundae. For those so inclined, there is even a version that skewers FORTRAN computer programs.

It wouldn’t be right to let the anniversary slip past, so a number of campus events and activities will celebrate and honor “On, Wisconsin!”

UW-Madison Libraries has put together a fascinating Web site on all things “On, Wisconsin!” with sections on history, photos, biographies of the composers, different lyrics, various recordings (the earliest posted is from 1915), different versions of the song and links to other resources. Find all this at

“On, Wisconsin!” has been performed at nearly every athletic event and a good share of nonathletic events since its introduction.

Image: courtesy University Archives

The Marching Band, under the direction of Mike Leckrone, will present a special halftime show celebrating the centennial of “On, Wisconsin!” at the homecoming game against Iowa, on Saturday, Oct. 17.

The Wisconsin Alumni Association has designed a T-shirt for the anniversary as part of its Red Shirt program. The shirt is printed with the song lyrics, and sales benefit financial aid for students as part of the Great People Scholarship Campaign. Find out more by visiting

Doctoral music composition student Jerry Hui is preparing an arrangement of the song, which will be premiered by the UW–Madison Concert Choir later this semester.

A 30-minute documentary is in production and will air on the Big Ten Network later this fall. It will cover the song’s history, lore and what it means to alumni.