Not just whistling dixie in D.C.
By Locke Peterseim
Special to

Those of us outside the D.C. area live our lives mostly unaware of two facts: That Washington is in fact a Southern city, and that some pro football teams still have marching bands. And naturally our tale today takes place where the twain meets.

The original Redskins fight song was "Fight for old Dixie!"
When George Preston Marshall, the first Redskins owner, brought his new franchise (originally the Boston Braves, then the Boston Redskins) to Washington, D.C., in 1937, he had grand hopes for making football games more than just athletic contests. Marshall wanted those Sunday afternoons in Griffith Stadium to be entertainment for the whole family, and especially to draw more females to the events. Marshall was no stranger to the laws of evolutionary biology: he knew that greater female attendance would lead to greater male attendance.

Deciding music might do the trick, Marshall plopped a dance band in a teepee atop the bleachers and then set out to build a 150-piece marching band. Marching bands had become increasingly popular since the turn of the century, in no small part due to the efforts of band leader, march writer and D.C.-native John Philip Sousa. The widespread popularity of the bands was evidenced by the less-than-Sousa-y sources Marshall poached for his new band -- The Chestnut Farms Chevy Chase Dairy Band and a nearby boys reform school band. After all, everyone knows that to make cows produce more milk or wayward boys see the straight and narrow, nothing works better than a rousing version of "Stars and Stripes Forever."

By the start of the 1938 season, the Washington Redskins Marching Band had been assembled. Step two was to come up with an appropriately jaunty and rousing team fight song. The band members suggested "Onward Christian Soldiers," perhaps intending to change the lyrics to "Onward Mighty Redskins, / Marching for a score, / With the First-down markers, / Going on before!" But Marshall demurred -- he'd had area band leader Barnee Breeskin knock out a potential fight song tune the previous year. In keeping with the Christian angle, Breeskin's melody sounded quite a bit like the Sunday School song "Jesus Loves Me," but Breeskin himself also admitted there was a bit of "Dixie" tucked in there, too.

Which brings us to our other point. In the '30s, the Redskins were very much the Team of the South. There were no Miami Dolphins, no Atlanta Falcons -- other than the Redskins, there were no pro football teams south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi. Marshall knew regional-minded Southern pro football fans had only the 'Skins to root and he pounced on the angle.

Which helps explain some of the original lyrics of "Hail to the Redskins!" as written by Marshall's wide Corinne Griffith, a retired silent-movie star, a.k.a. the "Orchard Lady of the Screen." You probably remember Corinne from such films as "Syncopating Sue," "Island Wives" and "A Virgin's Sacrifice." Actually, her best-known roles were in "Black Oxen" and "The Divine Lady," for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. But those titles don't sound nearly as funny.

Where today's song cheers fans to "Fight for old D.C.!" the original version's "Fight for old Dixie!" played directly to the fans' Southern identity. And while the Redskins still use a racial slur for their team name, some words in the original fight song didn't do much to deflect accusations of racism. Where the song now says, "Beat 'em, swamp 'em, touchdown! -- Let the points soar!" it once went, "Scalp 'em, swamp 'em -- We will take 'em big score / Read 'em, weep 'em, touchdown! -- We want heap more!" The lyrics were subsequently cleaned up in the '60s, after Marshall's Redskins were, notoriously in 1962, the last pro team to integrate.

Meanwhile in the late '50s, Breeskin found himself at odds with Marshall and so, in a pique, had his attorney sell "Hail to the Redskins" to Clint Murchison, who was trying to start a NFL expansion team in Dallas. The bitter irony of the Cowboys one day beating their legendary rivals to the 'Skins own fight song never came to be -- Murchinson simply held the beloved tune hostage until Marshall agreed to vote for the expansion. The Redskins then bought it back.

To this day the Washington Redskins Marching Band plays on. It's the oldest in the league, just down the road from one of the other few remaining pro bands, the Marching Ravens (originally the Colts Marching Band). Of course, these days they have to compete with Jumbotron screens and the dulcet tones of Fugazi. And with Southerners having the Dolphins, Buccaneers, Falcons, Jaguars, Saints and Panthers to root, the Redskins will have to settle for being the Gators North.

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