Thursday, March 25, 2010

"On the banks of the old Raritan, my boys..."

Wordle image of the Rutgers alma mater

The Daily Targum had an article yesterday (see "Council urges revision to traditional U. song") regarding the explicit gender and class bias in the Rutgers alma mater, "On the Banks of the Old Raritan."  I recall that there have been periodic complaints about the traditional song, written in the late 19th century, when Rutgers (like most colleges of the time) was an all male institution.  One could probably map these complaints onto concurrent historical events to show some pattern of when this issue gets raised -- though that would not answer why it never gets resolved.  The first complaints were raised following the 1972 admission of women to all Rutgers colleges.  I remember complaints in the late 1980s (during the rise of "political correctness") and a subsequent revision of the official lyrics (mp3) to substitute "my friends" for "my boys" -- still leaving in multiple other gendered references, including "My father sent me to old Rutgers, / And resolv'd that I should be a man" (implying, perhaps, that women sent to Rutgers were supposed to get sex changes).  The Targum article suggests that the current complaint is probably fueled by the recent change in the female to male ratio at Rutgers (which, like most US colleges, seems headed for 55/45 women to men, and probably 60/40 within the coming decade if current trends continue). 

There is no question that the song does not fit the current climate.  But rather than just change the words to the old song, someone ought to just write a good contemporary song for Rutgers that might actually catch on.  After all, I do not think our alma mater is much of a living thing for people in the ways it might have been in the late 19th century.

These questions seem so trivial to me now.  I have a funny little book on my shelf called The Remick Favorite Collection of College Songs, which often are set to old fashioned sentimental and nostalgic tunes (such as Swanee River, or the Scottish song about the old Dundee that provides the music for our alma mater).  When I first sat down to think about this course, I remember picking up that book and thinking that the topic of "college songs" was something someone with a literary or musical bent might want to explore in this course.  But as we have gotten immersed in the vital issues of college funding, privatization, binge drinking on campus, the anti-academic student culture, cheating, the value of a college degree, the influence of college sports, and a host of other vital issues, I recognize that songs to alma mater seem very much beside the point, and any debate on this issue is a distraction from much more important issues that should be our focus.

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