Ramblin’ Wreck proves helluva song

Ramblin\' Wreck Sheet MusicThis article is reposted (with minor alterations) from an article I wrote for The Technique (official site, Wikipedia article), published on June 8, 2007. (html, pdf). You may also be interested in the song’s Wikipedia article (which I also wrote), as it does a better job of covering the song.

Anyone at Tech can recognize its fight song, the “Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech.” Its catchy tune, brazen lyrics and rich history make it as much a part of Tech life and tradition as Buzz and stealing the T. But where does the song come from?

Its history starts with the old drinking song “Son of a Gambolier,” a lament to one’s own poverty. The song was popular long before Tech opened; the earliest college to adopt it was Dickson College in the 1850s, which modified it to reference their college bell with the lines

I wish I had a barrel of rum
and sugar three hundred pounds,
The college bell to mix it in,
The clapper to stir it round.”

The Colorado School of Mines adapted it in the late 1870s, naming it “The Mining Engineer” and singing

“Like every honest fellow,
I take my whisky clear,
I’m a rambling wreck from Golden Tech,
a helluva engineer.”

Many other colleges adopted it as well, but no version is as close to the “Ramblin’ Wreck” as “The Mining Engineer.” Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute wrote “Son of Old R.P.I” in 1895, singing

“Like every honest fellow,
I drink my whiskey clear,
I’m a moral wreck from the Polytech
And a hell of an engineer.”

Also in 1895, Charles Ives, the first uniquely American composer, wrote a melody for the song. Ives was the first uniquely American composer, and the tune was as somber as the song itself.

Then came Tech, which opened its doors to students in 1888. According to Howard D. Cutter, a member of the class of 1892, Tech’s version of the song was first sung by a student to cheer on the Engineers to victory against UGA’s baseball team in an 1890 game. The song became the school’s official fight song in 1905 and the lyrics were published in Tech’s first-ever yearbook in 1908.

Michael A. Greenblatt, Tech’s first bandmaster, heard the band playing the fight song to Charles Ives’ tune and wrote the first arrangement and score of the song around 1912. Greenblatt’s successor, Frank Roman, wrote and copyrighted a new adaptation for the song that included trumpet flourishes. Roman’s version, or something close to it, is the song that Tech students know and love.

The new song then enjoyed great popularity and a meteoric rise to fame. In 1920, then-student Arthur Murray organized the world’s first radio dance, which featured the “Ramblin’ Wreck.” In 1925, the Columbia Gramophone Company began selling a recording of Tech songs which included “Ramblin’ Wreck.” The song became “immensely popular” according to sources; it gained incredible fame when Tech’s Glee Club sung it on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1953.

As impressive as that was, it was even more amazing when it was sung by vice president Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev to ease tension at their 1959 meeting in Moscow. Nixon didn’t know any Russian songs, but Khrushchev knew “Ramblin’ Wreck” from the Ed Sullivan Show. The song has also appeared in other places: Tim Holt sang it in His Kind of Woman (1951); John Wayne whistled it in The High and the Mighty (1954); Gregory Peck sang it in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956). It was also the first school fight song to be played in space.

In 1998, a 19-member Diversity Task Force chaired by Stephanie Ray, associate dean of students and director of Diversity Programs, proposed that changes should be made to the fight song because it discriminated against women. Faced with vocal opposition from students and alumni, however, the task force abandoned the effort.

The most recent development has been the student body’s adoption of the cheer “Fight! Win! Drink! Get naked!” at the end of the song. Relatively few Tech students know the storied history behind the fight song. The next time you pump your fist in the air while cheering for Tech sports, you’ll know more about what you’re singing.

Andrew Guyton

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