This year, the University of Arizona and its marching band, the Pride of Arizona, celebrate the 70th anniversary of “Bear Down, Arizona,” the song that accompanies nearly every Wildcats celebration.
As a fight song, “Bear Down, Arizona” checks a lot of boxes, both musically and lyrically. It’s performed at a relatively fast tempo and in a major key, both of which add excitement and lift the listeners’ mood. And it features a simple musical structure and equally simple, punchy words that have symbolic meaning.
“I think ‘Bear Down, Arizona’ is one of the great fight songs. It’s uniquely recognizable,” says Chad Shoopman, assistant professor of music at the Fred Fox School of Music, director of the Pride of Arizona and an alumnus.
Celebrating 70 years of ‘Bear Down, Arizona’
The first-ever public performance of the song took place on Saturday, Sept. 20, 1952, during a noontime “A Day” pep rally in downtown Tucson, just before first-year students headed up “A” Mountain to whitewash the “A.” It became an instant tradition – likely by design of the song’s composer, longtime University of Arizona band director Jack K. Lee.
In Lee’s version of the story, he began writing the song after his interview for the position of band director, as his flight passed over Bear Down Gymnasium on its departure from Tucson International Airport.
He recalled hearing the story of starting quarterback John “Button” Salmon, who was seriously injured in a car accident in 1926. From his deathbed, Salmon is said to have asked coach James Fred “Pop” McKale to take a message to his teammates: “Tell them … tell the team to Bear Down.” Those words led the Wildcats to a victory in the next game and became the battle cry for all of the sports teams, the entire student body, and fans across Southern Arizona.
The story goes that Lee wrote the lyrics and arrangement on the back of an air sickness bag.
After Lee accepted the job, it seems he returned to Tucson with a plan to introduce “Bear Down, Arizona” as an alternative or companion to “Fight, Wildcats, Fight” – Arizona’s (still) official fight song, composed in 1929 by former band member Douglas Holsclaw, who also began the university’s first cheerleading squad in 1923. From his first day on the job on Sept. 1, 1952, Lee began teaching the song to the band and later to the wider student body.
The Sept. 19, 1952, issue of the Arizona Daily Wildcat student newspaper reported that Lee introduced the song to first-year students during an assembly in the Student Union ballroom the night before, singing the lyrics himself. The newspaper printed the now-familiar chorus of “Bear Down, Arizona” on the front page that day.
“I tried to keep the tune as simple as possible with intervals and within easy range like all other collegiate tunes,” Lee told Arizona Daily Star columnist Lou Pavlovich in December 1952. “Most everyone says they like the song.”
Lee succeeded spectacularly in integrating his new song into the culture of campus, according to the “Grande Dame” of the University of Arizona marching band, former twirling instructor Shirlee Bertolini, recruited by Lee to be the band’s first baton twirler.
“The fans, and all the students, picked up the song immediately. They loved it,” she said. “He said he’d written a song for the school and he wanted to introduce it to the whole band. And he handed out the sheet music and they started practicing it. He wanted it to be extra special, even though there was already a fight song.’
Originally published on UA@Work by University Communications on Sept. 20, 2022.
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