Far and Wide| OUR OFT-BORROWED ALMA MATER
Truth be told, during my stint on the Hill I would have been hard pressed to tell you what comes next. Something about lifting the chorus . . . I had enough minutiae to memorize without filling my brain with phrases like "Here, by flood and foaming torrent."
But I began to rethink my apathy after coming across College Fight Songs: An Annotated Anthology by Northern Illinois University professor emeritus William Studwell, in which he subjectively ranks America's twenty-five favorites of the genre. Obvious choices like the "Notre Dame Victory March" and "Anchors Aweigh" top the list--but there, at number twenty-four, is "Far Above Cayuga's Waters."
My first thought: it's a fight song? I've always found Cornell's alma mater to have lullaby-like qualities. So I called the musicologist at his home in Bloomington, Indiana, and asked him about it.
"If played at a faster beat, it becomes a good fight song," he says. "And it's an unforgettable melody--not only a classic but a kind of super-classic, because so many people use it. It may be the most borrowed song associated with any university."
The lyrics of "Far Above Cayuga's Waters" were penned by a couple of Tioga Street roommates, Archibald Weeks 1872 and Wilmot Smith 1874. They set the words to the melody of "Annie Lisle," a maudlin 1850s ballad written by a Boston musician named H.S. Thompson about the decline and death of a virtuous maiden ("Earthly music cannot waken . . . lovely Annie Lisle").
She wasn't the only Annie Lisle destined for a tragic end--an Australian sailing ship of the same name sank after a collision in May 1887--but the tune has proved far more durable, achieving immortality as a template for school pride. From the hills of Pennsylvania to the bayous of Louisiana, from the deserts of the Middle East to the tropics of Southeast Asia, Cornell's alma mater became the Johnny Appleseed of school songs.
The University of Kansas has a typical tale. The story goes that there was no school song for Professor George Penny's Glee and Mandolin Club to sing on their trip to Denver in 1891. Just before departure Penny recalled Cornell's song, so he hastily changed a few words ("Far above the golden valley . . ."). It became the university's official alma mater.
More colleges followed suit. Undergraduates borrowed the melody for Indiana University in 1893 and the University of North Carolina in 1897. An English professor purloined it for the University of Missouri in 1895. An alumnus grabbed it for the University of Georgia a few years later. Annie Lisle's ghost also lingers at Pennsylvania's Moravian College, Louisiana's Xavier University, Canada's Acadia University, and even the American University of Beirut ("Far away, behold Keneiseh! Far beyond, Sunnin!").
Dozens of high schools have appropriated it, too, from Skaneateles Academy in New York to Campbell High in Missouri and Lake Oswego High in Oregon. On occasion, the song has been a copy of a copy;West End High School in Nashville patterned its alma mater on the one from nearby Vanderbilt University-- which had lifted the melody from Cornell in 1907.
So maybe it wasn't the beginning of the song that I should have committed to memory, but the end:
time ne'er efface the mem'ry
-- Brad Herzog '90