I’m a big fan of synchronicity, and I don’t mean the Police album. Here it is, a hugely portentous week for Alabama and Auburn fans — okay, maybe not so much the Auburn fans — and what do I happen to find in a stack of old books destined for redistribution but a football book I never knew I had? Not just any football book, either, but one dedicated to the aspect of football I consider the least: cheerleading.
Actually, the practice should be expressed as two words, according to that book, Just Yells: A Guide for Cheer Leaders. Published in 1927, it is a modest offering of The Willis N. Bugbee Company of Syracuse, New York, adorned simply with a pennant on the front and, on the back, the drawing of a young man clutching a hat and a megaphone, clearly in the throes of Saint Vitus Dance.
This reminds me not only to send in my annual contribution to fight Sydenham’s chorea, but also that in the early days of football all of the cheerleaders were men. As Julia Lurie reminded us in the pages of Mother Jones last year, groups of elite students formed the first “yell teams” at Ivy League schools, and by 1911, the president of good old Harvard U was characterizing cheerleading as “the worst form of expressing emotion ever invented.”
Just Yells goes to considerable trouble to dispel that odious notion. “There has been for some time a considerable demand for a book of cheers,” the foreword’s author asserts hopefully. “The great majority of the cheer leaders with whom we have talked and corresponded seem to be enthusiastic over the publication of such a work.” Among those cited were Alabama’s Pat McArthur and, from Auburn (known then as Alabama Polytechnic Institute, a mouthful for any cheer), C.W. Roberts.
In his essay, “The Science of Cheer Leading,” H.H. Clark (Purdue, ’23) is the teensiest bit defensive: “Too many people think that a cheer leader is only little more than an idiot who waves his arms, contorts his body and acts like a madman.” Harvard’s president be damned, “People do not realize that the cheer leader is and must be one of the most sane and level-headed individuals present at any athletic contest.”
Clark lets us know that the science derives from the cheer leader’s personality, body mechanics, “and his understanding of mob psychology.” This latter quality apparently applies to teams having the bad sense to lose a game: “If, in a crisis, the leader can make a crowd laugh, either with him or at him, it is easier to divert the crowd’s attention.” This would suggest that many of America’s pioneering cheerleaders were also stand-up comedians.
Why take H.H. Clark’s word for it when you can consult “Peppy Paragraphs from Cheer Leaders?” This chapter offers useful hints from knowledgeable exponents such as Arthur Hopper (“It is my opinion that successful cheering is the result of snappy, unified yelling”), Lane Guthrie (“Use a very light megaphone and don’t have too many assistants”) and the meticulous Burdette “Carrots” Henney, The Yell King of USC (“By all means the success of any yell is the correct timing and the pronunciation of each sound”).
About those sounds. If the reader gleans anything from Just Yells, it is that some of the most popular cheers on America’s campuses in the early 20th century were indeed just yells. Holy Cross’s rooters would baffle friend and foe alike with this cheer: “Hoi-ah, Hoi-ah, Hoi-ah/ Chu-Chu-Rah-Rah/ Chu-Chu-Rah-Rah/ Hoi-ah/ Team! Rah!” Equally cryptic was Tennessee’s “Chee-Hee!/ Chee-Haw!/ Chee-Hah! Haw-Haw!/ Team! TEAM! TEAM!!”
Yale, not to be outdone, opted for erudite gibberish: “Brekkekex Ko-ax, Ko-ax/ Brekkekex Ko-ax, Ko-ax/ O op, O op, Parabalou/ Yale! Yale! Yale!/ Rah, Rah, Rah, Rah, Rah, Rah, Rah, Rah, Rah/Yale! Yale! Yale!” It would have been great fun to hear Yale go up against Western Reserve, whose call to action was “Oh! Sketleoi! Pom Poi; Foo Foo!/ Apolussi!/ Ai Ai! Ai Ai! Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!/ Reserve!”
Lacking a Rosetta Stone for decryption, we can only note that these magnificently contradict the advice given by the authors of Just Yells, namely that “In selecting or making a yell, care should be taken to make it one that can be given easily, quickly and in unison by a large or small number.”
Opaque as those cheers might be, the alert reader can spot some perennials, wriggling like earworms into our popular culture. For example, what would you think of if you heard the South Side High School cheer from 1927, “Razzle-dazzle-razzle-dazzle/ Sis-boom-bah/ Boom-a-lacha, boom-a-lacha/ Rah-rah-rah”? Bill Murray in Stripes; am I right? Cornell anticipated hip-hop slang by 80 years with its “Ah-aa-a-a-a-a-A-AA-AH! BU YAH!” yell, and Alabama’s own Tuskegee Institute seems to have been the first college to implement “Boom-chicka-boom!” into a cheer.
Not surprisingly for 1927, Just Yells is just racist in a few places. There are a couple of pretty explicit N-word specialties, not to mention one section devoted to “Chink Yells.” (You don’t wanna know.) The Dutch and the Swedes come in for calumny (“Olie Olson! Yonnie Yonson!/ Beloit Wisconsin! Yea!”), but how about a big boo, ja, for the uninhibited declaration from a high school in Potter County, Pennsylvania: “Geef a yell, geef a yell!/ Geef a good substanshul yell!/ Isadore, Ikey, Jakey, Sam!/ We are the boys that don’t eat ham!/ COUDERSPORT!”
Cheerleading changed dramatically during World War II, when men went to war and women started leading the cheers at the major university. I think we can all agree that that was when America truly became the most powerful country on Earth. So, if you get to a game this weekend, make it a point to walk up to your nearest cheerleader and tell them, in the words of Just Yells, “Let us have pep!”