MADISON -- If Wisconsin's essence were distilled to one four-note riff, it would be this: D, C-sharp, E, D.
Whether played on trumpets or pianos, sung by sopranos or tenors, thumped from synthesizers or shouted by rappers, those four musical notes are encoded into Wisconsin's DNA.
The notes, as well as the rest of the ditty that would become not just the Badger fight song but Wisconsin's state song, were first performed 100 years ago Tuesday when a glee club warbled "On, Wisconsin!" for the first time in practice followed by the first known public performance at a pep rally the next day.
A few days later, on Nov. 13, 1909, the University of Wisconsin band played the tune during a football game at Camp Randall -- a 34-6 drubbing by the University of Minnesota.
"One of the things that makes it so extremely popular -- the first four notes are so recognizable it almost makes a statement from the first time you hear it. It says everything in the first four notes," said Mike Leckrone.
Leckrone should know. As director of the UW Marching Band since 1969, Leckrone has conducted the song many times in many different arrangements, including swing, funk, Latin and a James Brown-like version. When asked to hazard a guess of just how often, he said "it boggles my mind."
"On a given Saturday for football, we'll probably play it, conservatively, 40 to 50 times including practice. You multiply that by 41 years by seven, eight football games in a season. Then you multiply it for basketball and hockey games, we average eight to 10 times for basketball. ... I don't know if I even want to start to think about it," Leckrone said.
In honor of the centennial of "On, Wisconsin!" UW-Madison organized a number of observances: a birthday party featuring a cake and a performance by the UW Marching Band on Tuesday afternoon on the front steps of the Memorial Union; a contest for Badgers fans to create their own versions of the song to upload on YouTube; a Web site by UW-Madison Libraries featuring photos, lyrics and recordings; and a new arrangement to be performed by the UW-Madison Concert Choir on Friday night.
According to the UW Archives, "On, Wisconsin!" was written by William T. Purdy for a University of Minnesota fight song contest that offered a $100 prize. Purdy's roommate Carl Beck, who attended UW from 1908 to 1909, heard the melody, wrote lyrics for his former college and persuaded Purdy to dump the Minnesota song contest.
The lyrics were printed in the Daily Cardinal on Nov. 13, 1909, so students and other spectators at the football game would know to sing "On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Plunge right through that line! Run the ball 'round Minnesota, A touchdown sure this time. On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Fight on for her fame. Fight! Fellows! Fight! And we will win this game."
A more contemporary version changes the third line to "Run the ball clear down the field, a touchdown sure this time" and the final line to "Fight, fellows, fight, fight, fight! We'll win this game."
David Null, director of the University Archives, thinks the 32-bar song has endured for a century because it's short and catchy.
"It's easy to sing along. It's all the things people like. It's hard to know why things stick in people's imagination," said Null, as he looked through three original 1909 copies of the "On, Wisconsin!" sheet music in the university's archives.
Jerry Hui wrote a new arrangement of "On, Wisconsin!" to be performed Friday by the concert choir. Since it's a song so universally known, Hui said the greatest challenge was arranging the notes in a fresh way but keeping the song intact so listeners will easily recognize it. Hui admits he doesn't go to many sporting events but enjoys hearing the song noted for having the hook in an unconventional place.