Scot Walker '90 August 6, 2018 10:31 AM updated: August 7, 2018 10:16 AM
Originally published in the July-August 2018 issue of Texas Aggie magazine
BY LANE STEPHENSON ’77
Whoop! The Aggie War Hymn will be 100 years old later this year. In addition to it having been energetically played and sung a zillion times over nearly a century, much has been written about the War Hymn, with some of the musings being slightly off key, with yours truly among the perpetrators—unknowingly, I hasten to add. Now, the grandson of the author of the song, James Vernon “Pinky” Wilson, Class of 1920, has provided the back story that sets the record straight—just in time for an expected new round of interest in what has become one of the nation’s most famous college songs.
The back story came to light this spring as the result of a bit of investigative work by Amy Smith, Texas A&M senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer. She had heard that one of Pinky’s relatives was the manager of a local restaurant, so she went there and inquired. “That would be me,” replied Scott Walterscheid ’84. He followed up on their conversation with a detailed email account of what he had learned from grandfatherly chats about how the Aggie War Hymn came to be.
He said it seemed an opportune time to share with fellow Aggies and others what his grandfather endured during the World War I times when he wrote it—and how writing it helped him get through those tough times of battle with the Germans and the dreadful accompanying weather.
One of the most interesting bits of new information provided by Walterscheid was that the song was first sung by a group of Marines—none of them Aggies, other than Pinky. It was not a slight to Aggies, more than 2,000 of whom were also in Europe in the “war to end all wars”—but none were with Pinky’s particular unit. It was just a matter of the Marines being handy and musically willing when Pinky was ready to “go public” with his labor of love.
The fact that he elected to join the Marines rather than be part of the Aggies’ traditional Army affiliation was explained by Walterscheid: Pinky wanted to get in battlefield action as soon as possible and reasoned that once Army officials learned of his Texas A&M Corps of Cadets background they would want him to be a commissioned officer. He figured he could get into the battle sooner as an enlisted man—hence his volunteering during his sophomore year to serve in the Marine Corps.
Not surprisingly, when those calling the shots in the Marine Corps learned of his Aggie background, they too wanted him to become an officer. They did not take kindly to his decline of the offer. His “reward” for his rebuke was being made a “muleskinner,” one of the worst of all conceivable assignments. Part of the job was to carry supplies up to the Marines on the front lines; the other part was to bring back bodies.
In retrospect, Pinky said, or Walterscheid surmised, being in the “muleskinner” billet probably helped him stay alive. He was the only survivor in the unit that shipped out from New York in mid-October 1917. Because of his unit’s heavy casualties, Pinky finally got his wish for a fighting role on Nov. 1, 1918, but he was in that precarious position for less than two weeks, thanks to the signing of the armistice ending the war on Nov. 11. Even in just that brief time, Pinky lost his two best friends in combat.
Most portrayals of Pinky’s writing of the Aggie War Hymn leave the impression of him penning it on the back of an envelope of a letter from home while in a trench in France during a lull in the fighting.
It’s true about the envelope and the letter from home, but the penning of the song transpired over an extended period rather than during one lull in the fighting. Also, Walterscheid referred several times to the writings having taken place in “foxholes,” but he also used the word “trench” occasionally. Quickly dug “foxholes” for temporary shelter from enemy fire are more in keeping with the Marine Corps’ on-the-move method of operations, while trenches conjure up images of more static positions.
Pinky started jotting down comfortable old words to take his mind off the loss of his comrades while suffering through another miserably wet and cold day. He decided the best way to do that was to remember his days back at Texas A&M and think about how the Aggie football team might be doing following unprecedented success the previous season. He also had more than a few dire thoughts about his counterparts at a certain Austin institution who were about on a low par with the Germans in his estimation.
He then decided to jot down some words in the Aggie yells that he had learned during his freshman year —with one of his recollections focusing on the “Hullaballoo, caneck, caneck” refrain in one of the more memorable yells. It stuck with him even though he wasn’t in a hymn-writing mode at the time, nor likely gave much thought to what the words actually meant. Over the years, numerous explanations about what they mean have been offered up—some tongue-in-cheek, such as when the late Dr. Jack Williams, president of Texas A&M in the 1970s, joked it was Chickasaw (an Indian language) for “beat the hell out of the University of Texas.”
While Walterscheid doesn’t attempt to translate the line’s meaning, he shed some light on how Pinky came to think about that refrain again: “The Allied code word for an incoming attack was ‘HULLABALLOO.’ Soldiers communicated this code word down the trench line by shouting Hullaballoo! Hullaballoo! Hullaballoo.” He said that kind of communication made Pinky think of the Aggies and Aggie football games where the yell leaders gave hand signals for upcoming yells and the students passed the signals back to other students. As Hullaballoo was announced along the lines the soldiers would ready their guns for firing, which sounded to Pinky like `caneck, caneck, caneck.’ This sound brought back memories of the yells that he participated in at his days at A&M. The song was not even thought of yet, but the seed had likely been planted.”
In November 1921, Texas Aggie (a newspaper at the time) printed the Aggie War Hymn for the first time. The editor wrote, “There never has been a song written that fully portrays the Aggie war spirit and consequently the A. and M. College has never had a song.” But Wilson’s time as a U.S. Marine “made it possible to put enough of the fighting spirit into his song to make it acceptable to A. and M. cadets.”
After the seed germinated for several days, and with Pinky seemingly reflecting on his college days, he turned to putting together the words for what USA Today once called the most famous college fight song in America. Ironically, the university’s website, in at least one instance, states that the War Hymn is not a ”fight song,” but Walterscheid so regards it, as do, presumably, most Aggies and others.
Walterscheid pointed out the song was originally written as a ballad, but in 1921 Pinky took the advice of George Fairleigh, director of the Fightin‘ Texas Aggie Band, about “jazzing it up” a bit.
Fairleigh ended up adding Wildcat, Hot Time and Saw Varsity’s Horns Off to Pinky’s song.
“Soon afterward, it made its inaugural debut on a football field,” Pinky’s grandson recounted.
Pinky was asked in 1938 to write a second verse. Walterscheid said the request was made by several Aggies who thought the song was “too focused on t.u.”—underscored by the fact the title for it was originally “Good-bye to Texas University.” So Pinky “reluctantly” wrote a second verse and made it the first verse.
“The newer verse has been ‘tried out’ several times over the years,” the ’84 Ag noted, “but as stubborn about traditions as Aggies are, the first verse has never really caught on.”
He said Pinky signed off on the Aggie War Hymn sometime during the 1950s by signing over all copyrights to it to Texas A&M, adding: “His love for his alma mater allowed him to do that with a proud heart.”
Pinky died in 1980 at the age of 83.
Lane Stephenson ’77, the Archives columnist for Texas Aggie, is the retired director of News & Information Services at Texas A&M.
This column was originally published in the July-August 2018 issue of Texas Aggie magazine. Texas Aggie is a benefit for donors to The Association of Former Students. You can subscribe for as little as $5 a month. Visit tx.ag/give to make a gift.