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Happy Birthday

This is an eventful month for Louis Elbel. He will be leading "The Victors" at this weekend's Homecoming Game, and then on October 28 he will celebrate his 80th birthday.

Back in August, Louis responded to a request for the story behind "The Victors" with a nine-page long hand account. "It will probably require editing," he wrote. But it didn't.

Composer Louis Elbel leads the band in "The Victors" at the Homecoming of 1939.

Michigan Inspired "The Victors"

By Louis Elbel

In September of 1896, I entered the University of Michigan, and in one or two weeks became one of its most enthusiastic Freshmen. I was active right away, both musically and athletically. In the following spring I was a dash man on the track team and no one around was a more loyal fan of our football team.

On Thanksgiving Day of 1896 and 1897 I was right there when we played Chicago in the Coliseum, a huge building on 63rd Street close to the University of Chicago. And there was not a sadder Michigan man there when we lost to Chicago in both games, especially in '97, the last game for Michigan's "Dutch" Ferbert, "Pa" Henninger and "Count" Villa.

But then came 1898! We had a fine team, although of course it was new in spots. Three Freshmen (in those years we played Freshmen) became famous in Michigan annals—Neil Snow, Hugh White and "Chuck" Widman—and other greats were Captain Walter Bennett, Jack McLean, Bill Caley, and Will Cunningham, our center who was the first Michigan man put on an All American team by Casper Whitney.

We had won nine games that season, and then came the tenth on Thanksgiving Day on Marshall Field on the Chicago Campus, with a crowd of about 12,000. We knew we had a fine team. And of course all of us Michigan people were very excited. About 1,400 went to Chicago from Ann Arbor on the Michigan Central(there was no other way to go) and a band of about twenty men, a "Michigan" band that seemed to come out of nowhere that year, a band that didn't seem to know what a uniform was like. And how they got there I will never know. In those days there were no Buicks.

And then came the game. It was a fine day, but cold—below freezing. Those who saw the game never can forget it. Eleven men played eleven men. There was never a substitute on either side. These two great teams played a strenuous and rough game. Two Michigan men got hurt—Mc-Lean and Caley. But our great trainer and coach, Keene Fitzpatrick, got them back in the game.

In the second half Chicago led, 11 to 6. Herschberger failed to kick goal because Hugh White broke through and partially blocked the kick. With about ten minutes left in the game, we scored with one of the most sensational plays in Michigan's entire history.

In those days there were no forward pass plays, and no razzle-dazzle. Widman, our right half, got the ball for a line play right in front of me. All the Chicago team was drawn in, and somehow "Chuck" backed a little, slipped our right end and was on his way with great speed—bound for the Chicago goal 65 yards away. He got a nice lead on Hamill, Chicago's great end, and also on Herschberger. Hamill caught up with him and tackled him on about the three yard line, but Widman's speed let him slide over the goal line with the ball in his hands for a touchdown.

Caley kicked the goal and the score was Michigan 12, Chicago 11. Well, that score stood, and so we not only won the game but Michigan's first championship in football. "Hail to Michigan, the champions of the West!" There was no Big Ten in those days. I wore a badge that said "Cheer Leader" on it but they didn't need me to lead them. All our Michigan people were crazed with joy.

Our crowd gathered at the south end of the field, and when we got out on the street we felt we should have a special celebration. In the gathering dusk we commandeered our "Michigan" band and some three to four hundred fellows started a procession circling the Chicago campus, up to 61st St., around and back, the happiest crowd of fellows you'd ever see.

It was starting to get dark, and the band had no lights, so they started with "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," and blared it all around that campus. I guess we were too jubilant to mind. Anyway, we got back to our starting point, and disbanded.

I guess I was too happy to be bushed. And I had a long way to go then, because I was due to go to my sister's house in Englewood, a distance of about one and a half miles. Most of it I walked, and on my way thoughts came to me that our band didn't have the right celebration song that night. Neither did Michigan. And a thought came to me Michigan should have one.

Somewhere on the line my walk turned into a march, and a band got to singing in my head, a sort of victory sound. And right there the refrain of the "Victors" came to me.  Not only the music, but the words "Hail to the Victors Valiant!" and "Hail to the conqu'ring heroes!"

When I got to my sister's house, somehow I had presence of mind to write down the notes of that song.  And when I got to South Bend, my home town, the next day, I not only tried out the song on my piano, but finished the entire refrain. Then the idea of a big march came to me and I completed the whole work on the train that took me back to Ann Arbor for Monday's classes. And that is how "The Victors" was born.

I can't say that I had any special ideas about this being a big hit. But my brother, in the music business, suggested and saw to it that it should be printed. And it was.

However that band that sang in my head on a Chicago street, after that big game, kept coming to my mind. I got in touch with E. R. Schremser, a fine band man and band arranger in Detroit, told him a few things I would like, and he made a great arrangement for me. This band copy was sent to the printers and in fast time it came to me—23 sheets for that many instruments plus three more because some were for two parts. I received the complete copy the first week in April of 1899.

On the eighth day of that month, John Philip Sousa and his band was scheduled for a concert in University Hall on the Campus. Just before the concert that evening I had the nerve to approach Mr. Sousa, and present him with the newly arrived copy of the march, told him I was a student, and surely would appreciate it if he could consider playing it, "The Victors", a Michigan march.

He greeted me in a very kindly and courteous manner, and accepted it.  I really didn't know what he might do with it. But after looking at the solo part, he called his librarian and he placed the parts on the music stands of the between 40 and 50 band men. Of course the band gave a great performance before a crowded University Hall, one in which he played several of his marches.

Surely I was thrilled when an announcer appeared and said the band would play "The Victors," a march by Louis Elbel, a student of the University. I was excited and astounded to realize that Sousa and his band was about to play my march for the first time before any audience in this world. And what a grand performance it was! This in spite of the fact that not a man in the band had ever seen his part before. They played it at sight.

Then, two nights after that, April 10, the march got another initiation in the Whitney Theater, catty corner from the post office, downtown. It was the night of the U of M Minstrels. This was a great show for college fellows, put on by Otto Hans, a big part of the proceeds to help our band with uniforms. This time an orchestra played "The Victors" for the first time. I arranged it and a lot of other songs, for I was the musical director of the show.

The orchestra, about ten men including three band men, all but two students, started right out with "The Victors", and when it came to the refrain, up went the curtain and about 22 of the company, all students including 10 to 12 members of the Glee Club, sang for the very first time with great gusto. "Hail to the Victors Valiant." It sure was a grand opening, and went over big. Certainly it must have gotten across, because somehow it started our student body singing it.

This was particularly noticeable in the very last of May, when our baseball team returned home from a very successful trip in the east, beating Cornell and Pennsylvania, the leading teams there. Our students felt like we had won another team championship, and went 1,500 strong to meet the team at the Michigan Central station at 1:00 A.M., and stayed even later, because the train was a half hour late.

But our band was there—still no uniforms—and helped keep every-body happy. How they got that team up to State Street on a hay wagon I'll never know. The trip up to the old Law building on the Campus was another first. It was the first time a Michigan band played "The Victors" even if it was only the well known refrain. And it was the first time I ever heard a good number of Michigan students singing it. After speeches by Guy Miller, the Captain of the team and a great pitcher, who later became Judge Miller in Detroit, and Ernest Lunn and Neil Snow, it all broke up. We went home and rested on our laurels.

I couldn't keep track of any more firsts for a while, because I went to Europe for three years to further my musical education and to appear in recitals and as soloist with prominent orchestras.

At present, I have no more space to count up the wonderful experiences I have had with "The Victors" at the University of Michigan, my association with all the Michigan Band leaders from Wilfred Wilson on, and especially with Professor William D. Revelli for the last twenty years, in which collaboration and friendly relations have grown to a great height.

Thousands have spoken to me about "The Victors", how happy they were over it and thanking me for my inspiring all at Michigan. I can tell them all right here, it is the other way around. "Michigan inspired the Victors."

The Michigan Alumnus

October 19, 1957, Page 24