In May of 1902, UT students John Lang Sinclair and Lewis Johnson went to see a show downtown.
After the show they decided to hit a bar on Lavaca Street before calling it a night. A couple beers later they were convinced they had a song to write. The college buddies were both musically inclined. Sinclair played banjo; Johnson directed the University Chorus and played tuba in the school band. They headed back to their dorm and hammered out “Jolly Students of the Varsity.” It was a parody of “Jolly Students of America,” a popular song they both knew. While Johnson figured out the melody, Sinclair scribbled lyrics. It was another late night in Brackenridge Hall. Brackenridge was the first dormitory on campus. It was known as B Hall, and the “poor boys” of B Hall had a reputation for late night merriment and ungentle mischief.
Sinclair and Johnson remade “Jolly Students” as an anthem of gleeful defiance toward law enforcement. Sinclair penned six verses and crafted a chorus that landed somewhere between “Dancing in the Street” and “Fuck tha Police.”
For we are jolly students of the Varsity, the Varsity!
We are a merry, merry crew
We’ll show the chief of all policemen who we are
Rah! Rah! Rah!
Down on the Avenue
(Chorus of “Jolly Students of the Varsity”)
Jolly Students with Attitudes
The song's outlaw sensibility typified the culture of B Hall. B Hallers brawled with fraternities, taunted deans, and dropped water bombs from every window. When they couldn’t find frats to fight, they devised pranks to torment freshmen. If the legislature was in session, they schemed to clown state senators.
When the frats called them barbs, as in barbarians, the B Hallers embraced the insult as a fitting description of their outsider identity. They were the Greasers to the fraternity Socs. The residents of Brackenridge Hall regarded their dorm as an experiment in autonomous democracy under the umbrella of an otherwise oligarchic institution. Former Texas governor James Ferguson suggested that the dorm’s culture was closer to anarchic than democratic when he observed, “The laws of Texas stop at the doors of B Hall.”
They were also barbs as in barbers. They were notorious for providing their classmates with nonconsensual haircuts. They would tie the hands of their captives with rope and pour water over the knots so that the ropes would draw up tighter around their captives’ wrists. They attempted to terrify their bound hostages before marching them up to the roof of their four-storey dorm where the ceremonial shearing took place.
“With this, they, full of apprehension, were led out on the roof, two of us with the hair clippers, neatly clipped their hair close to their heads, leaving some of course for seed,” remembered former B Haller Howard Whipple.
Whipple’s account of barbarous barbers and hostage-taking is included in the 49th chapter of B Hall, Texas, a collection of dorm stories and campus lore published in 1938. The idea for the book was suggested at a B Hall reunion held in April 1937. Nugent Brown agreed to compile and edit the stories for publication. Brown concluded his introductory chapter writing, “In compiling the stories, we have included many frivolous incidents but more particularly the epic occurrences.”
This is as good a time as any to question the relationship of B Hall, Texas to objective reality. The book reads like a succession of escalating groomsmen toasts at a wedding reception. It’s full of inside jokes and grand posture. The boundary between the frivolous and the epic is not a line drawn sharp in the sand; it is the shadow of a cloud passing over a heaving white sea.
In 1902 UT’s sports teams were known simply as Varsity, an informal derivative of university. Across Texas, varsity was understood as a reference to the University of Texas and, more specifically, to the school’s athletic program. A generic reference to the college could refer to the Agricultural & Mechanical College (A&MC) in College Station, but the varsity was in Austin.
As generic as it sounds, “Jolly Students of the Varsity” was the closest thing to a school song that Texas could claim in 1902. Earlier that spring, Johnson had organized a series of Promenade Concerts. A contingent of the Varsity Band strolled around campus playing a repertoire of marches, dance music, and brassy arrangements of orchestral themes. They even played the familiar almae matres of Harvard and Princeton.
The Promenade Concerts were well-received by students, but It did not sit right with Johnson that the University of Texas Varsity Band should be making the rounds of its own campus playing “Fair Harvard.” Texas needed its own song.
At the time of the first public performance of “Jolly Students of the Varsity,” UT boasted an enrollment of close to 700 students, jolly and otherwise. Of those 700, around 120 young men lived in Brackenridge Hall. With “Jolly Students,” the barbs of B Hall established themselves as ministers of campus counter-culture. For UT’s first half-century, what started in B Hall changed the school.