“On, Wisconsin!” was written by William T. Purdy (music) and Carl Beck (lyrics), roommates in a Chicago rooming house. Purdy had intended to enter the song in a contest offering a $100 prize for a new University of Minnesota football song. Upon hearing the melody, Beck, who had attended UW from 1908 to 1909, immediately began to write lyrics for the University of Wisconsin, and convinced Purdy to abandon his plan. The fact that the song was originally intended for Minnesota is ironic, considering that the Badgers and Gophers have met consecutively since 1890, making it the most played rivalry in all of college football.
The song’s game debut was at the November 13, 1909 game against Minnesota at Camp Randall. The song has been wildly popular ever since. According to 1909 team captain John Wilce, “The season of 1909 saw developed a wonderful spirit of support in the student body, due in part, perhaps, to the introduction of two new football songs, “On, Wisconsin!” and the “Cardinal March,”together with the acquirement of an especially live cheer leader.”
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.
*The contemporary version is “Run the ball clear down the field.” Early variations inserted the name of the opponent, such as Minnesota, Chicago or Northwestern.
Listen to versions of “On, Wisconsin” on the Band and Performances page.
The official anniversary date of the song is unclear. The University Glee Club practiced the song on November 10th, 1909. Purdy himself performed the song at a pep rally the next day. Most cite the anniversary as November 13th, when “On, Wisconsin!” was performed at the football game against Minnesota, although it is unknown if the band performed the song or if it was just sung by the crowd. (See Daily Cardinal, November 11 “Old Players May Appear Tonight”; November 12 “MAC Arouses Fighting Spirit”; November 13, 1909 for more details.)
The game against Minnesota in 1909 is commonly referred to as the “homecoming game,” however the first official homecoming did not occur until 1911. Minnesota was also the opponent in this game, which may be the source of confusion.
The photos below, from the 1911 Badger, are of the 1909 game. Yearbooks from the time often covered sporting events from 2 years before the date on the book.
Beck as a Wisconsin Student
Beck is often referred to as a member of the Wisconsin Class of 1910. Beck had first attended a different college in 1906. In 1908, he attended Wisconsin, leaving in February of 1909. After this absence, during which time “On, Wisconsin!” was written, Beck returned for the 1911-1912 academic year.
Rights issues have surrounded the song since shortly after its publication. The first edition, numbering 5,000 copies, was published by Beck and Purdy themselves through Hillison, McCormack & Company of Chicago in 1909.
The copyright was transferred in 1910 to Joseph Flanner Publishing, later Flanner-Hafsoos Piano House then Flanner-Hafsoos Music House, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (This company still exists in a different form today. Read about their history here).
In 1917, the company purchased Purdy’s share of the copyright for less than $100. It is worth noting that Beck himself, in the inscription on the back cover pictured below, confused the second edition with the first edition.
Purdy’s widow accused Beck of fabricating his role in writing the song. The dispute was largely over the small amount Purdy accepted for his copyright, while Beck had retained his. In 1937 Beck sought to renew the copyright solely in his name, intending that the Wisconsin Alumni Association or University obtain sole ownership of the song. Mrs. Purdy, however, objected.
Ultimately, the decision was to split the rights between separate publishing companies for Purdy’s music (Melrose Publishing) and Beck’s lyrics (Broadcast Music, Inc.), with the Wisconsin Alumni Association gaining a share of the latter.
Today, “On, Wisconsin!” is considered to be in the public domain.