The students of Washington State College eagerly gathered in Bryan Hall on February 20, 1919, to hear the debut of a new college song. The Evergreen claimed it “at once scored a hit,” and declared that both the words and music “possessed a swing that might well be described as fully equal if not surpassing any college song written.” A century later, the “Washington State Fight Song” music and lyrics live on virtually unchanged.
Popular music gained prominence at the start of the century, as a greater variety of musical instruments became available and affordable to the general public, and as the first mass-market recorded music on wax cylinders allowed the public to hear songs from original performers. Before television or even radio, community singing blossomed, including college glee clubs and student organizations performing known and original songs.
The 1919 tune wasn’t the first attempt at creating new Washington State songs. While State College songs had been written for many years to the tunes of popular music, a 1914 competition for a new football song was won by Emory Alvord (1915) for “Washington Football War Song.” However, this “winner” failed to gain the hearts of the students.
After World War I, Evergreen issues in January 1919 decried the lack of student enthusiasm in singing the college songs. Some people attributed the attitude to the songs themselves; during World War I energetic and patriotic songs had showcased a community’s support of their soldiers’ efforts, but pre-war Washington State songs lacked that energy.
Two female students, Zella Melcher and Phyllis Sayles, composed a fight song that did bring some energy. Melcher appears to have been quite the socialite, active in class leadership, Pi Beta Phi sorority, the Evergreen and Chinook, several musical groups, and more. She was elected May Queen as a senior. Among her many social activities, Melcher was a charter member of Mu Phi Epsilon, the campus music honorary.
Fellow MPE member Sayles was a talented pianist who had previously attended Northwestern University, where she compiled a book of that campus’s fight songs and wrote various songs for her sorority, Alpha Chi Omega. Sayles’s father had worked as a clerk within Indian agencies, and when he moved to Lapwai, Phyllis left Northwestern and came along. She enrolled at WSC in the fall of 1919 to complete her senior year.
In their fight song collaboration, Sayles wrote the music and Melcher penned the words. The original sheet music, printed in the February 26, 1919, Evergreen in Melcher’s handwriting, bears a block-printed title of “New Washington State Fight Song.”
Melcher graduated as planned in 1919; Sayles completed her coursework but would not receive her degree for another three years. Both women married in 1922, and Melcher, now McMicken, spent the rest of her life in Chehalis, while Sayles, now Davis, moved to Los Angeles. Both taught music throughout their lives. Zella fell ill while relatively young and died in 1938; Phyllis lived until 1971, passing at the age of 74.
Their legacy, the fight song, remains known not just to Cougs but around the world. The song apparently first aired nationally via NBC radio on May 15, 1934, in a live broadcast of a WSC band and glee club performance at the Davenport Ballroom in Spokane. That performance is the oldest existing “Fight Song” recording, as pressed LPs of the performance were later sold on campus.
The tune became even more widely known when actor John Candy sang the fight song defiantly as “Tom Tuttle from Tacoma” in the 1985 movie Volunteers. Earlier—on June 22, 1983—the fight song had reached new heights as it was played to start the day for the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, in honor of Cougar astronaut John Fabian ’62, on board for his first space mission.
Back on earth, the familiar spirited strains of “fight, fight, fight for Washington State” still ring across campus, just as they did in that 1919 debut.
Audio: Recordings of the Washington Fight Song from NASA and Space Shuttle Challenger, the first known recording in 1934, and Tom Tuttle from Tacoma singing in Volunteers