Rhapsodies in Blue

Resolved, That Azure Blue and Maize be adopted as the emblematic colors of the University of Michigan.
– Student resolution, 1867
  1. Chapter 1 The Color

    There was once a popular professor of Greek named Albert Henderson Pattengill. He joined the faculty shortly after graduating from Michigan in 1868 and taught until his death in 1906. His tenure at U-M was the longest of any professor to date except his colleague in classics, Martin Luther D’Ooge.

    He left a number of marks on Michigan. A tall and husky fellow, he once batted a baseball from a point just south of North University onto the roof of the old Medical Building on East University, a distance of several hundred feet. His love of the classics enthralled several generations of students. And it was said that Pattengill once persuaded Coach Fielding Yost to turn down a better offer from a competing football program and stay at Michigan.

    Those were singular contributions, no doubt.

    But his longest-lasting service to his alma mater may have been a small duty he performed in the fall of his senior year, when he signed his name to the document that first sealed Michigan’s devotion to the color blue.

    * * *

    The origins of that devotion lie lost in the years before the Civil War. All that’s known for sure is that a few surviving diplomas are decorated with a ribbon that colorists today would call cobalt — at least that’s how it looks now, more than a century and a half later.

    Some early U-M ribbons were not only blue but yellow, too. The lighter shade was consistently “the characteristic corn color” known as maize, according to an early account.

    But the shade of blue varied. Sometimes it was “a dark blue” near navy. In other decorations it was “a very deep and a very brilliant blue.” In still others it was “sky blue,” and in later years, early graduates attested that “sky blue” was “regarded as the standard color.” That variety of blue was often called azure.

    So when Albert Pattengill and two classmates named Jackson — Milton, of West Grove, Pennsylvania; and Joseph, of Ann Arbor — were named as a committee of students charged with choosing Michigan’s colors, they returned on February 12, 1867, with this report:

    “Your committee…unanimously agree in presenting as their choice, AZURE BLUE AND MAIZE, and recommend that the following resolution be adopted: Resolved, That Azure Blue and Maize be adopted as the emblematic colors of the University of Michigan.”

    As it was recommended, so it was done.

    But what exactly was azure? Even lexicographers couldn’t agree.

    In 1888, the Oxford Dictionary said azure was the color of the gem lapis lazuli, which is more royal blue than sky blue. In 1895 the Century Dictionary said azure was the same as cobalt, while the Standard Dictionary said it was more like ultramarine or even a ceramic pigment called smalt.

    Imagine what might have been: Maize and Smalt. Let’s go smalt. Hurrah for the yellow and smalt.

    On this point, the Latin professor Charles Mills Gayley, who wrote the words to “The Yellow and Blue” in 1886, is no help at all. His lyrics compare Michigan blue to no fewer than six varying shades — “the billows that bow to the sun” (sounds pretty pale); “the curtains that evening has spun” (definitely darker); “blossoms to memory dear” (actually, blue flowers are all but unknown in nature); “the sapphire [that] gleams like a tear” (a saturated blue approaching royal); a maiden’s eyes “brimming with blue” (not specific); and “garlands of bluebells” (closer to purple than sky blue).

    But who was looking up “azure” in the dictionary, anyway? U-M people of the late 1800s used any old blue they wanted, and over the years, Michigan azure faded to a washed-out baby blue, at least in official University documents and decorations.

    On the playing fields, it was different. Starting in 1879, when Michigan’s first football team wore uniforms of white canvas with blue stockings, athletic uniforms showed blues of bolder and bolder hue over time.

    By 1912, the bifurcation of the blues — baby and bold — was no longer entirely trivial. The University’s 75th anniversary had arrived. (This was when 1837 was still recognized as the year of U-M’s founding.) Robes and flags and printed programs were needed, and the shade of blue had to be consistent.

    So the regents appointed a faculty committee “to determine the exact shades of maize and blue which should be suitable for the official colors of the University and embody them in some lasting form.”

    The committee chair, Professor Warren Lombard of Physiology, took his charge so seriously that he sailed to Norway in search of craftsmen who could make a ceramic tile that would hold the right blue forever. They couldn’t guarantee it. So Lombard sailed back home and settled for heavy silk ribbons of “a rich, deep, pure blue,” in the words of the U-M graphic designer Liene Karels, who found the ribbons buried deep in the Bentley Historical Library.

    From then on, Michigan blue waxed and waned, sometimes paler, sometimes deeper, until a version recognized by every true Wolverine came into general acceptance — a blue that is definitely darker than the sky on a sunny Michigan day but at least a shade lighter than navy.

    In 1995, the University tried to fix that exact hue in a permanent ink. But, like Professor Lombard’s tiles, it was a will-of-the-wisp. Inks and papers simply varied too much for designers to make a Michigan blue capable of fool-proof replication.

    Nearly 20 years later, in 2013, U-M’s branding chief, Steve Busch, did a careful survey and found no fewer than 12 shades of Michigan blue in use — “way too many.” So he went in search of just one “intelligent, inventive, and noble shade of blue.” He got thinking about the dark blue panels he used to see when he was a kid selling frozen treats on the concourse of Michigan Stadium, and he found out the Athletic Department had brought it back, using a hue in the Pantone Color Matching System called Pantone 282 c. It’s a combination of 100 parts cyan (a greenish-blue), 60 parts magenta (a light purple), and 60 parts black.

    “I liked it,” Busch said. “It’s a very deep blue which I think helps connect today’s U-M with our 200-year history and harkened back to the shade of blue I recall as a kid in the 70s. It had longevity.”

    And that was that — the final word on the color blue in Ann Arbor.

    But the use of the word  blue has a longer story.

    • In the 1886 lyrics of
      In the 1886 lyrics of "The Yellow and Blue," Professor Charles Mills Gayley made no fewer than six comparisons in his effort to capture the essence of Michigan blue.
      Image: Bentley Historical Library
    • Albert Pattengill as a student in the late 1860s, before he joined Michigan’s faculty as a professor of Greek.
      Albert Pattengill as a student in the late 1860s, before he joined Michigan’s faculty as a professor of Greek.
  2. Chapter 2 The Cheer

    It’s hardly surprising that Bob Neir can’t remember every detail of that long-ago Michigan hockey game. It’s been nearly 70 years, after all. He can’t remember the exact date or even who Michigan was playing.

    But he remembers what his roommate, Paul Fromm, did that night — which means that Bob Neir was pretty surely an eyewitness to the moment when the word “blue” was given its most famous usage in America.

    * * *

    It happened on a cold night in the winter of 1950-51.

    Neir (pronounced near), a native of Queens, New York, was a senior in business. His buddy, Paul Fromm, was a senior in engineering from Buffalo, New York.

    They were serious students, not rah-rah types. But now and then they would get dinner at the Old German or the Pretzel Bell, then trudge down to the Coliseum to watch a varsity hockey game.

    Those games weren’t like Michigan hockey today, with thousands of raving fans crammed up to the ceiling of Yost Arena. Admission was free. You sat wherever you wanted in the Coliseum bleachers.

    Fromm was a good guy, Neir said. “Independent. Very smart. He was a fun guy but he was not a back-slapper, ha-ha-ha kind of guy. Very serious student.”

    So the Wolverines were out on the ice against somebody or other, hustling up and down the rink. Fans were watching and cheering for this or that—the usual thing.

    Then, with no preface or pronouncement of any kind, Paul Fromm stood up.

    “He felt good about Michigan and up he went,” Neir said. “I think it was absolutely spontaneous.”

    And Fromm shouted two words with a pause in between:


    * * *

    Then he shouted the words again. And again.

    At first, people nearby just looked up at Fromm and laughed a little. Nobody had heard anybody say that before. Everybody knew, of course, that Michigan’s colors were maize and blue. But nobody yelled “go blue!”

    “Go Michigan!”—sure. But not “go blue!”

    Fromm kept going. After a minute, people began to pick it up. It became a crowd chant, two words over and over, in rhythm:

    “Go…blue!… Go…blue!… Go…blue!”

    Bob Neir was chanting along.

    “It was absolutely amazing how two words like that would elicit so much emotion from the crowd,” Neir said. “We were part of the team with ‘Go blue!’ One thing that’s nice about it is that it’s just two words. Any idiot can say two words.”

    After a while Fromm sat back down and that was that.

    Fromm went on to a successful career as an engineer at Bell Helicopter. He died a number of years ago. Neir became an executive with Boeing Aircraft.

    Neir can’t remember if they did the cheer at other hockey games that year.

    He just knows that “Go Blue” is now heard at every Michigan sporting event and that it’s the universal slogan of U-M loyalists everywhere.

    “I just can’t believe it,” he says. “It’s all over the country now.”

    * * *

    So that’s how “Go Blue” was coined.

    Unless it wasn’t.

    The thing is, in a 1998 letter to Michigan Today, Margaret “Peg” Detlor Dungan, an Ann Arbor native, said Paul Fromm, who was a friend of hers, was the inventor of “Go Blue,” all right. But she says Fromm first yelled the words, not at a hockey game, but at the home football opener against Michigan State in the fall of 1950 (a 14-7 loss, sorry to say.)

    So that clears that up. It was Fromm, but earlier. At a football game, not a hockey game.

    Unless it wasn’t.

    Because Charles J. Moss, of Midland, Michigan, in another 1998 letter to Michigan Today, claims to have invented and introduced the “Go Blue” cheer at a U-M baseball game in the spring of 1947. He says the cheer was picked up at Michigan football games the following fall, and thus was history made.

    Not by Paul Fromm. Not at a hockey game. Not at a football game. Not in 1950. Not in 1951.

    As any historian will tell you, the past is seen, at best, through a glass darkly.

  3. Chapter 3 The Jingle

    The way Ken Burke remembers it, the conversion of “Go Blue” into a jingle that swept from Michigan Stadium to Hollywood started with some tuba players in the University of Wisconsin band.

    It happened some time in the hockey season of 1973-74. Burke, a junior in the Business School, was hanging out with a couple friends in his apartment at the corner of Tappan and Oakland.

    One of them was Tom Blaske, a law student. He and Burke had both played tuba in the Michigan Marching Band.

    The other guy was Robbie Moore, a neighbor of Burke’s. He was the All-American goalie on Michigan’s hockey team.

    Moore always got a kick out of the pep bands that played at hockey games. That night he got talking about a tune he’d just heard on a road trip to Madison.

    Burke and Blaske both remember what Moore said: “There’s this cool thing the Wisconsin hockey band does.”

    And he sang a catchy little tune that had stuck in his head, with three staccato notes at the end—bup-bup-bup.

    That was it. Ken Burke thought no more about it until the following fall, when the Marching Band traveled to Madison. There he heard the Wisconsin horns play that ditty with the bup-bup-bup, the same one Robbie Moore had sung.

    A couple months later, Burke walked down to Yost Arena to see a hockey game.

    In the stands he spotted the hockey pep band, a ragtag bunch of volunteers who pumped up the crowd with jingles and Michigan songs.

    Burke walked over to a tuba player he knew named Joe Carl, one of the pep band’s unofficial organizers.

    He said: “Hey, Joe, give me your horn for a minute.”

    And he played the little tune that Robbie Moore had sung in the apartment.

    Burke told Carl: You guys should play that, and then after the bup-bup-bup, you could shout, “Let’s go blue!”

    And they did.

    * * *

    Now, Joe Carl’s memory of what happened is slightly different. But he remembers that Wisconsin’s band was somewhere in the mix.

    “The band traveled to Wisconsin for the football game,” Carl said recently. “And the Wisconsin band—they’re kind of rowdy, kind of interesting—and I do remember them doing something that ended with a bup-bup-bup, you know?

    “It was their sousaphones as they’re marching into the stadium. We were waiting there to come in the stadium, and here comes the Wisconsin band, and they were doing something. I couldn’t recognize what the piece was…but I do remember it ended with this bup-bup-bup. I remember hearing that.”

    That something with the bup-bup-bup came back to Ann Arbor in his head, Carl said, then to that hockey game at Yost.

    “I don’t remember how that came around to ‘Let’s Go Blue,’ other than it was just kind of: They seemed to be goofin’ around, then we started goofin’ around.”

    And that certain tune began to pop out of Michigan tubas that night.

    Then, just after the bup-bup-bup—if Joe Carl’s memory serves—an alto horn player named John Endahl yelled: “Let’s go blue!”

    And the crowd loved it.

    “Yeah, the crowd picked it up, absolutely,” Carl said. “And you get a crowd there in Yost Arena and it sounded like 10,000 people. It was really cool. It certainly caught us by surprise.”

    * * *

    By the following football season, George Cavender, director of U-M bands, had heard the “Let’s Go Blue” tune-and-cheer, and he loved it, too.

    So one day he buttonholed Albert Ahronheim, who had been the Marching Band’s drum major. Now he was Cavender’s graduate assistant and the band’s principal arranger, and he had studied with Jerry Bilik, the U-M-trained composer, arranger and musical director who conceived “M Fanfare.”

    Cavender said: “Hey, Al, there’s this tune that this tuba player’s been playing at the hockey games, and it goes like this…”

    Cavender sang it.

    “I want you to do a full arrangement for the Marching Band.”

    So Ahronheim sat down at a piano and got to work—singing notes, playing notes, and scribbling on a blank score.

    Gradually, the arrangement emerged.

    He started with the original tuba bassline—the low, thumping notes—and added trombones.

    Then he wrote a new melody to burst in at a higher octave—trumpets playing a scrambling Dixieland kind of thing. Then all the instruments ascended together into a riot of melody and counter-melody, punctuated at the end with those three popping periods—BUP-BUP-BUP!

    Ahronheim got it down on paper. He handed it to Cavender, who looked it over and scribbled in the margin, at the appropriate point: “Yell let’s go blue.”

    “It’s arranging more than composition,” Ahronheim said recently, “but the two are intimately related.… What I did was an arrangement based on this bassline. I came up with that new melody, so I guess that was composition. But I don’t want to make too much of it. It’s not Beethoven.”

    * * *

    Maybe not. But it’s closing in on half a century with no signs of age. It’s a Michigan calling card, of course, but it’s played all over the country. It’s popped up in movies from “The Big Chill” to “Remember the Titans.” (In the credits of “Titans,” Carl and Ahronheim are the very last names listed—thanks in part to George Cavender, who urged them to get the tune copyrighted.)

    “It’s a lot of fun, there’s no question,” Ahronheim said. “I had no idea how much fun it was going to be.”

    So who gets the credit?

    It looks like everybody deserves a piece of it, small or large—Robbie Moore, Ken Burke, Joe Carl, Michigan’s hockey fans, George Cavender and Albert Ahronheim.

    And maybe especially those tuba players at Wisconsin, even if we’d rather not admit it.

    Ken Burke’s friend Tom Blaske put it this way: “As they used to say of the Panama Canal: Stolen, fair and square.”

    And who’s to say Wisconsin didn’t swipe the tune from somebody else?


    Parts of this story have appeared in slightly different form in Michigan Today. Sources include Liene Karels, “Which Maize? Which Blue?” Michigan Today, Fall 1996; “Maize and Azure Blue,” Michigan Alumnus, May 1912; Benjamin R. Kurtz, Charles Mills Gayley (University of California Press, 1943); “Michigan Football Uniforms, 1879-1899,” Bentley Historical Library; T.R. Chase, The Michigan University Book, 1844-1880 (1880); author’s interviews with Kenneth Burke, Albert Ahronheim, Joe Carl and Tom Blaske.

    • Let’s Go Blue, original sketch, 1975. (Image courtesy of Albert Ahronheim.)
      Let’s Go Blue, original sketch, 1975. (Image courtesy of Albert Ahronheim.)