America at Large: Seedy underbelly of Ohio State band’s ‘culture’ exposed
Secret songbook included songs mocking Holocaust victims and gays and ditties about rape
The Ohio State University band performs on the field before the college football playoff national championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas last January. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty
To grasp the sporting and cultural significance of the Ohio State University marching band, it’s best to revisit the Saturday afternoon in October, 2006 when Jack Nicklaus made a cameo appearance during one of their half-time shows. With his wife, children and grandkids among the 105,443 present to see his alma mater take on Minnesota, the then 66-year-old became just the fifth non-member to be granted the honour of dotting the “i” when the ensemble performed its trademark choreography, spelling out Ohio in script.
“That was pretty neat,” said Nicklaus, wearing a college letterman jacket for an occasion when he often seemed close to tears. “I’m a pretty emotional guy, and Ohio State means a lot to me.”
The greatest golfer of them all was thrilled by a walk-on part in a musical performance because, between the ages of six and 20, he didn’t miss an OSU home game. He saw a lot of intervals enlivened by student-musicians striving to live up to the nickname, “The Best Damn Band in the Land”. Jack Nicklaus’s enthusiasm also underscores the outsized role marching bands play in the wider theatre of college gridiron, as much a part of autumn’s ritual as athletes with artificially inflated grades and pie-eyed, middle-aged graduates pathetically trying to turn the clock back during tailgates.
All of the above then explains the outrage when the Wall Street Journal broke the story that, beyond a storied game-day repertoire which earned them a spot in an iPad commercial, the Ohio State band also had another songbook. Handed down clandestinely from generation to generation, it contains numbers mocking Jews and gays, and ditties about rape and bestiality (dedicated to a rival college).
Goodbye Kramer, for instance, is a Holocaust-themed rewrite of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, about a small town Jew taking the cattle train to “you know where”. It includes the lyrics, “Head to the furnace room, ‘Bout to meet your fiery doom…Oh the baking never ends, it goes on and on and on.”
Even more troubling than these compositions (and Goodbye Kramer was reportedly a very recent addition) is the fact the book was treasured as some sort of pseudo-cultural artefact, to be kept sacred by those fortunate enough to serve in the exalted band.
“Some of these may be offensive to you,” says the introduction to the songbook.
“If so, you can either ignore them, or you can suck it up, act like you got a pair and have a good time singing them. Take it with you on trips and to parties. But never leave this out of your sight. This book is for OSUMB members only, Past and Present. If they were not out on the field in front of 105,000 crazy fans in black (OK, navy blue) wool uniforms, they do not deserve to see this.”
As a publication that stunning in its awfulness suggests, there is a seedy underbelly here. The sousaphone players may have smiled and drum majors stomped during routines that became YouTube sensations but many of them underwent severe humiliations to make it that far. Once a season, male and female musicians had to participate in a midnight practice at Ohio Stadium, rehearsing in their underwear. Worse again, staff members, including the band director, witnessed this ignominy.
These revelations have come to light over the past two years following investigations into a series of sexual assaults by male band members on female colleagues. The university unearthed an atmosphere of harassment, bullying and hazing where older students tormenting younger counterparts was accepted behaviour.
Rookies were expected to obey orders given by more senior peers. In one instance, a woman was forced to simulate sex acts on several male musicians, including her own brother. Long journeys were often shortened by students entertaining fellow passengers by contorting themselves into sexual positions while hanging from the roof of the bus. Newcomers were given vulgar nicknames that they had to answer to, such as “Mr. Faggot”, “Boob Job”, “Twinkle Dick” and, for a Jewish female student, “Jewoobs”.
While prying into the band’s affairs, college authorities encountered opposition from an alumni group called “TBDBIL” (The Best Damn Band in the Land). These former members were often patrons of their successors, throwing parties, supplying them with alcohol (the drinking age on American campuses is 21), and, of course, promoting perverse and wrongheaded traditions such as the secret songbook. They also objected when Jonathan Waters, band director from 2012 to 2014, was fired for allowing a “sexualised culture”.
“We have fun,” said Mel Ponzi, an 80-year-old band alumnus still involved in fundraising, “and do things a little differently than most people.”
That much is true. Most people are horrified by what they’ve learned those in and around the band considered “normal”. After 137 years in existence, the 225 men and women currently holding what were always coveted spots in the line-up now find themselves being publicly abused rather than lauded. During recent performances, members have had audiences denouncing them as “perverts”.
One wonders what kind of reception they will get at Wembley where they are scheduled to appear during the NFL game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills on October 25th.
“The NFL has requested a London-themed show, but left the creative elements up to us,” said band director Christopher Hoch. “We are planning a very special and exciting performance.”
No word yet on which songbook they will use.