History of the Pep Band

Band in Stands, 2002Have a seat; this might take awhile. The history of the UVa student band is a century long evolution that brought elements of marching bands, secret societies, student self-governance and UVa tradition together to form what we consider to be the pinnacle of student bands. Today's Pep Band can trace its name and untainted student governance continuously back to September of 1969, and it's heritage as a band, with no hostile takeovers, continuously back over 70 years.

The Pep Band's earliest known roots stretch back to around 1900 and the East Lawn Chowder Society, which appeared in UVa's yearbook, Corks and Curls. This "secret" society engaged in general tomfoolery, often involving their rivals, the West Lawn Chowder Society. The history of these chowder societies is necessarily shadowed in mystery, but we do know they formed a band long before UVa's marching band arrived.

The Pep Band's "marching" roots begin in the 1930's, when the University had a very active marching band that played for athletic events. Of course, this band resembled today's modern marching bands about as much as the amateur college football gridiron of that day resembled the multi-million dollar boondoggle that college football has become today. In 1936, under the direction of faculty adviser and occasional clarinet player, Dr. Robert Lutz (a Chemistry professor, actually), the band grew from 20 to 40 members but had no uniforms and could play only six marches (“with badly balanced instrumentation and somewhat raggedly withal”). But by in 1937, at 60 members, it was said to be "ranked with the best in the South" by The College Topic, the predecessor to The Cavalier Daily.

The Pep Band's history of sports controversy begins here, as the band received criticism from The College Topic after the Hampden-Sydney game. The Hampden-Sydney team was overpowered by the Virginia squad and the Virginia band responded to such a victory by playing a Funeral March derived from one of Chopin’s piano sonatas. This incurred the wrath of the College Topic editors who seemed to question the need to poke such fun at a plainly inferior foe.

The band played it's first half-time field performance in 1941, but a destructive band bus fire (which neither the Culpeper nor the Charlottesville fire departments would answer the call of, since the fire was “more than five miles out of the area which they were obligated to serve") and the advent of World War II, proved to reduce the band's membership. By 1964 there were once again only 20 members, and the band stopped performing on the field. For the next several years, the band's goal was to exist until a major rebuilding program could be started, in the form of the concert band.

It was as a subset of the concert band that the band survived and played in the stands at athletic events. In the mid-60's, the Music Department did not hire a replacement for the departed concert band director, and all that existed for 2 years was a tiny, student-run band that performed at some games. In the fall of '66 (give or take a year), the Music Department hired a local high school band director to serve as part time director of the concert band, and a subset again played at some games under the designation Pep Band. The old Kappa Kappa Psi band fraternity chapter, started in 1950, had dissolved by 1964 and was not recolonized despite some initial interest from the Pep Band's students in the 70's.

1973 Chowder SocietyFinally, in the fall of '69, the Music Department hired a faculty member to take over conducting the Concert Band, but he was only interested in getting a serious orchestra going. By mutual agreement between the faculty director and the student members, the Pep Band officially split off as a student-run organization; a Dixie band. Coincidentally, much of the membership of this new student band overlapped with the Lawn Chowder Society mentioned earlier, so many of the society's traditions were assimilated into the Pep Band (they look like us, don't they?).

So the Virginia Pep Band was formed with students' rejection of professional control, which afterwards became a motif of the student band; but another metamorphosis was to take place before the band would become the entity it is today. Under the leadership of students Steve Mershon, Frank Seney and Hugh Riley, the students of the band voted to leave the racially charged Dixie style and adopt the performance style of Stanford and the Ivy Leagues, while integrating UVa traditions and songs. They sent an 8-page prospectus to University officials, which was received with approval. A Scramble Band was born! Performing for the first time at a football game in 1974, the Pep Band was an immediate success. The hard-hitting humor and unique musical style became to many fans their entire reason for attending football games, as the football team occasionally saw fewer wins than years passing by.

The next twenty or so years are the stuff of fairy-tales: student-governance, controversial shows, hilarious good times. Ever the champions of free speech, the Pep Band angered targets of a lampoon or two, but made the band itself and U of V the brunt of as many jokes, too. The band even championed the "Good Old Song," as during the 70's a movement amongst the athletics administration aimed to abolish the song to adopt a more "peppy" post-touchdown song. The Pep Band refused to abandon the song, and the "Good Old Song" is still sung today at football games. But the success of the football team under Coach George Welsh brought greater scrutiny from the Athletic Department, and in 1993 the "AD" decided it would run the Virginia Pep Band.

In what band members now call the "Revolution of '93," an epic battle for control of the UVa band took place between the students and the Athletic Department. For 8 months the AD made plans with their chosen faculty band director, Dwight Purvis, and after the student press closed for the summer, athletics director Jim Copeland called the newly elected members of the Pep Band's managing board for a meeting. He declared the Pep Band would hence forth be run by a faculty director and no compromises would be made. The members of the Pep Band retired to their traditional week-long beach home in Myrtle Beach, many of them despairing the death of the student band. Alcohol was free-flowing (for those of legal age, of course).

But fortunately, under the leadership of band elder Bill "Flash" Pemberton, the band took heart. We were the only band in town, and we had 3 months free and nothing better to do but make a ruckus. To ruin the story, amazingly, David beat Goliath. Mobilizing the students, fans and press to their side, the Pep Band staged a public relations nightmare for the AD. The Band appeared in national press, from USA Today to the New York times, from radio to TV. The International AP wire picked us up. What was even better was that it was GREAT press.

Headline CollageSympathetic news stories were filled with quotes from our leadership about how we wanted to continue to support the student athletes, but we had been blocked by the Athletic Department. Quotes from AD officials were confused and defensive. Letter writers and columnists ridiculed the scandal-plagued UVa Athletic Department for their totalitarianism and heavy-handed treatment of students, and called for the reinstatement of the Pep Band. Editorialists bemoaned the irony of the muzzling of free speech at Thomas Jefferson's University.

The final nail in the Athletic Department's coffin came with the Sports Band. This hastily formed band of a few students as well as hired ringers (which particularly incensed the student press) was created as the Pep Band's replacement for football games. The Sports Band was introduced in Scott Stadium only once and their initial reception was absolutely unmistakable: when the stadium announcer asked the crowd to "please welcome the UVa Sports Band" the stadium erupted with abuse. At the height of their limited powers, they were 24 players strong and scarcely made a peep even after amplification was brought in. Much more audible, however, were the booing, hissing, thunk of hurled stadium cups, and chants of "Scabs Go Home!" that erupted every time they attempted to play. It was bit more abuse than the students in the Sports Band deserved, especially since many of them later joined the Pep Band, but the resolve of the stadium's fans was clear.

By the final football game of the year versus Virginia Tech, the Pep Band was reinstated, albeit without the microphone for their humorous field shows. Jim Copeland was fired shortly afterwards, although to be truthful, the Pep Band debacle wasn't the only reason for his departure. Unfortunately, the grudge left with administrators in the Athletic Department has apparently lasted to this day.

1999 ScrambleThe next ten years saw the Pep Band grow in leaps and bounds, although the AD continued to be more adversarial than cooperative as we struggled to regain the mic (and thus the humor of our shows). Finally in 2000, with the opening of a newly expanded Scott Stadium, the mic was returned and the Pep Band was whole again. The funny flowed free, but censorship remained a problem. In the words of sports promotions director Andrew Rader: "We had to censor things so much to make sure that we didn't offend or upset people that [the comedy] was so vanilla it made the Pep Band look bad." In 2000, we released our "Unzipped" CD, showing the University community we are serious about our musicality and performance quality. The happy go lucky years around the turn of the century saw the band's roster grow to 200, when it would not be an exaggeration to call the Virginia Pep Band the perhaps biggest and best student-run band in the nation.

Maybe in another ten years, another Pep Bander will pen the history of the Pep Band as it occurs now, as rocky as ever. For up to date info, check out our FAQ. I can only sketch the occurrences of the past few years as a history, and the hindsight of another author can fill it in for you later.

In the spring of 2003, again the Athletic Department struck to gain control of the band. This happened in the wake of another Pep Band contoversy, in which a Bowl-game half-time show against West Virginia angered the state's denizens who took exception to a WVU student portrayed as wearing pig-tails and overalls (check out the script here, it's exceedingly bland by our standards). Even though the show's script was approved by the Athletic Department and the staff of the Bowl, the AD would use the timing of this "embarrassment" to launch their plan.

The Athletic Department had been recovering from some very negative publicity in '93, when the department was convicted by the NCAA of 13 rules violations, from preferential treatment of athletes (No! Really?) to unreported income. In contrast, in 2003 they enjoyed the publicity buzz of a new and popular Head Coach, Al Groh. With this public relations capital in the bank and the hard-earned lessons of 1993, they were ready to move against the band. Again waiting until the summer began, they banned the Pep Band from all athletic events, announcing it was necessary step to starting a new marching band. The Pep Band's instruments were confiscated (even personal instruments) and the band's closet locked shut. While we got back our horns, the closet was not so lucky; the beautifully decorated orange and blue shelving was painted over as the room was handed over to the "bad guys." It was enough to make you cry. And some of us did.

Despite an outcry from the UVa community and students, after a year of recruiting the AD succeeded in creating its band, the Cavalier Marching Band, which gathered quite a following itself. While many fans rejoiced to see UVa step in line with the rest of the nation's colleges and start a marching band, many others despaired the loss of UVa tradition, student governance and the Pep Band's unique performances. The Pep Band asked to be allowed to play for "Olympic" University sporting events, like Soccer and Lacrosse, but were refused. Again, the AD's stance is one of no compromises; only the faculty run band will be allowed to perform at University athletic events. Even after the UVa student council asked for the Pep Band to be reinstated to certain events, namely those Olympic sports unsupported by a band, the AD wouldn't budge.

I'll go ahead and beat you over the head with a quick summary of the repetition that history has dealt the Pep Band. In 1969, the students of the band rejected faculty control to become the Pep Band; they voted to form a scramble band a few years later. In 1993, the students rejected faculty control, and voted to strike; they rededicated the band to the Jeffersonian ideals of student self-governance. In 2003, the students of the Pep Band rejected faculty control by refusing to join the marching band; they rejected the outside influence of a band without University tradition that played other school's songs in other school's styles of performance. We still think the only true student band is one created by a vote of the students.

Fortunately, all is not lost. The Pep Band remains a strong and dedicated, albeit smaller, force on Grounds. Concerned alumni started a non-profit organization, the Friends of the Virginia Pep Band, to help the Pep Band continue it's struggle, and it's members have grown into the thousands.

The band continues to play events outside the jurisdiction of the Athletic Department, and these events keep us quite busy today. Club sports like Rugby and Ice Hockey have enjoyed regular performances, and Charlottesville community events the band has traditionally supported, such as the 10-miler and United Way Day of Caring, continue to provide performance opportunities. Without the NCAA sporting events to play, the Pep Band has taken to playing major league games, with performances for both the Washington Capitols NHL team and the DC Nationals MLB team. Even the UVa Alumni Association has had the Pep Band play for its events since the ban.

Band Trophy from 1957So, the Virginia Pep Band evolved out of a marching tradition long ago, and like life-forms which evolve by specializing into higher order life, we are a unique entity that values individuality and creativity over uniformity. Our cheers, our songs and our traditions are proof of our inherited legitimacy. Heck, we even have some old trophies in our office from our "Award-winning" past of the 50's and 60's. We can claim ancestors in the student bands of the chowder societies and to get technical, even spontaneous student-run groups which performed for the "exercise hour" in 1832! With any luck, the student band will stay student-run until 2032, when Pep Band sources indicate the rise of the machines will mean an end to the human race as we know it.  


Written August, 2005 by Elmo "James" Maxwell

Sources: Photos from Corks and Curls and Cavalier Daily. Although I have used absolutely none of the citation standards painstakingly taught me by teacher after teacher, I've grabbed entire sentences from Steve Mershon's letters and masters thesis from 1977, as well as a letter from Michael Fuchs circa 1995, and the history page of Friends of the Virginia Pep Band.