How we came to hang Jeff Davis in song

Illustration by Bo Brown

Dear Benny,
Can you give me any history of the first few verses of “Hang Jeff Davis”? As a student of the Civil War, I find these words intriguing.
—’53 Wharton History Buff

Dear Red and Blue and Gray,
My search for the answer to your question led me to Bruce Montgomery, music director emeritus of the Penn Glee Club, who recently finished an all-new version of the “Penn Song Book,” the first since 1923. The book—its publication date has not yet been set—will contain histories of many popular Penn songs, including this one, whose real name is “The Field Cry of Penn.”

According to “Monty,” the melody is that of an 1858 Methodist hymn attributed to William Steffey, “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?” No one knows when the lyrics we sing at Penn were written, or by whom, but judging from that first line—“Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree”—it was obviously sometime during the Civil War, and by a Union sympathizer. Another well-known Civil War tune, “John Brown’s Body,” written around 1860, uses the same melody.

Sometime in the early 20th century, musicologist George E. Nietzche issued an impassioned plea to rewrite the lyrics in a way that would not offend anyone or any region of the country. Not only did no one take up Nietzche on his plea, but a more recent student alteration of the lyrics—a vulgar substitution for the spoken words “Giddy up!”—has led to its abandonment as a celebratory song sung whenever the football team scores.

Dear Benny,
Are there any other MacArthur Fellows on our faculty besides Sarah Kagan?
— Brain Trustee

Dear Genius Worshipper,
Yes, there are—seven, according to Linda Koons in the Provost’s Office. They are: Nancy Farriss in history, Daniel Janzen in biology, Stuart Kaufman in biochemistry and biophysics, David Rudovsky in law, Leo Steinberg in history of art, Susan Stewart in English and Gary Tomlinson in music. Kaufman and Steinberg are emeritus.


Got a question for Benny? You can ask Benny about benefits, worklife issues, University history or trivia, or other matters pertaining to life at Penn. Send it via e-mail to current@pobox.upenn.edu or via regular mail to the Current, 200 Sansom Place East, 3600 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6106. A Current coffee mug goes to those whose questions we publish.

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Originally published on December 11, 2003