Student‑composed Cougar ‘Fight Song’ tops the charts at 100 years old

Closeups of Melcher and Sayles and sheet music for the fight song.
Zella Melcher and Phyllis Sayles, l‑r, composed the Washington State Fight Song as WSC students in 1919.

By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries

Soon to be 100 years old, the Washington State Fight Song is the Cougar Nation’s familiar and much‑loved anthem. A new exhibit at WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections celebrates the iconic song as well as the two women who wrote it.

“When you think about the things that make WSU unique, the fight song is certainly one of them,” said Mark O’English, university archivist and exhibit curator. “It has gained a place in popular culture and been used as wakeup music for space shuttle astronauts.”

“Win the Day for Crimson and Gray: Celebrating a Century of the Fight Song” opens with a reception from 3–4:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, at MASC in Terrell Library. The exhibit is open for viewing during MASC’s regular hours, 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Monday–Friday, and will remain up through the final full week of April.

Sheet music of song.
Washington State Fight Song stands the test of time. 100 years later, it’s still the most popular at the university.

As the patriotic fervor from World War I began to subside, students at Washington State College found themselves uninspired by the songs associated with their school, according to O’English. Two senior students, Zella Melcher of Spokane, Wash., and Phyllis Sayles of Lapwai, Idaho, took on the task of writing new music to energize the student body.

Melcher was an active, outgoing soprano, the only woman in the glee club and one of a small group of women who had organized the campus’s new music honorary, Mu Phi Epsilon. Among the first recruits into that group was Sayles, a transfer student and pianist from Northwestern University, where she’d compiled a book of that school’s fight songs. For WSC’s song, Melcher wrote the words and Sayles the music.

“They debuted their creation to great acclaim on Feb. 20, 1919, at a student body meeting, and one century later their Fight Song still inspires WSU students,” O’English said. “While other songs are affiliated with the university, notably ‘Crimson and Gray Girl,’ ‘All Hail to Washington State,’ ‘Old Wazzu’ or even Andy Grammer’s ‘Back Home,’ the Fight Song has been the campus’s pre‑eminent song from day one.”

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