Most of us have been singing “there is no place like Nebraska” since we were children, and many Husker fans couldn’t forget the words to “Hail Varsity” even if they tried.
But ask a die-hard Husker in scarlet and cream face paint to sing you “The Cornhusker?” Likely, you’ll get nothing.
The lesser-known fight song dates back more than a century ago, and it’s getting new life with a recently released and quite excellent version by The Killigans.
If you don’t know the Killigans, they’re a folk-punk that mixes up punk rock, country and folk. You’d do just as well stomping around a dance floor or raising a beer while the band kicks out the jams. Think of something like The Pogues but without anything particularly Irish.
The Killigans’ version of “The Cornhusker” is a fast-moving tune that builds from the opening line, “Come a runnin’ boys,” to a gang chorus of “For Nebraska and the scarlet/For Nebraska and the cream” that will get any Husker fan shouting along.
Singing about the state and their team always seemed natural for The Killigans. Guitarist Chris Nebesniak told me the band always wanted to make a Husker song, but it never seemed to work out.
“They were all very hokey and just not real genuine sounding,” he said.
Then they looked at old fight songs. A friend has a tradition of posting the lyrics to “The Cornhusker” to his Facebook page on every game day, and Nebesniak’s bandmate and brother, Pat, remembered it from playing trumpet in the Cornhusker Marching Band, which still plays it at games.
“Our goal was to do it in our style, but make it something the masses would enjoy. We kept the words exactly how they were written,” Nebesniak said. “(We) took some liberty to make it more of a rousing sing-along gang chorus.”
Reaction to the song has been impressive, including lots of downloads. Bars are playing it. Tailgaters are playing it.
It was even played at Memorial Stadium before the game against Miami.
“We have talked with a couple people with the university about incorporating it in some way. It may take a while to catch on, so we will see what happens,” Nebesniak said. “What we want people to know is that we did not do this song in effort to have it played in the stadium, or become the new fourth-quarter pump-up song or anything like that. We just did it because it’s a cool old fight song, and it fits with what we do as a band.”
Band members say they bleed Husker red, and they just want people to sing along to an old, great song.
A little history of “The Cornhusker”: Robert W. Stevens wrote the tune in 1909, and it was eventually dubbed “The Official Field Song of the University of Nebraska.”
In essence, it was Nebraska’s first true fight song.
Stevens was a teacher at the University of Nebraska, and he wrote the song at a time when football was becoming the big sport down in Lincoln. It became a big part of the football culture.
The sheet music published in 1909 calls it “The musical hit of the University of Nebraska.” These days, the song is in the public domain and can be freely performed or recorded by anyone.
“It is a great song, and we hope it comes back to Nebraska football,” Nebesniak said. “We hope that people keep playing it and remember the words and, maybe someday when you are in a crowd of fans walking into the stadium and you hear someone start up the song with ‘come a runnin’ boys,’ you can join in without thinking and carry it through the chorus.”