Beth Nuss — creator of Fighting Illini 'war chant' — not happy about ban

CHAMPAIGN — During the 1980-81 school year, as Lou Henson was on the sidelines at the Assembly Hall leading his Fighting Illini men’s basketball team, Beth Nuss turned to her fellow University of Illinois pep band members and asked them to play a simple melody.

At the time, Nuss had no idea that the non-original melody — which she had recalled hearing back in her youth, perhaps from a movie or cartoon — would end up being played regularly at UI athletic events, let alone become the focus of controversy some 37 years later.

Eventually, it would become known as the “war chant.”

UI Chancellor Robert Jones recently decided to retire the “war chant” from all athletic events. Critics argued that the music stereotypes Native Americans and prolongs the divisive debate over Chief Illiniwek, which was retired as the UI symbol 10 years ago.

But for Nuss, the “war chant” will always be remembered as a melody that invoked excitement and Illini pride at ballgames.

Nuss, who retired in 2016 from a 32-year career in music education in the Paxton and consolidated Paxton-Buckley-Loda school districts, does not remember who the Illini were playing on the Assembly Hall court when, as a UI junior, she came up with the idea to start the “war chant.”

But everything else remains clear in her mind.

“Back in those days, the NCAA allowed the pep bands to play quick ‘vamps’ whenever the home team was on offense,” recalled Nuss, who was a member of several UI bands while earning her bachelor’s degree in music education from 1978 to 1982. “Band director Gary Smith always encouraged section leaders to be creatively involved in the band, offering tunes, cheers and ideas to be played, making the band a ‘team effort.’

“At this one particular game, our band director had been distracted in conversation with someone in the athletic department off to the side of the band. Illinois suddenly got the ball and the game was pretty exciting. I turned to the sax section, of which I was the section leader. I asked the alto saxophones to play the simple melody and made up a harmony for the tenor saxophones to play along with.

“This was not an original melody. It was something I recalled hearing back in my youth, perhaps from a movie or cartoon. I had no recollection of where the melody came from; it just came to me, and I decided to use it to make up a quick vamp for the saxes to play at games.

“As my sax section was quickly learning their part, a baritone player behind me — Peter Griffin, who would go on to be future director of the Marching Illini — tapped me on the shoulder. Pete said he had an idea of another part to play along with our saxophones. I basically enthusiastically said, ‘Go for it!’

“At that point, the saxophone section, combined with the baritone section, began our first ‘war chant.’”

Nuss said the band was “enjoying the vamp while providing enthusiastic motivation for our home team” when Smith suddenly realized some members of the band were playing the music “basically without his permission.”

“Gary ran over to us yelling, ‘What are you doing? Stop that! Stop that!’” Nuss recalled. “As we fizzled out our vamp, Gary, realizing the crowd of fans seated above us was now on their feet clapping along with our vamp, yells, ‘Never mind! Never mind! Keep going! Keep going!’

“Illinois scored, and the crowd was cheering loudly. Gary turns to me and asks me to teach the vamp to the rest of the band. Pete and I gladly obliged, happy that we were no longer ‘in trouble’ with the director.”

“I made up parts for the rest of the band, asked the drummer to play the drum beat — again, not original to me, but something I had heard in my past from old movies or cartoons. During the next rehearsal, Gary once again asked me to reteach the vamp to the band so we could polish and perfect it.”

Nuss said she never wrote down the vamp.

“It was made up by ear from thoughts that came to me from something I could vaguely remember from an old movie or perhaps an old cartoon,” Nuss said. “The vamp was simple and easy for the band to learn by ear.

“We played it again my senior year. As the vamp became popular, the band directors decided to continue to use the cheer, and later revised it to add more, making the vamp even more effective for pumping up the crowd.”

Nuss said she later ended up using the tune she created at sporting events while she was employed as a music instructor at PBL and Paxton schools.

“The kids enjoyed playing it at games, and the crowd response was good from it,” Nuss said.

According to News-Gazette columnist Tom Kacich, the “war chant” drum beat was actually from a children’s cartoon segment that ran 60 years ago on the venerable “Captain Kangaroo” television show. The music was from a song called “Pow Wow the Indian Boy,” which introduced a simple black-and-white cartoon called “Adventures of Pow Wow.”

Jones told The News-Gazette last week that the decision to drop the war chant was motivated by “multiple reasons” — one, the chant was not motivating fans at football games as historically intended; two, it had been used less and less in the last couple of years; and three, “not everybody agrees that the music is appropriate, and it’s offensive to some people.”

Nuss, meanwhile, is disappointed to see the “war chant” banned. She did not want to see Chief Illiniwek retired either.

“It is a subject that goes deep to my heart,” Nuss said. “Only those who have been involved in things such as Illini athletics, the band, cheerleaders, etc., truly understand the traditions and pride of the Illini. It’s something I cannot explain.

“This is why there is such a passion revolving around this subject. To some outsiders, it’s ‘just a stupid mascot,’ and they scream for us to move on already. To those of us who understand, who’ve lived on campus, upholding the great traditions,  this runs deep within us. It’s a pride that gets us excited at ballgames. It’s a feeling when you hear the band hit that first big note during pre-game in Memorial Stadium or during halftime of the ‘Three-in-One’ Chief’s appearance and dance. It gives us chills when we gather at homecoming, with a feeling of ‘family’ after years of not seeing our friends from far away places. And all of this revolves around the Chief, the pride of the Illini. It’s simply unexplainable for those outside of this great university, or even for those who really never got involved in the university but merely went to class and went home.”


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