In the urban areas of Sri Lanka, schools tend to be mostly single-sex K-12 and among the boys’ schools there were intense sporting rivalries. During those games, boys would show their support using generic cheers that were common to many schools. These cheers originated long before my own time and likely had been around for (I suspect) at least a century. One of them was used when your team had suffered a setback and was meant to show that this was not a cause for concern. It consisted of the following verse set to music.
Hurrah for the Mary!
Hurrah for the lamb!
Hurrah for the Trinity boys who do not care a damn!
Now everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
My school’s name was Trinity but other schools would simply replace that with their own name.
This cheer made no sense whatsoever but the last line was particularly puzzling. It was a complete non-sequitur even by the extremely low standards of school cheers. I used to wonder how and where it could have possibly originated but with time I forgot both the cheer and the puzzle.
But I was reminded of it recently and think I now know the origins.
I had family members from Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and England come to Cleveland for my daughter’s wedding and on July 3 we decided to give them a taste of Americana by taking them to the annual Independence Day concert at the Blossom Music Center nearby, a beautiful outdoor venue where members of the Cleveland Orchestra play in a clamshell-shaped open-air amphitheater to thousands of people who sit on blankets and lawn chairs on a grassy hillside.
The program for this occasion consists of ‘patriotic’ music, essentially paeans to American greatness and exceptionalism. I find such displays of nationalism verging on jingoism jarring even if the music is good but went to the concert to give my guests a first hand taste of it. But on reading through the program, I was startled to see one selection as titled ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ by George F. Root.
And sure enough, when the music played, I recognized the familiar tune from that old cheer. When later I looked it up, it turns out that this song was composed in 1862 for the Union side during the American civil war and was such a huge hit and that it spawned a Confederate version with different words and a different musical arrangement. Here’s the Union version:
The chorus goes:
The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor and up with the star;
While we rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
So that solved one mystery of the origin of that last line of the cheer and the tune, as well as the source of the word ‘hurrah’. But that opens up an even deeper mystery and that is who decided to create a mashup of a common nursery rhyme and an American civil war song and why the resulting cheer, which I am willing to bet is the most stupid cheer ever invented, managed to grab the imagination of generations of Sri Lankan schoolboys.
Intrigued by this mystery, I did some searching online and found something in the minutes of the Tenth Annual Reunion of the Army of the Potomac held on June 18, 1879 in Albany New York. It appears that these reunions had a formal session followed by a more boisterous (and likely drunken) portion and it was during the latter part that some people sang a parody of Root’s song that “created much amusement” that had the following chorus:
Hurrah for Mary! hurrah for the lamb,
Hurrah for the soldiers who do not care a (ahem)!
For we’ll rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again
Shouting the battle cry of freedom
So it looks like soldiers had, as they are wont to do, added their own doggerel to a popular tune. I am not sure if this was the first occurrence of this variation but it seems to have caught on within the military, appearing in a Michigan military songbook in 1892 and another variation appearing in the songbook of the 1st US Infantry.
The next step in the evolution of this song can be found in a songbook for the Boy Scouts where the chorus goes:
Hurrah for the Mary,
Hurrah for the Lamb
Hurrah for the teacher, who didn’t give a particle
If all the lambs at (insert your camp name here) came marching into school
Shouting out the battle cry of freedom!
We see that with the Scouts, the song had become more localized, enabling the insertion of a particular group, and transferred to a school setting rather than the military. This was the likely version that traveled across continents and ended up in Sri Lanka. I suspect that it was taken there by an American missionary who had been a Scout and then got modified to the form that Sri Lankan schoolboys now use.
If that is the case, then it is possible that other countries where American missionaries went also have some form of this cheer.
But that may be as far as we get to solving the mystery of the origins of the world’s most stupid cheer.