It is hard to describe the traditional depth of the West Point Graduation March. It is a collection of old Army and popular tunes that have lasted for nearly the entire age of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The seven songs that are represented in the march are: “Home! Sweet Home!,” 1823; “100 Days ’til June,” 1938; “Dashing White Sergeant,” 1826; “Wedding March,” 1842; “The Girl I left Behind Me,” 1810; Field Music Bugle Strain and Drum Cadence, unknown but likely 1938; and “Auld Lang Syne,” 1788.
It was Lt. Philip Egner (Bandmaster of the West Point Band from 1909 to 1934) that compiled this collection at first. He probably wished to add in the latest marches of the era to the graduation parade, so he compiled all of the old songs into one piece. In 1938, Lt. Col. Francis Resta (Bandmaster 1934-1957), added in his 100th Night Show overture song entitled “100 Days ’til June.” This version of West Point Graduation March is performed today.
So, if you really look at dates of the songs, nearly every graduate from West Point since 1802 has heard songs from this march. The one song that glues the entire Long Gray Line is “Auld Lang Syne,” dating to 1788. When Robert Burns penned the poem for “Auld Lang Syne,” it was set to a melody that was already ancient, holding the traditional folk song number #6294 of the Roud Folk Song Index. “Auld Lang Syne” is known best to celebrate the New Year at the stroke of midnight, but it is also sung at funerals, graduations, and as a farewell or ending to other occasions.
The West Point Band marching in the 2014 Graduation Parade
West Point Graduation March serves a military function that is unmatched when comparing it to other old West Point songs. It is the march performed during the “Sound-off” sequence at the Graduation Parade. Again, nearly every single graduating Cadet has had to stand at parade rest while the band performs this march, trooping the line in front of the U.S. Corps of Cadets.
The scenario is this: the U.S. Corps of Cadets march onto The Plain, and the firsties (aka seniors) march on for the last time of their cadet career. All of the formation is called to parade rest. The adjutant yells, “Sound-off!” The announcer then reads:
“THIS MARCH ACROSS THE FRONT OF THE LINE IS SAID TO HAVE ORIGINATED WITH THE CRUSADES. THE TROOPS OFFERING THEMSELVES FOR SERVICE WERE DRAWN UP IN A LONG FORMATION AND THE BAND COUNTERMARCHED ONLY BEFORE THOSE CHOSEN TO SERVE.”
The drum major brings instruments up and starts the slow first phrase of “Home! Sweet, Home!” The band then plays a rousing introduction to Lt. Col. Francis Resta’s 1938 100th Night Show opener “100 Days ’til June.” The band promptly steps off to march in front of the Corps of Cadets and on display for all of the parents and friends visiting West Point to see graduation events. The medley proceeds with “Dashing White Sergeant,” Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” As the band nears the end of the Corps, the drum major gives a counter-column signal to turn the band around. Here the field music group, the Hellcats, performs an original bugle strain and the drums continue as the band completes the counter-column. Once the counter-column is completed, the drum major gives a sharp “forward march” with the mace, and the band steps off in full step to “Auld Lang Syne.” The band proceeds to march back to its original position on the field. This march completes with the full-strain of “Home! Sweet, Home!” to finish the sound-off sequence.
Here are some historical tidbits on each song in the West Point Graduation March.
West Point Graduation March – The 1938 version compilation is by 1st Lt. Philip Egner and Lt. Col. Francis E. Resta, both Bandmasters and Teachers of Music at West Point
“Home! Sweet Home!” (1823) by Sir Henry Rowley Bishop, Lyrics by John Howard Payne – This song was reputedly banned from being played in Union Army camps during the American Civil War for being too redolent of hearth and home so as likely to incite desertion.
“100 Days ’til June” (1938) by Lt. Col. Francis E. Resta, West Point Bandmaster and Teacher of Music – This song served as the overture to the 100th Night Show in 1938. The show marks 100 days prior to graduation and encompasses the firstie (senior) class’ experience of cadet life at West Point. This song remains as a traditional work performed on modern 100th night shows. West Point graduations used to be held in June, but now graduations occur at the end of May.
“Dashing White Sergeant” (1826) Melody by Sir Henry Rowley Bishop, Words by British General John Burgoyne – In the U.S., the same song was as well-known during the Mexican War as “The Female Volunteer for Mexico.”
“Wedding March” (1842) by Felix Mendelssohn – West Point Cadets are not allowed to be married while attending the Academy. After West Point graduation, a flood of weddings occur on and off post.
“The Girl I Left Behind Me” (1810) – 1810 is the earliest known version of this melody. U.S. Army Soldiers adopted it after hearing a British prisoner singing the song during the War of 1812. The song was used by the Army as a marching tune throughout the 19th century.
Field Music Bugle Strain and Drum Cadence – The Hellcats perform, allowing the marching band and Hellcats to counter-march before those chosen to serve.
“Auld Lang Syne” (1788) – In 1788, Robert Burns penned this well-known poem and it was set to the melody of a traditional folk song known as #6294 of the Roud Folk Song Index. The traditional use of this song is to celebrate the New Year at the stroke of midnight. It is also sung at funerals, graduations, and as a farewell or ending to other occasions.
“Home! Sweet Home!” – The Marching Band returns to its original position on the field to play the full version of “Home! Sweet Home!”
The hat toss at the graduation of the West Point Class of 2012
The West Point Graduation Ceremony receives the most media attention of all graduation events as usually a prominent guest speaker comes to speak. The words the graduating class always cherishes come from the Cadet First Captain at the end of the ceremony: “Graduating Class, Dismissed!” Here, the class throws their hats in the air for a young child to catch or pick up as a souvenir. The West Point Band marks this moment by performing the West Point Graduation March.
Words by Sgt. Maj. Christopher D. Jones