Former educator started UI 'war chant'

Former educator started UI 'war chant'

CHAMPAIGN — During the 1980-81 school year, back when Lou Henson was on the Assembly Hall sidelines, 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 games.

Nuss, who retired in 2016 from a 32-year career in music education in the Paxton and consolidated Paxton-Buckley-Loda school districts, doesn't remember who the Illini were playing on the Assembly Hall court when, as a UI junior, she says 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.'"

'Stop that! Stop that!'

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."

'This runs deep within us'

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" 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 pregame 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 faraway 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."

Will Brumleve is editor of the Ford County Record, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit

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honor9chief wrote on September 05, 2017 at 10:09 am

First, there has been 1 former Chief or his wife said he was not proud being the Chief. Ok his feelings are noted. There have been 40 Chiefs which means .025% abstains. Champaign and Urbana has a total of 128,651 population. Taken that in consideration let's say 1000 residents don't like the Chief for whatever reasons. That computes to .00777% of the community abstains. There are aprox. 55,000 U of I student and administration personnel. Say 10,000 die hard anti chief people exist computes to .1818% Hardly universal more like territorial. So  take the community that the U of I has no regard for who has supported the U of I with sales and revenue from the EXITING Illini for decades and multiply 128,651 times 420.00 season ticket price is---------54,033,420. Keep in mind this is just the community the U of I set right in the middle of  town. How does it feel to be more outnumbered than Gen. George Custer and no he wasn't a confederate and the battle was the Little Bighorn for the kiddies who aren't taught American History anymore. One Big Ten University that is the state's namesake and Symbol honoring Native Americans killed destroyed and now cameras are not showing the logo, Hypocrite Chancellor proud to be a son of share croppers for HIS people but craps all over the Native Americans.  No more chants, Symbol, spirit there is nothing left. DIVERSITY GONE BAD and pompous administrators are too arrogant to admit it. No Chief no diversity and this just in. OUR SAVOIR Whitman unlike a diverse school like Michigan and Harbaugh just joined the hypocrites. After Pete Elliott, Jim Valek, Bob Blackman, Gary Moeller, Mike White, John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, Ron Zook, Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit, and now Lovie. FREE TICKETS EVERYONE PLEASE COME TO THE GAMES. Pathetic end to a once great University.

CallSaul wrote on September 05, 2017 at 6:09 pm

'Hypocrite Chancellor proud to be a son of share croppers for HIS people but craps all over the Native Americans'

Gee, what a surprise --- yet another delusional rant complete with a disgusting racist non sequiter from yet another supporter of the moldy old racist chicken feather 'chief' mascot.

Who could have guessed such a thing would happen...? 

And then who could have guessed that it would keep happening in the comment threads...?

It's almost as if there's a common thread here...hmmmmmm....

Do you agree with your fellow chicken feather 'chief' clinger that the horribly racist 'smiling and happy' Aunt Jemimah stereotype is not actually racist at all but is instead very respectful and honorable?

honor9chief wrote on September 06, 2017 at 10:09 am

Thanks for the comment as you prove what I was saying  IF THE CHIEF IS A RACIST SYMBOL THEN ALL CHIEFS ARE RACISTS. I can no longer support a University who is prejudice of native Americans. Of course the U sucked all of profits from the chief, mugs, shirts, etc. then put it in their pockets and banned anyone else from making money off of it. The U and the .012% are the ones who turned the Chief from an honored symbol to a mascot on a coke bottle. The Chief prior to this mass merchandising money grabber administration would come out at half and leave, not attend the Chancellors daughters birthday party. It's a symbol! Don't crap on the Flag and our Chief.

Of course the Marxist U like the other marxists are doing, tearing down statues, renaming streets, burning looting and all the rest of your agenda. I guess with that the Marxist U can be proud to be the leader of destroying American traditions like honoring native Americans. Just so the rest of you understand the HOSTILE nonsense is just a part of the smear and replace comments made prior to voting. Doesn't work with the Chief. Ms. Tetor did not care about the hostile she cared about showing a drunk image of the chief falling down stairs a part of the U marketing strategy. Rather tthan fixing it they destroyed it. A SPECIAL ONE FOR THE CHIEF HATERS


From a previous post.

"OK time for a refresher. 1. Charlene Teetor, Native American led the campaign and I don't blame her for being upset. Yes, this pro chief fan understands her feelings. SHE WAS NOT OFFENDED BY THE REGALIA, MUSIC, OR MEANING OF OUR CHIEF. HER OBJECTIONS WASTO THE CORPORATE GREED WHO WERE SMEARING THE CHIEF ON EVERY ITEM FOR MARKETING AND SALES.  THE ADMINISTRATION CAME UP WITH THE "HOSTILE IMAGE CRAP, LYING TO THE PUBLIC TO SUIT THEIR AGENDA. The Chief is a symbol and shouldn't be mocked by having shirts of drunk indians on cups and t-shirts. OK WITH THAT SAID. DO NOT MARKET THE CHIEF. OUR SYMBOL IS NOT FOR SALE. Fill the stadium by bringing back our symbol and keep him off of merchandising and REALLY  honor him.In the "corporate world" it's called a win win rather than the lose lose we have now. God Bless all Native Americans.I really want Lovie and all our athletes to enjoy a sold out 80,000 fans in orange and blue as we did. Even when Gary Moeller took us to 0 and 10 we still had the Chief."

CallSaul wrote on September 06, 2017 at 11:09 am

So in addition to whining and crying about the long gone moldy old racist chicken feather 'chief' mascot, you're also whining and crying that some statues to the treasonous losers who fought a war --- killing hundreds of thousands of people --- for the express purpose of defending slavery are being moved?

You cling to the old racist 'chief' mascot.

You repeatedly launch racist attacks on Chancellor Jones.

You cry about statues to slavery defending treasonous losers coming down or even just being relocated.

There certainly is a pattern here...

Do you agree with your fellow 'chief' clinger that the Aunt Jemimah caricature isn't the least bit racist...?

Do you agree with the head nazi lover --- y'know, the Republican president --- that a lot of the people marching with torches alongside the nazis, KKK goons and white supremacist murderous terrorists were 'very fine people'?

After all, they share your outrage that the statue to the traitor scumbag violent defender of slavery Bob Lee would be moved.

Maybe you can call in all those nazis, KKK terrorists and white supremacists to have a pro 'chief' rally --- complete with tikki torches of course --- right here in CU. I'm sure they'd join you in full thorated support of the moldy old racist chicken feather 'cheif' mascot...