From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill

Gearing up for today’s UVa football game against Indiana is a lot more fun now that my daughter is old enough to enjoy the game. Since last week she’s been imploring me to “sing ‘The Good Old Song,’ daddy! –and the second verse!” I’ve also started to teach her “Virginia, Hail, All Hail.”

One Virginia song that I won’t be teaching her is “From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill.” This most problematic, often hand-wrung-about of the Virginia songs is unlike any of the other ones I’ve written about because there is no clear author–as well as little among the lyrics that can be sung in public. But I think that if you put on a different hat, that of the folk song collector, it’s easy to find something to admire in the song, even sober.

One of the Glee Club’s past officers was Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr., about whom I’ve written before. His Traditional Ballads of Virginia shows how folk songs change as they are passed from person to person, and even how some lyrics move from song to song; for instance, verses of “Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight” (known in Virginia as “Pretty Polly”) fetch up in “Young Hunting” (known as “Lord Henry” or, in Bob Dylan’s rendition, “Love Henry”). Also, melodies tend to get reused from song to song, with lyrics appropriate for the occasion being fit to much older tunes.

So it is with “From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill.” Let’s start with the tune. Like many Virginia songs–“The Good Old Song” from “Auld Lang Syne,” “Oh Carolina” from “Clementine,” “Hike Virginia” from “Hot Feet,” “Just Another Touchdown for U.Va” from “Just a Little Bit Off the Top”–“Rugby Road” recycles another tune. In this case, the roots of the tune reach back to Charles Ives’ “Son of a Gambolier,” penned in 1895, and maybe even to “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” a Confederate marching tune, but the immediate antecedent is “Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech.” The history of college songs generally is full of this sort of campus-to-campus transmission of melody, arguing for college songs as a special form of folk song.

Then there are the lyrics, and here the similarity to transmitted ballad songs is even more apparent. While the first verse is highly topical to Virginia, with echoes of the shot that killed John A. G. Davis on the Lawn in 1841 ringing through “The faculty are afraid of us, they know we’re in the right,” and the traditional poles of Grounds (“Rugby Road”) and downtown Charlottesville (“Vinegar Hill”) serving as the site of the revels, the second traditional verse is more timeless. The second verse of “Rugby Road” begins:

All you girls from Mary Washington and R.M.W.C.,
Don’t ever let a Virginia man an inch above your knee

Far from being a waggish invention of some Wahoo or other, this line is practically a lock-stock-and-barrel lift from “The Dundee Weaver” (2022 note: the original site is now dead, so here’s an archive link), a bawdy Glaswegian street song:

Come aa ye Dundee weavers an tak this advise fae me
Never let a fellae an inch abune yer knee

Does knowing the history of the song make it any less offensive to a modern, coeducational University? Maybe not, especially considering how very offensive are some of the other verses that have been dreamed up over the years. But I think trying to throw the song out in its entirety misses an important clue to how the college songs that Wahoos sing as they watch football–and drink–came about and why some persist.