‘Hail to the Redskins:’ How the team’s marching band got its fight song back

The Redskins Marching Band prepares its show for theRedskins’playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday. Some of the band members have played for the team for decades, cheering on Washington through wins and losses alike. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)
January 3, 2013

Outside empty FedEx Field, in a dark, shivery parking lot, the Washington Redskins Marching Band played on — and on, and on — because the forecast is now calling for more “Hail.”

Forward marched the volunteer musicians, more than 100 of them, as they repeatedly played “Hail to the Redskins” at Wednesday night’s band practice.

“Yes,” associate director Ed Greene said. “Yes, yes, yes.”

The storied group had its groove back after finally getting its old fight song back.

For weeks this season, as the Redskins piled up points and wins, the band that began the year after the team arrived in Washington was forced to sit out its own tradition: Each time the team converted a point-after-touchdown kick, a recorded version of “Hail to the Redskins” played over the ­FedEx Field sound system. The team told the musicians not to play the big, brassy song that the band’s founding director had co-written 75 seasons earlier, in the leather-helmet era.

For some fans and band members, it was a personal foul. The musicians were still performing the song before games and after field goals, but they wanted their touchdown tradition back.

“That’s what so many Redskins fans grew up with: hearing the marching band play ‘Hail,’ ” drum major John Carpenter said.

Now “Hail” has come home.

After the Hogs Haven Redskins blog urged the organization to reconsider, the team struck up the band: Shortly before last Sunday’s season-deciding game against the dreaded Dallas Cowboys, team officials asked the Redskins Marching Band to play along with the old recording, made more than a decade ago by a different group of musicians and vocalists.

“Everybody was excited,” Carpenter said. They played the instrumental parts of the fight song four times, after every one of kicker Kai Forbath’s extra points.

The Redskins won the game, advancing to the playoffs after a long stretch of misery. They will play the Seattle Seahawks at ­FedEx on Sunday; the NFL’s oldest marching band will play, too.

The team did not make any officials available for comment.

The Washington Redskins Marching Band was created by franchise founder George Preston Marshall, who wanted to ramp up the game-day experience in part to attract female fans to old Griffith Stadium.

“Hail to the Redskins” was composed by band leader Barnee Breeskin; Marshall’s wife, silent movie actress Corinne Griffith, wrote the lyrics, which originally included an exhortation to “fight for old Dixie” and the line “scalp ’em, swamp ’em.” The first lyric has since become “fight for old D.C.” (though some fans have taken this season to shouting “fight for RGIII,” for the team’s star quarterback); “scalp ’em” was changed to “beat ’em.” (The Redskins, however, remain called the Redskins.)

The Green Bay Packers have an even older fight song than “Hail to the Redskins” (#HTTR on Twitter), but there’s no band to play it in Green Bay. In fact, the NFL is hardly a marching-band hotbed. The only other one is Baltimore’s Marching Ravens, who began as a Baltimore Colts band in 1947 and stayed together as the city twice lost its football franchise.

The marching band has spanned three stadiums and 24 head coaches. It is one of the most durable traditions for a franchise in which just about everything else has turned over.

“I love this Redskins tradition,” Rahsaan Edwards said. “You got the football team, you got the cheerleaders, and you got the band.”

Edwards, a 37-year-old contracting officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was among the first marching band members to pull into Parking Lot H for band practice Wednesday. He joined in 2000, three months after the team’s last home playoff game. He has hailed just four winning seasons, though the group has a saying: “The band never loses a game.”

Still, he said: “I’ve been in the band 13 years; this is my first January practice. The team has been good and, um, not so good. I’ve been here for a lot of bad stuff.”

Now, the team is winning again, all the songs sound a little more triumphal and more people than ever are talking to Edwards about the band. “We haven’t had that buzz in a long time,” said Edwards, a first trumpet.

The band marches 120 musicians before every home game, playing around the perimeter of the stadium and then on the field for two songs plus a full version of “Hail to the Redskins.” Then, they move to the Club Level for the game. They are not paid, though the team provides uniforms, instruments and a locker room. Each band member also receives a pair of free tickets to each game.

This wasn’t such a great perk during the fallow period, saxophonist Joe Jacob said. “Before, I couldn’t give my tickets away,” the retired Marine said. “This year, people are begging me for them.”

Don’t bother calling him about his tickets to this Sunday’s playoff, he added; they were quickly claimed by his family. “Huge game for us,” he said. “Huge.”

It was treated accordingly at practice. Carpenter, the drum major, instructed the musicians to head to the sideline, in the middle of the parking lot, to run through their pregame routine, which began with Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory.” Band director Eric Summers watched with a whistle around his neck and a worried look on his face.

“We have to make sure it’s clean and precise,” he said. In reviewing video of the previous Sunday’s performance, he’d noticed a problem with the formation. The band is supposed to march to midfield and spell out “75” (as in 75 years of the Washington Redskins Marching Band) and “80” (the current age of the franchise). Instead, it looked more like “15” and “90.”

And at practice, it wasn’t getting much better.

“Stop. STOP!” Summers said. “Hold your positions! Don’t move. DO. NOT. MOVE.”

Carpenter, a P.E. teacher at Oxon Hill High School who has been with the band for 18 years, scowled. “Attention to detail, folks,” he barked. “You get on cameras and everything is magnified.”

And so is the interest in jumping on the bandwagon.

Since Washington’s hot streak began in November, the band’s Facebook page has been filling up with posts from musicians who want to know how they can join.

They can try out next season, Carpenter said, though it won’t be easy to make the cut: The band is essentially at capacity. Any newbies will have to clear a very high bar, he said.

The band is filled with band directors, band teachers and former military band musicians, along with people who played in school marching bands. Drum leader Greg Rodgers is a civil engineer with the Fairfax County government. Gina Walton, clarinetist, is a D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles hearing examiner. David Clark, percussionist, is a budget analyst for the Department of Agriculture. Summers, the band director, is assistant principal at Charles H. Flowers High School, not far from the stadium.

The youngest member is 21; the oldest still marching is Don Bartlett, at 83. He joined in 1969 and now has “tuba-line chief” stitched onto his marching-band letterman.

How many times has he performed “Hail to the Redskins”?

He worked out the math. ­“Forty-four years, 10 home games, so 440 games, plus a few extra playoffs, maybe a half-dozen times per game. 3,000?” But, he added, that didn’t even include practices.

Suffice it to say, he won’t need the score to play the fight song on Sunday. “Even the new people that come along learn it real quick,” he said.

He was thrilled to be able to play “Hail” after the point-after kicks again. “We really missed that,” he said. “We felt left out.”

It was after 10 and practice was over. The musicians marching behind the NFL’s hottest team dispersed into the winter night. Sort of.

“There are no cold nights when the team is doing well,” trumpet player Howard Lessey said. “The weather is always better.”

“Hail” and all.

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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