From the fire to the field: The birth of The Wabash Cannonball

The student section participates in the Wabash Cannonball before the game against the University of Oklahoma in Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Oct. 21, 2017. (Meg Shearer | Collegian Media Group)

It’s hard to imagine a Kansas State football, basketball or volleyball game without “The Wabash Cannonball.” K-State’s second fight song is a staple of the game day experience, complete with the clapping, the bobbing and the chanting.

Though it seems like a timeless Wildcat tradition, “The Wabash Cannonball’s” popularity came over a century after the university was founded. The Wabash rose from the ashes, so to speak, on Friday, Dec. 13, 1968, when Nichols Hall caught fire and burned.

It is often said that “The Wabash Cannonball” was the only surviving piece of sheet music from the Nichols Hall fire.

Did it survive? Yes. But did it survive the fire?

Technically, no.

“Historians know that people have different versions of what was saved, what was not saved, but the fact of the matter is ‘Wabash Cannonball’ was the one [the band director] had in his briefcase, that was not destroyed by the fire,” Frank Tracz, director of bands, said. “So that part of it is true.”

Tim Lindemuth, former editor of K-Stater magazine, recalled his Feb. 3, 1983 article for In View, K-State’s faculty and staff newspaper, that detailed the Wabash’s origins. Lindemuth spoke with Phil Hewett, K-State’s band director who debuted “The Wabash Cannonball” after the fire.

Lindemuth said the fire destroyed all of Hewett’s files in Nichols.

“Most of our band instruments and all of our sheet music was destroyed,” Hewett said in Lindemuth’s article. “We were in basketball season, and there was a game the following Tuesday. The only sheet music I had was what was filed at my home.”

Hewett made copies of the handwritten sheet music he found. Equipped with some borrowed instruments from Manhattan High School, the K-State pep band played as usual at the basketball game on Dec. 16, 1968.

The crowd’s reaction was “50-50” for the first performance of the Wabash, Hewett told Lindemuth. Since then, “The Wabash Cannonball” has become an iconic part of K-State’s game day traditions and the Pride of Wildcat Land’s culture.

“It is part of the culture of the marching band — you couldn’t have the K-State band without Wabash Cannonball,” Tracz said. “There’s an identity that has been given to both because of that tune’s popularity, no question.”

The Wabash’s evolution

The song as K-Staters know it today gets its moniker from the midwestern Wabash Cannonball train line, which ran along the Wabash Railroad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The original song by J. A. Roff, titled “The Great Rock Island Route,” was recorded on sheet music in 1882. Several versions of the song and its chorus were remade throughout the 20th century. Roy Acuff recorded one of the most popular versions in 1936, which sold more than 10 million physical copies worldwide, according to The Ballad Index.

The version Hewett had, according to Lindemuth’s story, was arranged by Joel Leach. What K-State’s marching band plays now, however, is not the exact same “Wabash Cannonball” that Hewett’s pep band played 50 years ago. Tracz said there are some parts of “The Wabash Cannonball” that are challenging to play.

“Now as the years go on, we have rearranged this to fit our band, to fit instruments, to fit the needs, to fit the talent level of bands,” Tracz said.

The Wabash is so intertwined with the marching band’s culture that even its members have a role in shaping what the Wabash sounds like.

“The interesting thing too is that the students in the band have claimed ownership of this piece, so they will redo things to make it work,” Tracz said. “Our job and my job is to just make sure it’s musically correct and satisfying. It’s theirs, it’s theirs—they own it, and they do what they want to it, as long as it’s within the parameters of the quality of what we want the band to sound like on the field.”

Marching band members are also responsible for the dance moves that are associated with the Wabash. Lindemuth said the arrangement Hewett had of “The Wabash Cannonball” directed woodwind players not to play the first half of the song.

“The students in the section wanted to get into the action, so Hewett let them devise their own antics,” Lindemuth wrote in 1983. “When performed on the football field, the bandsmen sometimes weave single file in and out of the other players. When seated at basketball games they wave their arms overhead like waves of grain.”

Tracz said when he came to K-State in 1993, there was not much movement when “The Wabash Cannonball” played. However, woodwind players—clarinetists, specifically—were responsible for the main dance move during “The Wabash Cannonball.”

“I do recall the clarinets starting that forward and backwards thing,” Tracz said. “And then that spread through the band and then it spread into the students, and everybody took off on this.

“Now the arms are involved and the stopping and back-and-forth and going up again — it has evolved and developed into something that’s unique,” Tracz continued. “It gets different every year; it’s kind of fun to watch. It’s what it’s supposed to be. It’s college kid fun.”

“The Wabash Cannonball” is not exclusive to K-State’s game day experience; the song is also associated with the bands at Indiana State University, Purdue University, Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas.

“Big football programs and band programs … they have a number of tunes that are well-recognized and people identify with it,” Tracz said. “Wabash is one of those. It’s one of those that has not only a catchy melody, but a good tempo, nice beat to it, everything about it is an attractive listening feature. You combine that with excitement and football and you start to … marry the two together with touchdowns and kick-offs and exciting points in a game.”

I'm Dene Dryden, and I graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor's of Arts in English. Before graduating, I worked at the Collegian for more than three years as a copy chief, managing editor and editor-in-chief. I also served a term on the Collegian Media Group Board of Directors. While at K-State, I also worked at Wildcat 91.1 FM. My cat Robyn is the light of my life, and I take compliments in the form of coffee.