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It’s Time to Retire “Hail to the Redskins,” Too

The team's famous fight song has its own troubling history.

Washington’s NFL team announced Monday that it will retire its racist nickname and logo. But what about its fight song?

Several of the replacement names floating around begin with “Red” and have two syllables, which mean you could swap them right into “Hail to the Redskins.”

A team spokesperson tells Washingtonian that to his knowledge the song’s future hasn’t yet been part of the discussions of the team’s rebranding. Keeping it would be a mistake, in my opinion: that song, too, is weighed down by the team’s exceedingly fraught history around race, especially the idea that anyone in the US has the right to exploit Native American culture.

The song’s music was written by Barnee Breeskin, described at the time of his death by the Washington Post as “a band leader, public relations executive and man about town,” and its lyrics were written by the film actress Corinne Griffith, who married Redskins owner (and unrepentant segregationist) George Preston Marshall in 1936 and was responsible for a lot of the team’s identity: Not only was she behind the team’s burgundy and gold uniforms, the Post wrote in her obituary:

She introduced “show business” to the [R]edskin games of that era – a 55-piece band to play before the games, a 19-piece swing band to provide background music during the games, smoke pouring from a teepee at half-time to the throbs of a tom-tom, and a 93-piece band in Indian dress, playing “Hail to the Redskins.”

One long-standing objection to the song is that the lyrics “Fight for old DC” used to be “Fight for old Dixie,” but that’s not the whole story: That exhortation, designed to shore up the team’s appeal to Southerners, was not in Griffith’s original lyrics and spent only a few years in the official version, according to the scholar C. Richard King’s book Redskins: Insult and Brand. The song also featured lyrics that recall what some call “Tonto speak”:

Scalp ’em, swamp ’em—We will take ’em big score

Read ’em, weep ’em, touchdown!—We want heap more!”

Those lyrics, later sanitized to “Run or pass and score—We want a lot more! / Beat ’em, Swamp ’em, touchdown!—Let the points soar!” are still sung over the “BOOM-boom-boom-boom” rhythm that old films and TV shows used to signal the appearance of Native people, even though it’s rarely found among Native American music (itself an rich and diverse field of sounds that have had significant influence on American music).

Curiously, the music from “Hail to the Redskins” has migrated overseas, where the LG Twins in South Korea have used it. I was unable to discern what place it enjoys among the team’s rich roster of songs and chants, but I think we can all agree this version is wild:

Surely there’s a good number of local musicians who would jump at the chance to write a new fight song. Coldplay, on the other hand, is not invited to contribute any ideas.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.