The Yellow and the Green

The Yellow and the Green

In case yu haven't noticed, most school songs are pretty dorky. The sentiments expressed are insipid, the rhetoric is hackneyed, and the melodies are boring. All of which emphasizes my point that at NDSU we are lucky to have "The Yellow and the Green," an alma mater that partakes of the land and people of the northern plains.

The verses for "The Yellow and the Green" were written in 1908 by a young faculty member, Archibald E. Minard. An M.A. from Harvard under his belt, he came to NDSU in 1904 to teach English and Philosophy. He would go on to become dean of the new School of Science & Literature in 1919. That school evolved into the College of Applied Arts & Sciences, of which Minard also served as dean, until 1950.

Here's how Minard recalled his composition of the verses:

"The Yellow and the Green" was written, as I recall it now, in the spring of 1908. Professor and Mrs. [Henry L.] Bolley, at whose home I was staying, had spoken often of the need for a college song, and one Sunday afternoon some ideas began to take shape. The aim was to weave the college colors, yellow and green, with life and scenery characteristic of the State, for I thought that the verses, if they chanced to have any value, might make a state song as well as a college song.

I had just come to North Dakota from the East in 1904 and had spent three weeks of 1905 in the harvest field, being No. 50 on the payroll of a big Grandin farm near Blanchard. It was my first experience in the wheat fields. My impressions were rather vivid: the throng of casual labor drifting in on freight cars, the endless yellow fields, the monotonous sweating labor from dawn until after dark and the mosquitoes and the prairie roses, the abundant eating and the wretched beds, all under a sky of marvelous height and sweep with the most gorgeous sunsets I had ever seen. Some of this I tried to embody in "The Yellow and the Green."

Minard took his text to Dr. Clarence S. Putnam, of the music department, with the suggestion that Putnam provide a musical setting. Minard later recalled of that exchange,
When I took the verses to Dr. Putnam to ask if he cared to write music for them, I had but one request, that the music for them should not run so high or so low as to be hard for an ordinary voice to sing it easily.
Putnam was a native of Vermont who had attended medical school because his mother wanted him to but was more inclined to follow the lead of his late father, who had directed a regimental band in the Union army and died in the course of Sherman's march to the sea. Putnam had mixed a medical practice with a musical career for some twenty years, including a few years each at Moorhead, Casselton, and Fargo. In 1903 his medical office in Fargo was destroyed by fire. He then went to work teaching math at NDAC. He also began giving music lessons right away and soon was founding ensembles right and left--including the Cadet Band, forerunner of the Gold Star Band. Putnam would serve in the music department almost until his death in 1944 at age 84.

Putnam did write the music for the "Yellow and the Green," and it did become the college song of NDAC, but it did not, as Minard hoped, become the state song of North Dakota. That honor instead went to another song for which Putnam wrote the music--"The North Dakota Hymn," text by the poet James W. Foley. The legislature in its wisdom voted "The North Dakota Hymn" the state song in 1947. Editorial comment: "The North Dakota Hymn" is a dumb song. The vote of 1947 should be reconsidered, as "The Yellow and the Green" is far superior.

Since at this point I have lapsed into personal opinion, I might as well continue. Below left is the text for "The Yellow and the Green." My comments are on the right.

"The Yellow and the Green"
Ho! a cheer for Green and Yellow
Up with Yellow and the Green;
They're the shades that deck our prairies
Far and wide with glorious sheen,
Fields of waving green in the spring-time
Golden yellow in the fall--
How the great high-arching Heaven
Looks and laughs upon it all!
The first thing to notice about Minard's text is the vivid imagery he employs, full of color, motion, seasonality, and geometric form. The text is perfectly evocative of the Red River Valley, its level and fruited plain yawning wide under a blue vault. The inspiration of the harvest, too, is evident, in the musical climax of the sixth line.
Here in autumn throng the nations,
Just to gather in the spoil,
Throng on freight cars from the cities,
Some to feast and some to toil,
Then the yellow grains flow eastward
And the yellow gold flows back;
Barren cities boast their plenty
And the prairies know no lack.
This second stanza refers more specifically to the wheat harvest, a mix of ritual and frenzy that drew tens of thousands of laborers from eastern industrial cities, along with many college boys out to make some money and build some muscles on hard work in the fields and hearty fare from the cook cars.
Hushed upon the boundless prairies
Is the bison's thundering tread,
And the red man passes with him
On his spoiler's bounty fed.
But the Norse, the Celt and Saxon
With their herds increase and find
Mid these fields of green and yellow
Plenty e'en for all mankind.
The third stanza is something of an embarassment to us going on a century later, not so much because of its epitaph for the bison as for its implications of white racial supremacy. These lines reflect the common belief of the times (the so-called "fatal contact") that the peoples of color in colonized lands were dying races doomed by inevitable progress.
Ho! a cheer for Green and Yellow
Up with Yellow and the Green;
They're the shades that deck our prairies
Far and wide with glorious sheen,
Fields of waving green in spring-time,
Golden yellow in the fall--
How the great high-arching Heaven
Looks and laughs upon it all!
Now, as we reprise the initial stanza, let's consider the delicious ambivalence of Minard's final lines, an ambiguity wonderfully suited to our regional character on the northern plains. When Heaven laughs on our human progress, is it a laugh of delight, or is it a laugh of derision?

You may be wondering about the names, Minard and Putnam, which you recognize as the names of buildings on the NDSU campus. What is now Minard Hall was originally Science Hall. It was re-named Minard in 1951, the year after Dean Minard retired. What is now Putnam Hall was originally the college library, a Carnegie library. When the music department moved into the building in 1951, it was re-named Putnam Hall. Minard Hall today is the headquarters of the College of Arts, Humanities, & Social Sciences. Putnam Hall is the headquarters of the College of Business Administration.

Sources used in composition of this page:

  • Hunter, William C. Beacon Across the Prairie: North Dakota's Land-Grant College. Fargo: Institute for Regional Studies, 1961.

  • Clarence S. Putnam Manuscript Collection, NDSU Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU Libraries.