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A Short History of the Chicago Cubs’ Songs

Don’t like “Go Cubs Go"? There are others … listen at your own risk.

Steve Goodman in 1983   Photo: David Gans/Wikimedia Commons

The possibility that the Cubs could win the World Series—and if not this year, then in the near future, with a brilliant young core and substantial resources—brings with it the near-certainty that, much as “Chelsea Dagger” did with the Blackhawks, “Go Cubs Go” could wear out the long welcome it’s been given. For all Steve Goodman’s greatness, it’s a bit of a clunker (“we’ve got the power, we’ve got the speed / to be the best in the National League"), and not quite old enough to be quaint, like Captain Stubby and the Buccaneers, “Let’s Go, Go-Go White Sox,” co-written by Walter E. Jagiello, aka Lil’ Wally the Polka King.

But it could be worse. The Cubs have, as one would expect, tried.

The history of baseball team fight songs seems mostly limited to the 1960s, as you’d probably guess if you know the few that have survived: “Meet the Mets” (1961), “Here Come the Yankees” (1967), “We’re Gonna Win Twins!” (1961; repurposed from a Hamm’s jingle), and the White Sox’s theme, written in 1959. The quality rapidly deteriorated from there, particularly when teams have tried to imitate the mid-century sound, as the Nationals did with the ghastly “Nuts About the Nats.”

The Cubs got in on this with “Hey Hey Holy Mackerel,” with three Cubs on background humming, from the 1969 album Cub Power.

It’s fine. The barroom piano is a nice touch. According to former Cub Dick Selma, the album sold an impressive 250,000 copies. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is its pedigree: the song was written by Johnny Frigo, a quietly legendary jazz violinist and bassist who grew up in desperate poverty on the city’s South Side, where he worked as a young ragman, studying violin with a ragman’s son. “Hey Hey Holy Mackerel” was a brief aside in a diverse, hustling career that saw him play with Tommy Dorsey and Chico Marx, Billie Holliday, and Barbara Streisand, and write a jazz standard, “Detour Ahead.” But his novelty song hung on, long enough to get mixed with Lee Elia’s famous 1983 meltdown.

(In the meantime, the White Sox would adopt another song as something of a theme—in 1977, eight years after Steam recorded “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” Nancy Faust played it on the organ at Comiskey. It caught on, as children of the 1980s will probably recall, earning Faust a gold record after Mercury re-released the song.)

The year after Elia’s career-defining monologue, WGN hired Steve Goodman to write a new theme for the Cubs. Mixed feelings as the city may have about the song, it not only had Goodman at the helm, but a gifted backing band:

We had a top rhythm section, including Steve Rodby on bass, who went on to join the Pat Metheny Group, and Pat Leonard on keyboards, who went to L.A. the week after the session to audition for the Michael Jackson tour, got the gig and went on to produce hit albums for Madonna, Elton John, Bon Jovi and many others.  The sensational lead guitar licks were provided by John Burns, the son of Steve’s longtime friend and frequent accompanist, bluegrass legend Jethro Burns, of Homer & Jethro.

Burns was also a member of John Prine’s band. To this group, they added, well, “a chorus of 30 nicely lubricated friends who Steve invited down to help.”

So: “Go Cubs Go.” It is what it is; it’s singable; it seems to work. But the Cubs weren’t done. Having scored two respectable team anthems with beloved local artists, they went Hollywood. Here’s how their idea was reported in the Sun-Times on March 31, 1987:

John McDonough, Cubs marketing director, assures us that Steve Goodman’s “Go Cubs Go” will still be played, probably at the end of the game. He’s also considering using “You’re My Cubs,” a song by a local man, to rouse fans when the team takes the field.

“I guess what we’re saying is that there are a number of songs that are very appealing,” says McDonough. “We don’t want to exclude any of them.”

But it’s the “Barbara Ann” takeoff that WGN-AM (720) expects to be big, really big, with fans this season.

Yeah.

Don’t blame the Beach Boys. Staff members at the Chicago superstation came up with the lyrics themselves. If any of these guys ever needs a job, there’s probably one for them writing parodies at Mad magazine.

“Isn’t it silly? I love it,” says Dan Fabian, program director at WGN, which will use the “Barbara Ann” takeoff during its numerous baseball programs. “We aren’t talking high art here. We’re talking summer fun.

“The Cubs are the closest thing we have to an ocean in Chicago.”

Wait, no, we have a really big lake; that doesn’t even make sense. And then they went out and hired the actual Beach Boys for this monstrosity.

(“You’re My Cubs” was one of a glut of songs written for the Cubs in that era, Lin Brehmer told Eric Zorn in 1989, including another Johnny Frigo composition. While very ’80s, it was also quite professional, as it was written by Alan Barcus, composer for some 2,400 commercials—including the Car-X jingle—and a musical co-written with Joe Mantegna.)

After that mercifully wore off, the Cubs were cast into the outer darkness with the bad-wedding-DJ fixtures “Celebration” and “Get Down Tonight.” “Go Cubs Go” wasn’t truly resurrected until the end of the last decade. And the city seems to have embraced it, or at least made its peace with it. As they’re aware, things can always be much, much worse.

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