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A history of singing the Big Blues

Jun 07, 20046 mins

Before there was Notes, there was the IBM songbook.

Before there was Notes, there was the IBM songbook. Behind the scenes of corporate songs.

So you need a few cocktails before you’ll risk singing the ol’ college fight song? Be thankful you didn’t work for IBM in a bygone era that saw Big Blue make an art form of corporate “fellowship songs.” Sing for their supper they did – with feeling.

Times were bad when the songs were sung – the U.S. was embroiled in an economic depression and one-quarter of the U.S. workforce was unemployed. IBM founder Thomas Watson Sr., in order to keep employees motivated, collected songs employees had written about IBM into a book dubbed Songs of the IBM, which the company first published in 1927.

Watson felt that song singing was a way to build character and instill company loyalty. Songs of the IBM started with the “Star Spangled Banner” and followed with more than 80 IBM-specific ditties, including the rollicking rally song “Ever Onward,” written in 1931 by IBM’er Frederick Tappe:

“There’s a thrill in store for all

For we’re about to toast

The corporation that we represent.

We’re here to cheer each pioneer

And also proudly boast,

Of that man of men

Our friend and guiding hand

The name of T.J. Watson means

A courage none can stem

And we feel honored to be

Here to toast the IBM.”

“Company employees embraced [song singing] because they didn’t have that kind of job security anywhere else in America,” says Bob Djurdjevic, president of Annex Research. He joined IBM in 1970, a decade after the last rousing lilt of grace notes left the company’s buildings.

“IBM was unique in that respect – Watson was the quintessential salesman and knew how to rally the salesmen to his side,” Djurdjevic says. “Watson treated his employees as if they were family and so he wanted them happy, well fed and content so they would stay with IBM forever.”

In 1966, Pepper Martin was one of the fledgling sales representatives who sang “Ever Onward.”

“We sang it the whole first year of training at sales school,” recounts Martin, who retired six years ago.

Even Watson’s son T.J. Watson Jr. remembers the success of IBM’s song singing. In his book Father Son & Co: My Life at IBM and Beyond, Watson relates:

“Everything about the school was meant to inspire loyalty, enthusiasm and high ideals, which IBM held out as the way to achieve success. In class the first thing we did each morning was to stand up and sing IBM songs. . . . There were dozens of songs in praise of Dad or other executives, set to tunes everybody knew.”

The songs weren’t solely focused on Watson or other top executives either. Take these lyrics from “To Our I.B.M. Girls”:

“The office girls surely are always in style

They greet you with smiles, their welcome’s worthwhile,

The best in the world are our girls, rank and file,

They’re style all the while – all the while.

They’ve made our I.B.M. complete and worthwhile,

They work and they smile – so sweetly they smile;

Tall, short, thin and stout girls – they win by a mile

With heavenly styles all the while.”

Silencing the music

But just as Watson Sr. was a catalyst for activities such as as song singing, company bands and even an IBM symphony, his son proved to stifle such activities.

“The band repertoire was show tunes, old standards, traditional marches and Dixieland numbers,” says Jay Kosta, an IBM contractor in Endwell, N.Y. Kosta, who plays the French horn, joined IBM as a programmer in 1970 and retired in 2000. “Primarily we played for IBM events. In Endicott, the band would play a weekly noon-time outdoor concert from June through August. It was for employees and played out on the lawn,” he says.

Kosta says the band was disbanded in 2001.

“A lot of outsiders thought our singing custom was odd,” Watson Jr. wrote in his book. “Times were different then, and I suppose being earnest didn’t seem as corny in 1937 as it does today. And, of course, jobs were awfully hard to come by in the 1930s, so people would put up with a lot.”

Richard Tedlow, Class of 1949 professor of business administration at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., and author of The Watson Dynasty: The Fiery Reign and Troubled Legacy of IBM’s Founding Father and Son, recalls Watson Jr.

“Watson Jr. was largely responsible for jettisoning some of the old customs,” Tedlow says. “One of them was song singing. When he took the company over in 1956 when his father died, he wasn’t wild about the singing of these songs and about the general veneration of his father as a sort of man of men. He wanted to tone down that cult personality.”

Which helps to explain why, aside from the fact that it’s a stretch to come up with rhymes for names such as Gerstner and Palmisano, you don’t find tunes about IBM’s more recent top executives.

“People began to think [song singing] was really corny,” Tedlow says. “In the 1950s and ’60s the corporation began to celebrate itself as a very rational organization, not something necessarily that needed to excite the emotion by singing a song about the CEO. It’s also true percentage-wise fewer people spend their lives with one corporation now than they did in 1950, but also corporations have come up with other ways – T-shirts, mugs – to motivate their employees.”

Beyond IBM

IBM is far from alone in its association with music. Novell promoted itself in TV ads with David Bowie’s “Changes” and Apple has tangled recently with hip-hop star Eminem over use of one of his songs in an ad for Apple’s iTunes service.

Japanese companies also have a history of promoting song singing. Fujitsu and NCR both have company songs. But Fujitsu’s “Ahh, Fujitsu” failed to garner acceptance in the corporation, because few of the employees could read sheet music, says Martin Corbett, senior lecturer at the University of Warwick in England, in a paper titled “I Sing the Body (In)corporate.”

KPMG, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and McKinsey & Co., Ernst & Young also lay claim to company songs, though they all declined to comment.

Among other high-tech companies that have songs are Honeywell, firewall maker Check Point and storage start-up Yotta Yotta. Many songs, such as Apple’s “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” and Ericsson’s “Network Intelligence” were penned to promote products.

One large Redmond, Wash., software maker does not lay claim to a company song.

“I don’t think there is a Microsoft company song other than ‘Get to the bank as fast as possible so you can deposit the check,’ ” Tedlow adds.