Major Navy standard gets centennial salute

By Jamie Stiehm
Sun reporter
Originally published January 26, 2007

A hundred years ago, U.S. Naval Academy band master Charles Zimmermann took his orders from a midshipman.

The prolific composer was approached by midshipman Alfred Miles with two verses of lyrics and a wish: a song with a "swing" to it, something that would last forever.

The song Zimmermann created for the Class of 1907, "Anchors Aweigh," has indeed lasted, sending countless sailors off to sea -- and Navy football players onto the field against Army.

"I never get tired of playing it," Master Chief Musician David S. Hanner, an academy band bassoonist since 1990, said yesterday after a rehearsal. "It's the musical signature of the Navy. It ties us together whether we're in submarines, at sea or flying aircraft."

The composer and his song, named for the old maritime command to "weigh the anchor," or draw it out of the water, will be given a birthday salute tonight at the Annapolis military college. The academy band, comprising 68 professional Navy musicians, will perform the catchy march, along with other upbeat quick-step tunes and waltzes that hark back to days when young ladies put dates on dance cards.

Miles' verses exhorted: Sail Navy down the field/ And sink the Army, sink the Army Grey! The last stanza, written later by George Lottman, concludes: Anchors Aweigh, my boys/ Anchors Aweigh/ Farewell to college joys/ We sail at break of day/ Through our last night on shore/ Drink to the foam/ Until we meet once more:/ Here's wishing you a happy voyage home!

" 'Anchors Aweigh' makes anyone in the Navy pause because you know it's part of you," said Lt. Cmdr. Brian O. Walden, recently named the academy's band director. "When you're in international communities, you're bringing something to the table that allows you to communicate, something beyond military force."

Before the evening music program in the lofty Navy Chapel, an overview of Zimmermann's life will be given by James W. Cheevers, curator of the academy museum.

Zimmermann -- whom midshipmen called "Zimmy" -- was best known in Annapolis as the leader of the academy band for 24 years. His father Charles, an immigrant, was an academy musician during the Civil War and raised his son, born in 1861, in the German musical tradition. According to the Naval Academy, Zimmermann was a Peabody Conservatory graduate.

Cheevers noted that Zimmermann, wrote marches for every class on his watch as band leader, seeming to work as quickly as Beethoven with his minuets and sonatas. Zimmermann also composed original operettas for student performances, led the academy glee club and played the church organ.

"Then there were four formations a day and parades, ceremonies, flag raisings and funerals," Cheevers said.

Cheevers spoke of "Mr. Zimmermann" as a familiar presence in letters, Lucky Bag yearbooks and at midshipmen's social events, for which the band leader provided the entertainment.

In those papers is evidence of a lighter side, a jaunty man who wasn't afraid to have fun. Cheevers pointed to a mischievous postcard Zimmermann wrote to his wife Ida from Chicago's World Fair in 1911, the picture showing him wearing a straw hat and posing as a biplane aviator.

"Can't wait to get home for more work and trouble. Love, Charlie," Zimmermann wrote.

"I think he had a fantastic sense of humor," Cheevers said.

The Zimmermanns lived in a Queen Anne-style Victorian house on Conduit Street, an elaborate structure the childless couple ordered from a Sears Roebuck catalog.

Zimmermann's career, which ended with his death in 1916 at age 54, coincided with the rebuilding and renaissance of the modern Naval Academy during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency.

Walden said the charm of a fight song in Zimmermann's day made people move, made them light on their feet to the sound of brass.

"Back then they didn't have the electricity of rock 'n' roll," Walden said under the dome of the Naval Academy Chapel. "But we'd prefer if people didn't dance in the chapel."

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