During a recent baseball broadcast, I heard several announcers discussing Hall of Famer Christy Matthewson. While they were elaborating on his stellar career, one of the announcers mentioned that Matthewson was the also known for coming up with a classic phrase.
According to the broadcast, Matthewson, former class president of Bucknell University, said that rookie Frankie Frisch was holding a bat and ready to give “the old college try at the ball.” The announcer pointed out that Matthewson’s 1919 uttering was the first recognized use of the now famous expression, “The old college try.”
While it has become a cliche, the phrase recently was used as the title of one of the best songs of the last ten years. The tune appears on the 2006 album Alpacas Orgling, the only disc released by the supergroup LEO.
Lyrically the song is perfect, a first person narrator sharing a story of a relationship from the first blind date to its uneventful breakup. As the title suggests, the two gave it the old college try.
The verses are connected through varied meanings of the word “degrees.” The opening verse personifies the degrees as the six people who interact to arrange for the college couple to date.
“Alex introduced me to the brother of his roommate Sue, whose friend Marie was kind of sweet on me,” vocalist Bleu McCauley explains. “I met Marie but she was already with Mark, but Mark was friends with Kate, and Kate thought you and me should date.” The six degrees are Alex, Sue, Sue’s brother, Marie, Mark, and Kate, each of whom helps bring the narrator and the addressee together.
The closing two lines of the verse show the two making a strong effort to connect romantically, as he says “You look cold so here’s my sweater, I’ll get us a beer.” The reference to the cold correlates with the idea of six degrees, the exact rise in temperature brought about by putting on a sweater. Metaphorically, things were warming up for the two.
“Let’s give it the ol’ college try,” the chorus promises. “‘Cause six degrees is good enough tonight.”
The middle verse, also six lines, explores a different connotation of “six degrees.” Six years later they are trying to revive the fading magic of their college romance (“I still forget that night”), which has faded from memory. The couple, though, is still hopeful that the romance will improve (“maybe we can make this better than the night before).”
Instead of the more enthusiastic “Let’s” opening the chorus, this time it begins with the less certain “We’ll” before the line, “give it the ol’ college try.” The couple is willing to make the relationship last, but there seems to be much doubt.
The narrator looks back on the relationship in the final stanza, realizing that it wasn’t as great as it seemed (“sometimes it was good”). The frigid drop in romantic temperature is indicated by the line, “six degrees won’t get us through the night.” Their break up is all but spelled out in the shift from the present tense (give it the Ol’ college try) in the first two verses to the past tense (gave it the ol’ college try). The reduction from six lines to four in the final verse also reflects the certainty of breaking off.
The music, which pays homage to Jeff Lynne and his Electric Light Orchestra, reinforces the various stages of the romance. The synthesized intro exudes the hope of a potential relationship, while the percussion serves as an exclamation mark between each bar.
That same orchestration, however, seems to swirl into uncertainty and a sense of doom just after the second verse. The music completely fades out with the lyrics of the final line, “But six degrees won’t get us through the night.”
Part of the overall appeal to the song is its irony. One expects the “degrees” in a song with college in the title to be those from an institute of learning. The only education earned in this song is the cold fact of fleeting romance, no matter how often and how strenuously you give it “the ‘ol college try.”