IOWA CITY — A decades-old Iowa City tradition known as the “beer band” — a group of University of Iowa student, alumni, and community musicians who bar hop downtown while trumpeting various fight songs on the eve of Hawkeye home football games — is coming to an end, at least temporarily.
The group of between 60 and 100 people, depending on the night and the weather, has crossed the line of late in the lyrics it sings, according to UI senior Jack Frank, 23, manager of the UI marching band. Instead of traditional Iowa fight songs, the beer band has been singing vulgar, sexually explicit, violent, and degrading lyrics to the tunes of other school fight songs, Frank said.
“That is not he message you want,” he said. “So we determined there won’t be any more beer band this year, and it’s suspended until we can change the message.”
The beer band is not associated or affiliated with UI or its marching band in any way, even though 15 to 30 UI marching band members participate, and two UI students lead the beer band, Frank said. But, he said, the university is keenly aware that the public perceives a connection between the two.
“When the beer band gets a bad rap, the perception gets put on the Hawkeye marching band,” Frank said. “And the directors (of the beer band) understand that what they do counts for everything else. Not only for our organization, but also for the University of Iowa.”
Complaints around the beer band emerged last week after one Iowa City woman reported hearing its members singing offensive and explicit lyrics on the pedestrian mall. The lyrics included “gang rape, gang rape, twice a day,” Lenore DeBok Maybaum wrote in an email to UI music professor Benjamin Coelho.
“I was shocked, appalled, and deeply upset by what I witnessed,” Maybaum wrote, further explaining the words she heard, including references to the “murdering of women.”
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“I’m not a person easily upset, and I’m certainly no prude,” she wrote. “But what I witnessed that night made me physically ill.”
Maybaum posted her experience on Facebook, prompting more complaints to the UI from members of the public. UI administrators responded with shock, and they apologized, vowing to follow up with the beer band and any UI students who might have been involved.
“This issue is actively being addressed by myself and the student leadership in the marching band,” Kevin Kastens, director of the UI marching band, wrote to Maybaum. “Our top two leaders are not members of beer band, but they are actively addressing your/our concerns with their peers who are involved.”
Kastens also said the UI marching band has a strict no alcohol policy, citing a recent incident involving a student who was removed from the organization for showing up to a rehearsal under the influence. And, Kastens said, the university doesn’t support participation in beer band.
“I wish that this group didn’t exist, but it will continue to thrive as long as the downtown establishments provide free beer in exchange for having a band play the fight song in their establishment,” he said.
Having talked with the beer band’s leadership, however, band manager Frank said, “the band is done” for now.
He said the band started in the 1970s with the best of intentions, playing fight songs and adding to the downtown festivities on game day eves. But over time, he said, band directors began adding vulgar lyrics, and that escalated year after year as new band directors tried to top their predecessors.
Frank said the university is thankful Maybaum brought the concerns to their attention, and those UI students involved now realize the ramifications.
“What if their employers saw this?” he said. “What if it got worse?”
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UI band officials met with Dean of Students Lyn Reddington on Tuesday to brief her on the situation. No sanctions will be issued at this time.
“The goal was to help these students know what they are doing and be the best possible UI students they can be,” Frank said. “That was our biggest concern, rather than sanctions or punishment. If punishment would have helped make the students better, they would have gone that route. But I feel they think the lesson was learned and things are going to get better.”