Amy Donaldson: 'Utah Man' can stay or go, but altering the lyrics shouldn't be an option

Published: Wednesday, April 23 2014 10:55 p.m. MDT

Students in the MUSS section at a football game, the University of Utah need to improve its college graduation rate according to an audit among similar-sized research institutions, the U's rate is "comparatively low" Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The bookstore clerk’s face contorted when I placed the book I wanted to buy on the counter.

“This is the most depressing book ever written,” she said. “You shouldn’t buy it.”

The book was “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. I told her that I was familiar with his work, and that I understood the subject was dark.

I read the book in two days, and contrary to what many people told me, I found it moving and inspiring. The woman who tried to steer me away from it wasn’t wrong. We just disagreed.

For me, that is the most beautiful, and frankly liberating, aspect of art — it is whatever you want it to be.

From the beginning of civilization, humans have tried to capture their thoughts, feelings and experiences in works of art. Whether it’s a painting, a book or a song, art isn’t just meant to record events, it’s meant to capture (and share) energy. It’s meant to connect with others emotionally.

Art is the reflection of our society at that moment. It gives us insight into times, places and experiences.

Most artists don’t worry about how their work will be perceived. They don’t worry about what others might think 100 years after they're gone. They simply feel compelled to create, to put something into context, to share an emotion that impacted or changed them.

I won’t pretend to know what Utah football coach Harvey Holmes was thinking when he and some of his players penned the words to “Utah Man” in the early 1900s. He used another song’s melody, but he wrote to capture the emotion of representing Utah on the field of competition.

I don’t love the song. But as a lover of art, I feel extremely protective of the work and perspective artists offer — even when they’re mediocre.

It’s not just classic literature that should be valued. It’s children’s books, comedies, musicals. We shouldn’t censor a cigar-smoking, beer-guzzling football coach’s poetry any more than we should censor Mark Twain for his use of what most now deem racially offensive language.

Art doesn’t have to appeal to everyone. It doesn’t have to include everyone.

Maybe a school’s song, even a song that originated as a football fight song, should appeal to and include all of its students. If that’s the conclusion that University of Utah administrators come to, then they should solicit or choose a new song — not change the lyrics of “Utah Man.”

Often there is a difference between an official representation and a tradition that’s popular. Sometimes making an official change will eventually change a tradition.

But make no mistake about it: Changing the lyrics of a song, the words of a poem or a scene in a play is censorship. You might agree with the changes. But some censorship is always bad. Silencing anyone diminishes all of us. That's why Westboro Baptist Church is allowed to protest funerals in a way that offends 99 percent of us.

Discussing whether the U.’s fight song is offensive is a valuable exercise. In order for that to happen, however, people need to be unafraid to express their views. Respect, civility and empathy are critical for a productive discussion.

Persuading others isn’t even the most valuable part of an open, honest discussion.

It’s the understanding we gain from listening to experiences that are different from our own. It’s empathizing with people who’ve suffered in ways we never have.

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