Thursday June 10, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race
On this Day:
In 1829, the first Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race took place.
The Boat Race is an annual set of rowing races between the Cambridge University Boat Club and the Oxford University Boat Club, traditionally rowed between open-weight eights on the River Thames in London, England. There are separate men’s and women’s races, as well as races for reserve crews. It is also known as the University Boat Race and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.
The men’s race was first held in 1829 and has been held annually since 1856, except during the First and Second World Wars (although unofficial races were conducted) and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The first women’s event was in 1927 and the race has been held annually since 1964. Since 2015, the women’s race has taken place on the same day and course, and since 2018 the combined event of the two races has been referred to as “The Boat Race”. In the 2019 races, which took place on Sunday 7 April 2019, Cambridge won the men’s and women’s races as well as both reserve races.
The Championship Course has hosted the vast majority of the races. It covers a 4.2-mile (6.8 km) stretch of the Thames in West London, from Putney to Mortlake. Other locations have been used, including a stretch of the River Great Ouse which was the venue for the 2021 race. Members of both crews are traditionally known as blues and each boat as a “Blue Boat”, with Cambridge in light blue and Oxford in dark blue. As of 2021, Cambridge has won the men’s race 85 times and Oxford 80 times, with one dead heat. Cambridge has led Oxford in cumulative wins since 1930. In the women’s race, Cambridge have won the race 45 times and Oxford 30 times. Cambridge has led Oxford in cumulative wins since 1966. A reserve boat race has been held since 1965 for the men and 1966 for the women.
In most years over 250,000 people watch the race from the banks of the river. In 2009, a record 270,000 people watched the race live. A further 15 million or more watch it on television.
The tradition was started in 1829 by Charles Merivale, a student at St John’s College, Cambridge, and his Old Harrovian school friend Charles Wordsworth who was studying at Christ Church, Oxford. The University of Cambridge challenged the University of Oxford to a race at Henley-on-Thames but lost easily. Oxford raced in dark blue because five members of the crew, including the stroke, were from Christ Church, then Head of the River, whose colours were dark blue. The colour itself is said to have been borrowed from Harrow Blue, which Charles Wordsworth and Charles Merivale, the creators of The Boat Race, attended. There is a dispute as to the source of the colour chosen by Cambridge.
The second race was in 1836, with the venue moved to a course from Westminster to Putney. Over the next two years, there was disagreement over where the race should be held, with Oxford preferring Henley and Cambridge preferring London. Following the official formation of the Oxford University Boat Club, racing between the two universities resumed in 1839 on the Tideway and the tradition continues to the present day, with the loser challenging the winner to a rematch annually.
The Championship Course is 4 miles and 374 yards (6.779 km) from Putney to Mortlake, passing Hammersmith and Barnes; it is sometimes referred to as the Championship Course, and follows an S shape, east to west. The start and finish are marked by the University Boat Race Stones on the south bank. The clubs’ presidents toss a coin (the 1829 sovereign) before the race for the right to choose which side of the river (station) they will row on: their decision is based on the day’s weather conditions and how the various bends in the course might favour their crew’s pace. The north station (‘Middlesex’) has the advantage of the first and last bends, and the south (‘Surrey’) station the longer middle bend.
During the race the coxes compete for the fastest current, which lies at the deepest part of the river, frequently leading to clashes of blades and warnings from the umpire. A crew that gets a lead of more than a boat’s length can cut in front of their opponent, making it extremely difficult for the trailing crew to gain the lead. For this reason the tactics of the race are generally to go fast early on, and few races have a change of the lead after halfway (though this happened in 2003, 2007 and 2010).
The race is rowed upstream, but is timed to start on the incoming flood tide so that the crews are rowing with the fastest possible current. If a strong wind is blowing from the west it will be against the tide in places along the course, causing the water to become very rough. The conditions are sometimes such that an international regatta would be cancelled, but the Boat Race has a tradition of proceeding even in potential sinking conditions.
At the conclusion of the race, the boats come ashore at Mortlake Anglian & Alpha Boat Club, directly upriver of Chiswick Bridge. Here, shortly after the race, the Boat Race trophy is presented to the winning crew. It is traditional for the winning side to throw their cox into the Thames to celebrate their achievement (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
A young person, applying to become a rower in the Oxford University Boat Club, was told that her life is about to be very far from oar-dinary.
Second, a Song:
The Smothers Brothers are Thomas (“Tom” – born February 2, 1937) and Richard (“Dick” – born November 20, 1939), American folk singers, musicians and comedians. The brothers’ trademark double act was performing folk songs (Tommy on acoustic guitar, Dick on string bass), which usually led to arguments between the siblings. Tommy’s signature line was “Mom always liked you best!” Tommy (the elder of the two) acted “slow” and Dick, the straight man, acted “superior.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the brothers frequently appeared on television variety shows and issued several popular record albums of their stage performances. Their own television variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, became one of the most controversial American TV programs of the Vietnam War era. Despite popular success, the brothers’ penchant for material that was critical of the political mainstream and sympathetic to the emerging counterculture led to their firing by the CBS network in 1969. One episode was left unaired.
The brothers continued to work, both independently and as a team, on stage and television, and in films during subsequent decades.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour started out as only a slightly “hip” version of the typical comedy-variety show of its era, but rapidly evolved into a show that extended the boundaries of what was considered permissible in television satire at that time. While the Smothers themselves were at the forefront of these efforts, credit also goes to the roster of writers and regular performers they brought to the show, including Steve Martin, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, Presidential candidate Pat Paulsen, Bob Einstein, Albert Brooks, and resident hippie Leigh French. The show also introduced audiences to pop singer Jennifer Warnes (originally billed as Jennifer Warren or simply Jennifer), who was a regular on the series. The television premiere of Mason Williams’ hit record, “Classical Gas”, took place on the show; Williams was also the head writer for the series.
The series showcased new musical artists to whom other comedy-variety shows rarely gave airtime, due to the nature of their music or their political affiliations. George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Joan Baez, Buffalo Springfield, Cass Elliot, Harry Belafonte, Cream, Donovan, The Doors, Glen Campbell, Janis Ian, Jefferson Airplane, The Happenings, Peter, Paul and Mary, Spanky and Our Gang, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Hollies, The Who and even Pete Seeger were showcased on the show, despite the advertiser-sensitive nature of their music.
Seeger’s appearance was his first appearance on network television since being blacklisted in the 1950s; it became controversial because of his song choice: “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, an anti-war song that the network considered to be an insult to President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam War policy. The song was censored on Seeger’s first appearance but permitted on a later appearance.
In September 1968, the show broadcast in successive weeks “music videos” (called “promotional films” at the time) for The Beatles’ double A-side single “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”. Before a rowdy crowd at the Los Angeles Forum, Jimi Hendrix dedicated “I Don’t Live Today” to the Smothers Brothers, as heard on The Jimi Hendrix Box Set.
“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” (also called “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore”, “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore”, or “Michael, Row That Gospel Boat”) is an African-American spiritual first noted during the American Civil War at St. Helena Island, one of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. The best-known recording was released in 1960 by the U.S. folk band The Highwaymen; that version briefly reached number-one hit status as a single.
It was sung by former slaves whose owners had abandoned the island before the Union navy arrived to enforce a blockade. Charles Pickard Ware was an abolitionist and Harvard graduate who had come to supervise the plantations on St. Helena Island from 1862 to 1865, and he wrote down the song in music notation as he heard the freedmen sing it. Ware’s cousin William Francis Allen reported in 1863 that the former slaves sang the song as they rowed him in a boat across Station Creek.
The song was first published in 1867 in Slave Songs of the United States by Allen, Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. Folk musician and educator Tony Saletan rediscovered it in 1954 in a library copy of that book. The song is cataloged as Roud Folk Song Index No. 11975 (per Wikipedia).
Here are the Smothers Brothers from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, performing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky