The Mysterious Origins of the Phrase "Roll Tide"

Kevin C. Cox

We are all reasonably familiar with the genesis of the various traditions associated with Alabama football but, it recently occurred to me, the origin of the phrase "Roll Tide" is oddly unaccounted for. And a quick check of the explanation provided by the university proves to be rather unhelpful.

Obviously, it's derived from the moniker "Crimson Tide" which most agree was bequeathed upon the team due to a newspaper description. (Most commonly this is credited to the Birmingham Age-Herald's Hugh Roberts in 1907.)

So by the time Alabama traveled west to play in the 1926 Rose Bowl, the name "Crimson Tide" was in common usage and the victory in Pasadena ensured it would from thenceforth be associated with the football team. But was "Roll Tide" being used at that time as well?

For a long time, I just assumed so. As we are all aware, the phrase appears in Alabama's fight song, "Yea Alabama." That was composed by a UA engineering student, Epp Sykes, in a campus-wide contest following the 1926 Rose Bowl. And when I looked up the original sheet music to Sykes' composition, the phrase "Roll Tide" is nowhere in it.


The explanation seems to be that "Roll Tide" was a chant folks inserted at the end of the song which later was incorporated into it. (Kind of like how we chant "Roll Tide Roll" in the middle of Sweet Home Alabama during games.)

So where did it come from? One clue I stumbled upon recently was a sea-shanty, "Roll Alabama Roll," that tells the story of the CSS Alabama. The merchant raider had an illustrious career during the Civil War before being sunk by the USS Kearsarge in June 1864 outside the port of Cherbourg, France. There are accounts of the song being sung as early as 1870 and the first printed reference to it was in 1903.

Now the phrase "Roll Alabama Roll" is used constantly throughout the song but there is no mention of the tide. So was there a confluence of this Civil War-era shanty and the Alabama football team's nickname at some point? And when did the phrase, whatever it's origin, gain hold as the UA football war cry?

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