A history of singing the Big Blues

Times were bad — the U.S. was embroiled in an economic recession and one-quarter of the U.S. workforce was unemployed. IBM founder Thomas Watson Sr., in order to keep employees motivated, collected songs employees had written about IBM into a book dubbed Songs of the IBM, which the company published in 1927.

Watson felt that song singing was a way to build character and instill company loyalty. Songs of the IBM started with the “Star Spangled Banner” and followed with more than 80 IBM-specific ditties, including the rollicking rally song “Ever Onward,” written in 1931 by IBM’er Frederick Tappe: “There’s a thrill in store for all/For we’re about to toast/The corporation that we represent/We’re here to cheer each pioneer And also proudly boast/Of that man of men/Our friend and guiding hand/The name of T.J. Watson means/A courage none can stem/And we feel honoured to be/Here to toast the IBM.”

“Company employees embraced (song singing) because they didn’t have that kind of job security anywhere else in America,” says Bob Djurdjevic, president of Annex Research. He joined IBM in 1970, a decade after the last rousing lilt of grace notes left the company’s buildings.

“IBM was unique in that respect — Watson was the quintessential salesman and knew how to rally the salesmen to his side,” Djurdjevic says.

In 1966, Pepper Martin was one of the fledgling sales representatives who sang “Ever Onward.”

“We sang it the whole first year of training at sales school,” recounts Martin, who retired six years ago.

Even Watson’s son T.J. Watson Jr. remembers the success of IBM’s song singing. In his book Father Son & Co: My Life at IBM and Beyond, Watson relates:

“Everything about the school was meant to inspire loyalty, enthusiasm and high ideals, which IBM held out as the way to achieve success. In class the first thing we did each morning was to stand up and sing IBM songs…” The songs weren’t solely focused on Watson or other top executives either. Take these lyrics from “To Our I.B.M. Girls”: “The office girls surely are always in style/They greet you with smiles, their welcome’s worthwhile/The best in the world are our girls, rank and file/They’re style all the while — all the while/ They’ve made our I.B.M. complete and worthwhile/They work and they smile — so sweetly they smile/Tall, short, thin and stout girls — they win by a mile/With heavenly styles all the while.”

But just as Watson Sr. was a catalyst for activities such as song singing, company bands and even an IBM symphony, his son proved to stifle such activities.

“A lot of outsiders thought our singing custom was odd,” Watson Jr. wrote in his book. “Times were different then, and I suppose being earnest didn’t seem as corny in 1937 as it does today. And, of course, jobs were awfully hard to come by in the 1930s, so people would put up with a lot.”

Richard Tedlow, Class of 1949 professor of business administration at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., and author of The Watson Dynasty: The Fiery Reign and Troubled Legacy of IBM’s Founding Father and Son, recalls Watson Jr.

“Watson Jr. was largely responsible for jettisoning some of the old customs,” Tedlow says. “One of them was song singing. When he took the company over in 1956 when his father died, he wasn’t wild about the singing of these songs.”

Which helps to explain why, aside from the fact that it’s a stretch to come up with rhymes for names such as Gerstner and Palmisano, you don’t find tunes about IBM’s more recent top executives.

“People began to think (song singing) was really corny,” Tedlow says. “In the 1950s and ‘60s the corporation began to celebrate itself as a very rational organization, not something necessarily that needed to excite the emotion by singing a song about the CEO. It’s also true percentage-wise fewer people spend their lives with one corporation now than they did in 1950.”