Music
11:49 am
Mon June 16, 2014

Sound Off: Where The Military's Rhythm Came From

Originally published on Tue June 24, 2014 10:13 am

Think about all of those Hollywood depictions of the American military, from Stripes to Full Metal Jacket to Cadence. In almost every one, a bunch of guys will jog past the camera at some point, singing and stepping in unison.

The first time that happened was in 1944, when a particular rhythm infiltrated the segregated Army. The cadence was credited to a soldier named Willie Duckworth. As told on a V-Disc, one of the inspirational recordings made during World War II by the U.S. military and sent to troops overseas, Duckworth was "chanting to build up the spirits of his weary comrades."

Until just this spring, Bobby Gerhardt served in the Army as a wheeled vehicle mechanic. He says he has spent more than nine years marching to, running to and calling cadence. His favorite to call follows the rhythm of Duckworth's now 70-year-old composition, though with updated lyrics.

"When I joined I had no idea how anything worked. Everything was brand new," Gerhardt says. "For me, hearing that first cadence the very first time was awesome. Because you always wanted to hear what the next verse was. So you always wanted to keep up so that you could hear the person calling the cadence so you knew what to say back to them."

The infectious appeal of cadences is used to motivate and coordinate people who might not have anything else in common. But they also do something more fundamental.

"The main purpose that I was always taught with staying in step and keeping up with the cadence, was that it would help your breathing and help your cardio if you could run and sing and manage your breath at the same time," Gerhardt says.

Cadences get a group of people doing that in unison. They rely on the call-and-response action of work songs, so they come from a long tradition. Richard Rath, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii, and author of the book How Early America Sounded, says slaves brought work songs here, and they developed to help deal with dangerous jobs.

"Like pounding rice in a mortar and pestle, where one person has to scoop the rice out and two other people are pounding with big pestles — if somebody messes up, they get scrunched," Rath says.

But a little deviation, lyrically or rhythmically, can make the cadence more effective. Bobby Gerhardt cites one cadence in particular that appeared in the 1960 Elvis Presley movie G.I. Blues.

"It's kind of off-step. And it's kind of in-between a step, but once you have a group of people marching to that cadence, it puts a big smile on your face because it's a cadence that no one's calling around the rest of the base," he says.

It's not the marchlike one-two of the standard military cadence. It's syncopated — the emphasis is on the offbeat. And that can put a spring in a soldier's step or help a worker move faster. Richard Rath says syncopation and complex rhythms made music more useful to workers than the bosses realized. Say you're rowing a boat on a rice plantation and singing to pace yourself.

"If you're rowing on the twos and the planter says speed up, you speed up the song and then row on the threes," Rath says.

It's resistance through rhythm.

Pvt. Willie Duckworth, raised by his sharecropper grandparents in Jim Crow Georgia, knew something about that. And the concept isn't foreign to Gerhardt.

"I had a couple of 'em that I'd always call, because they kind of pushed the envelope of what we were allowed to call," he says.

The aim of cadences might be to control people. But they don't always work that way.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Andrei Codrescu has his own special rhythm. Think about others that are part of our daily lives - tapping our desks with a pen, nodding to background music as we push a shopping cart, the thump of our hearts when our nerves kick up. Rhythms are all around us and inside us all the time, and today we're starting a series we're calling "Rhythm Section." The idea is to explore how beats function in our minds and on our bodies. Whether it's the one, two, three of a waltz, or the measured rhythmic opening of a political speech. NPR's Frannie Kelley kicks off our series with the uniting power of rhythm and the story behind the cadences that can get a group of people moving as one.

FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: Think about all those Hollywood depictions of the American military. In almost every one at some point a bunch of guys will jog past the camera singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mama rolled over this is what she said.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIERS: Mama rolled over this is what she said.

KELLEY: This rhythm infiltrated the Army in 1944.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING )

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: A chant broke the stillness of the night. Upon investigation, it was found that a Negro soldier by the name Willie Duckworth was chanting to build up the spirits of his weary comrades. It was not long before the infectious rhythm was spreading through the ranks.

KELLEY: That's a V-disc, one of the inspirational recordings made during World War II by the U.S. military and sent to troops overseas. And this is what Duckworth came up with.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING )

WILLIE DUCKWORTH: Hop hip hop, the heads are up, the chests are out, the horns are swinging in cadence now, Sound off.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIERS: One, two.

DUCKWORTH: Sound off.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIERS: Three, four.

DUCKWORTH: Cadence count.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIERS: One, two, three, four, one two - three, four.

BOBBY GERHARDT: I want to be an Airborne Ranger, live that life, blood guts and danger.

KELLEY: Bobby Gerhardt marched and ran-to and called cadence in the Army for more than nine years. He just got out, this spring.

GERHARDT: When I joined, I had no idea how anything worked. Everything was brand-new. For me, hearing that first cadence the very first time was awesome because you always wanted to hear what the next verse was. You always wanted to keep up so that you could hear the person calling the cadence. So you knew what to say back to them.

KELLEY: The infectious appeal of cadences can motivate and coordinate people who might not have anything else in common, but they also do something more fundamental.

GERHARDT: The main purpose that I was always taught with staying in step and keeping up with the cadence, was that it would help your breathing and help your cardio if you could run and sing and manage your breath at the same time.

KELLEY: And cadences get a group of people doing that in unison. They rely on the call and response action of work songs, so they come from a long tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (SINGING) Oh she rang old hammer, hammering. Oh she rang old hammer, hammering. Broke the handle out my hammer, hammering.

KELLEY: Richard Rath is an associate professor at University of Hawaii and author of the book "How Early America Sounded." He said slaves brought work songs here, and they developed to help deal with dangerous jobs.

RICHARD RATH: Like pounding rice in a mortar and pestle, where one person has to scoop the rice out and two other people are pounding with big pestles. If somebody messes up, they get scrunched.

KELLEY: But a little deviation lyrically or rhythmically can make the cadence more interesting. Bobby Gerhardt cites one cadence in particular.

GERHARDT: I want to say it was a - in a Elvis Presley movie.

KELLEY: It was.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "G.I. BLUES")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) I got the hup two, three, four occupation G.I. blues from my G.I. head to the heels of my G.I. shoes.

GERHARDT: It's kind of off step - kind of in between a step, but once you have a group of people marching to that cadence, it puts a big smile on your face because it's a cadence that no one's calling around the rest of the base.

KELLEY: It's not the march-like one, two, of the standard military cadence. It's syncopated - the emphasis is on the offbeat. And that can put a spring in a soldier's step, or help a worker move faster. Richard Rath says syncopation and complex rhythms made music more useful to workers than the bosses realized. Say you're rowing a boat on a rice plantation, and singing to pace yourself.

RATH: If you're rowing on the twos and the planter says speed up, you speed up the song and then row on the threes.

KELLEY: It's resistance through rhythm. Private Willie Duckworth, raised by his sharecropper grandparents in Jim Crow Georgia, knew something about that. And the concept isn't foreign to Bobby Gerhardt.

GERHARDT: I had a couple of them that I'd always call because they kind of pushed the envelope of what we were allowed to call.

KELLEY: The aim of cadences is to control people. But they don't always work that way. Frannie Kelley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Hard work, work. Hard work, work .

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.