Sound Off: Where The Military's Rhythm Came From In almost every Hollywood depiction of the American military, at some point a bunch of guys will jog past the camera, singing and stepping in unison. That rhythm infiltrated the Army in 1944.

Sound Off: Where The Military's Rhythm Came From

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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.


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.


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.


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


DUCKWORTH: Sound off.


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.


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.


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.


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


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