A Soldier's Song
By F. Peter Wigginton
BELIEVE it or not, the Army's official song - the one boomed out by marching bands - was used in the 1940s to sell vacuum cleaners as part of a radio advertising campaign.
But long before "The Caisson Song" was adapted by the Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Co. and its lyrics changed to "for it beats as it sweeps as it cleans," the song was the proud anthem of the field artillery corps.
It got its beginnings during a difficult march across the Zambales Mountains in the Philippines. As a lieutenant leading a small detachment to select a route, Brig. Gen. Edmund L. "Snitz" Gruber overheard a section chief call to his drivers, "Come on! Keep them rolling!"
Gruber, an artillery officer whose relative, Franz, composed "Silent Night," was stationed with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, in the Philippines. In March 1908, about a year after Gruber overheard that section chief in the mountains, six young lieutenants - including William Bryden and Robert Danford - gathered in his thatch hut and decided they needed a song for the field artillery.
"A guitar was produced and tuned and - in what seemed to us a few moments - as if suddenly inspired, Snitz fingered the melody of the now-famous song," recalled Danford, who retired as a major general. Danford and Bryden helped complete the lyrics.
Gruber taught the song to officers of the 1st Battalion as they arrived at Fort Stotsenburg. Wrote Danford: "A few evenings later at the post reception for the new unit and adieu to the old, 'The Caisson Song' was given its first public rendition. Its popularity was instantaneous, and almost in no time all six of the regiments then composing the U.S. Field Artillery adopted it."
During the last days of World War I, senior artillery leaders wanted an official marching song. An artillery officer who did not know Gruber and thought "The Caisson Song" dated back to the Civil War, gave the piece to noted composer and bandmaster John Philip Sousa and asked him to fix it up.
Sousa incorporated Gruber's piece into his composition, which he titled, "The U.S. Field Artillery March" - a few beginning measures being his own and the balance from Gruber.
The resulting song became a blockbuster record during World War I, selling about 750,000 copies. Gruber heard of it and asked Sousa, "How about some money, since I wrote the song?" Embarrassed, the innocent Sousa made certain Gruber got his royalties.
In 1948, the Army conducted a nationwide contest to come up with its own official song. None of the five winners achieved any notable popularity. In 1952, the secretary of the Army appealed to the music industry for a composition. Composers submitted an avalanche of more than 800 songs.
But no submission sparkled enough to be accepted. So a soldier music adviser in the Adjutant General's office was asked to try his hand at it. As a result, H.W. Arberg adapted "The Caisson Song" to become the official U.S. Army song, "The Army Goes Rolling Along."
The Army copyrighted the piece in 1956 - so you're not likely to hear it used in the future to advertise vacuums, or anything else, for that matter. (F. Peter Wigginton is a journalist with the American Forces Information Service in Alexandria, Va.)