Wednesday, April 2, 2014
SOUND OFF, ONE, TWO!
Sandersville Man Marched to A New Tune
A wave of excitement permeated every company at Fort Slocumb. The post commander Col. Bernard Lentz, enjoyed it as well. For a quarter of a century Col. Lentz had been working on a method to remove moil from the mundane forced marches and inspire his men to march with precision and vigor. Col. Lentz, a recognized expert on close order drill, required that all of the men at the fort drill and work while chanting Willie's refrain. Col. Lentz was astounded to see the instant and rapid improvement in morale and productivity. Col. Lentz called Private Duckworth to his office to explain how he came to invent to the rhythm of the chant. Duckworth simply responded, "I made it up in my head." Fifty eight years later, Duckworth confessed to columnist Ed Grisamore of the Macon Telegraph, "I told him it came from calling hogs back home." "I was scared and that was the only thing I could think of to say," he added.
Anyone whoever marched in a military unit in the last six decades, knows the chant that one Sandersville man created in the last year of World War II. The lyrics have been changed over the last sixty years, but the quintessential cadence of American military personnel still remains intact. For a century and a half, armies had marched to the sounds of "Yankee Doodle," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," "Over There" and "The Caisson Song." This is the story of Private Willie Lee Duckworth and how a simple verse changed the style of the military marching for decades to come.
Willie Duckworth grew up like most African-Americans of the Great Depression in the South. Earning only enough money to survive, he worked as a share cropper and sawmill worker until he was drafted away from his native Washington County and into the United States Army.
It was a cold spring night in 1944. Private Willie Lee Duckworth and two hundred of his buddies were tired, tired of marching and just plain tired, period. The company had just left their bivouac at Ardsley, New York for the thirteen-mile march back to their camp at Fort Slocum in New Rochelle. Private Duckworth noticed the men were dragging their feet. He was too. He thought that something should be done to invigorate the column to get them to pick up their stride to get back to the warmth of their barracks.
It all began in a meager way, quietly at first. By the end of the march, the men were belting out the tune as they double-timed their pace and arrived back at the fort and on time. The private's simple staccato cadence was "One, two, sound off; three, four, sound off; one, two, three, four; one, two, three-four." Then the alternate verses began. One of the most popular was "Ain't no use in going home. Jody's got your gal and gone. Ain't no use in feelin' blue. Jody's got your sister, too! Sound off, one, two. Sound off, three, four."
With the aid of post musicians, new arrangements of the song were composed, replete with a couple dozen new verses. Since its origin, thousands of verses of the song have been sung, many of which are not printable. Many of the verses reflect the complaints of the every day foot soldier, like "the captain rides in a jeep, the sergeant rides in a truck, the general rides in a limousine, but we're just out of luck" or "I don't mind to take a hike, if I could take along a bike. If I get smacked in a combat zone, gimme a Wac to take me home." Col. Lentz incorporated Willie's song into his revised version of "The Cadence System of Teaching Close Order Drill." Then the brass at the Pentagon began to take notice. The first copies of "Sound Off" were distributed to military installations around the world just before the end of World War II.
Col. Lentz retired from the Army in 1946. Boosted by the success of "Sound Off," the colonel began a song writer career of his own. Willie Duckworth got out of the army and returned to Sandersville to await the torrent of royalty checks which kept flooding his mailbox. Duckworth told Grisamore , "it made me famous for a while and put some money in my pocket."
"Sound Off" became a hit with soldiers. It first appeared in the 1949 movie "Battleground" starring Van Johnson and Ricardo Montalban. The song has been used in countless movies including Scott Thompson's (not me) 2005 movie "The Pacifier" with Vin Diesel. It was also featured in the 1992 hit "Wayne's World." It also became a hit for bandleaders Mickey Katz and Vaughn Monroe. The chant became the theme song of the 1952 movie of the same name starring Mickey Rooney as an obnoxious night club owner who is abashed when he is drafted into the army. Eventually Duckworth became a member of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
For his outstanding contribution to the military and to the legacy of African-American accomplishments, Willie Duckworth was honored as the first recipient of the George Washington Carver Monument Foundation's annual achievement award. On January 5, 1952, a ceremony was held near Joplin, Missouri at the home of the noted American scientist and inventor. Col. Lentz was invited to attend the award presentation, which featured a rousing rendition of the song performed by an all-black glee club from nearby Ft. Leonard Wood. In addition to a plaque signifying this distinct honor, Duckworth was presented with a modest stipend of two hundred dollars.
Willie Lee Duckworth spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity, hauling pulpwood and trying to make ends meet. The royalty checks still came, though more infrequently in his last years. The money he earned from that passing thought in his mind nearly a lifetime ago helped to support his family, who lived in a house on Highway 242 between Riddleville and Bartow. His fame, known to a scant few of his fellow Washington Countians, was almost forgotten. Just weeks past his 80th birthday, Willie Lee Duckworth died in February of 2004.