The Origins of Military Cadences
One of the first things in Basic Training the Drill Sergeants did was march us. We marched everywhere — to the mess hall, to the ranges, to the barracks. To help keep us in step, and in some cases, just to keep going, the Drill Sergeants called cadences.
You’ve probably seen them if you watch any movie that has the characters visit a military post of some kind. It’s pretty iconic. Soldiers in formation run past the camera singing something like “Hey, hey, Captain Jack!”
Sometimes the songs were fun, and sometimes they were very sexist. There was also some humor that the male soldiers found funny and left the women soldiers scratching their head and wondering why the men thought it was funny (a particular song about a canary comes to mind).
Keepers of Tradition calls it a verbal art form:
“…military cadence calls are also a way to take one’s mind off strenuous tasks, vent dissatisfaction, mock one’s superiors, or build morale by boasting, poking fun, or talking dirty.”
The cadences were actually intended only for men to hear, and even the ones that were screened for a mixed audience sometimes went over the top. These are the lyrics for some of the cadences. The majority of these we did sing, though there are a few I haven’t heard of.
But the modern military cadence originated in 1944 with a Black private named Willie Duckworth, who was raised by sharecropper parents in Georgia. He was a wheeled vehicle mechanic, which is army-speak for a truck mechanic (because there are military vehicles that are not wheeled). But the cadences were something that were used out in the fields for workers, and it was a logical thing to use for the military as well.
Of course, one of the purposes was to help everyone stay in step, and that never did much for me!