“U.S. Field Artillery” (1917)
During Sousa’s brief wartime service in the Navy, he was invited to a luncheon meeting in New York with Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Army Lieutenant George Friedlander. Friedlander, of the 306th Field Artillery, asked Sousa to compose a march for that regiment, suggesting that the march be built around an artillery song then known by such names as “The Caisson Song,” “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” and “The Field Artillery Song.” The song was believed to be quite old, perhaps of Civil War origin, and had not been published; the composer was believed dead.
Sousa liked the song and agreed to use it. He set it in a different key, changed the harmonic structure, refined the melody, gave it a more snappy rhythm, and added this to his own original material. The complete composition was then published as the “U.S. Field Artillery” march.
Sousa’s touch added the spark necessary to transform the little-known artillery song into the army’s most popular melody. The new march was eagerly adopted by the army’s artillery units and later by the army as a whole. The Victor Talking Machine Company promptly issued a recording of the march with Sousa personally conducting former members of his own band, and the piece became the best known of all Sousa’s World War I compositions. On the record it was paired with another Sousa composition also dedicated to the U.S. Army: the “Liberty Loan” march. In a year’s time, the recording sold over 400,000 copies.
Sheet music of the march also sold well. Its attractive cover was the copy of a work by the sculptor James E. Kelly, well known for his portrayal of military subjects. Kelly set aside other work on a $200,000 piece of sculpture in Delaware to complete the clay bas-relief model for the cover. The march was also published in an outstanding band arrangement by Mayhew L. Lake.
It came as quite a surprise to Sousa and Lieutenant Friedlander to learn that the composer of “The Caisson Song” was still very much alive and that the song was less than ten years old. It had been written in March, 1908, by Lieutenant Edmund L. Gruber of the U.S. Army Field Artillery at Camp Stotsenburg, Philippine Islands. The piece was composed in the presence of at least two fellow officers who assisted in writing the lyrics. No doubt Lieutenant Gruber was even more surprised to find that his song, much revised, had skyrocketed to fame. He raised no objections to Sousa’s use of the song, which was serving the army’s purpose so admirably.
Gruber’s song had a peculiar history after the Sousa march was published. Sousa’s treatment of the melody had made it so attractive to several publishers that they fought over it. Shortly after the publication of the “U.S. Field Artillery” march, the melody found its way into several song collections and became exceptionally popular during the 1920s. It is not known whether or not Gruber gave written permission for the use of his song in any of these publications, but he did permit its incorporation into a volume of West Point songs in 1921.
The melody became even more popular when the Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Company adopted it as its sales song. The company added its own words and used it in radio advertising. Unaware of the song’s origin, a Hoover salesman called on Mrs. Gruber in 1929 and attempted to sell her a sweeper. Mrs. Gruber informed him of the origin of Hoover’s sales song and suggested that this entitled her to a sweeper, gratis. She received one, and her husband endorsed Hoover sweepers. This did not please certain artillery officers, who later asked Hoover to refrain from the use of what they considered their own exclusive song.
When Gruber’s personal application for a copyright of the song was denied in 1930, he gave up hope of ever claiming royalties. However, in 1942 the sponsors of the West Point publication reestablished their claim and brought suit against the E. C. Schirmer Company, another of the song’s publishers. The court ruled that the melody had in effect been dedicated to public use and that its widespread use for over thirty years with no substantial objection by the composer constituted a practical abandonment by the composer. This judgment was upheld in an appeal the following year.
Gruber rose to the rank of brigadier general and died in active service in 1941. He had composed over a hundred songs for his own enjoyment and had not expected any of them to reach Tin Pan Alley. But the one paraphrased by John Philip Sousa achieved a popularity beyond his wildest dreams. It glorified the U.S. Army Field Artillery, so it mattered little to him that many users of his melody made money while he received nothing. The time-honored manuscript of his original song now hangs in the library of the U.S. Army Artillery and Missile School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Paul E. Bierley, The Works of John Philip Sousa (Westerville, Ohio: Integrity Press, 1984), 93. Used by permission.