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New York Folklore Vol. 11. Nos. 1-4, 1985
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NY Folklore, Vol. 11

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NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 11, Nos. 1-4, 1985
40th Anniversary Issue

SOLDIERS’ SONGS: THE FOLKLORE OF THE POWERLESS
by Les Cleveland

Combat soldiers have something in common with workers in hazardous civilian occupations like coal mining. There is a relatively high casualty rate, an awareness of danger and a reliance on collective methods of organization that encourage a sense of solidarity. This may be one reason why an occupational folksong tradition has survived more strongly among such workers than among those engaged in other industries (Dallas 1974:13). Much of this kind of folksong is either about particular work processes and experiences, or provides ways of rhythmically co-ordinating the work effort. Though soldiers are not usually thought of as workers in an industry, the mechanization of warfare and the amount of time spent drilling with weapons and equipment, as well as maintaining and operating them, closely resemble the standardized routines of any modern mass production process in which a semi-skilled workforce undergoes training, follows instructions, and serves the requirements of the machines to which it is allocated. The fact that military machines like aircraft, tanks, guns, and other equipment when brought to bear against live targets consume human as well as industrial raw materials, draws attention to modern war as a mass production activity in which soldiers are both a necessary labor component as well as an expendable resource. This imparts an obvious occupational basis to the songs of soldiers as well as a co-ordinating purpose to their cadence counts and marching songs. Soldiers can be thought of as proletarians in uniform with the critical difference that unlike the ordinary workforce they cannot withhold their labor except upon pain of degradation and other unpleasant punishments. Like prison inmates they are subject to disciplinary codes that demand unqualified obedience and render them relatively powerless to vary in any substantial way the terms or duration of their service....


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