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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