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Meet Pvt Willie Duckworth, credited for creating Military Cadence

Photo credit Michael A Cavanaugh


Private Willie Lee Duckworth, Sr.

Author: Michael A Cavanaugh
Historian, former Ft Slocum, NY

Surely whoever who did not get to sound off in the service, at least has heard it in the movies.  “The heads are up, The chests are out, The arms are swingin’, Cadence count, Sound off (1,2), Sound off (3,4), . . . Jody was there when you left (you’re right!) . . .”

For well over half a century, the Jody (aka “Jody Call,” “Sound Off,” or the “Duckworth Chant”) has been the aural icon of soldierly life.  This has been true in the U.S. Army, in other branches and around the world.  In the entertainment world the Jody is a staple of military-themed films (starting with the Academy Award-winning Battleground in 1949, but also including Full Metal JacketAn Officer and a Gentleman,  and Private Benjamin).   It appears also in various jingles (including, most recently, the theme song for the cartoonSpongebob Squarepants).   In 1950 it was copyrighted as “Sound Off;” sheet music was published, and the chant was recorded in 1951 by Vaughn Monroe and a succession of others.  No longer in the repertoire of American popular song, the Jody has continued an informal life among the ranks, and has evolved in various directions (not always considered fit for print or recording).

The Jody was first heard in 1944 at and around Fort Slocum, NY.  The first recorded versions appeared on an unnumbered V-Disc (undated, but recorded at the Slocum auditorium, Raymond Hall, sometime in 1945). The V-Disc consists of three different versions of the Duckworth Chant, plus an introductory track by T. Sgt Henry C. “Jack” Felice (1914-2001).  That track, which has become the received narrative,  offers one explanation of its origin:  that it arose spontaneously on the way back to post from a training bivouac at nearby Ardsley:

On a cold spring evening in May 1944 as the Provisional Training Center was returning from a long tedious march through swamps and rough country, a chant broke the stillness of the night.  Upon investigation, it was found that a negro soldier by the name of Willie Duckworth, on detached service with the Provisional Training Center Fort Slocum, was chanting to build up the spirits of his weary comrades.

It was not long before the infectious rhythm was spreading through the ranks.  Footweary soldiers started to pack up their step in cadence with a growing chorus of hearty male voices.   Instead of a downtrodden, fatigued company, here marched 200 soldiers with heads up, a spring to their step, and happy smiles on their faces.    This transformation occurred with the beginning of the “Duckworth Chant.”

Upon returning to Fort Slocum, Private Duckworth, with the aid of the Provisional Training Center instructors, composed a series of verses and choruses to be used with the marching cadence.  Since that eventful evening, the Duckworth chant has been made a part of the drill at Fort Slocum, as it has proved to be not only a tremendous morale factor while marching, but also coordinated a movement of close order drill with troop precision.

Since that “cold spring evening,” the chant has evolved.     Some of the original lyrics may well remain,  some of them may have been lost;   others have been added, others have been censored out.  Troops have been quick to add salty lyrics; it is even said that at least one company-grade officer was busted because a field-grade wife had been offended by hearing the soldierly innovations passing by too close to family quarters.  The Jody on the whole has been tamed.   (I don’t know, but I’ve been told . . .)

The history of the Jody has developed a following, including on the internet, and including the now pro forma internet skepticism.  Of the claim that the Jody originated at Ft. Slocum in 1944, for instance, one can read the following refutation:

. . . some revisionists, by ignoring the extensive history of martial music and work songs going back to ancient China and early Rome, are “crediting” segregated Negro troops with the ‘invention’ of CADENCE calls for the improvement of morale during training in WWII, specifically an impromptu “Sound Off” CADENCE call initiated by PVT Willie Duckworth while marching in the Provisional Training Center of Fort Slocum, New York, in May 1944, and later identified as the “Duckworth Chant” in folklore. It’s another insidious myth and pernicious lie perpetrated upon the gullible by self-anointed elitists!   (This appears to be a later comment inserted into a passage attributed to Combat Magazine;  cf.http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-bloggers/1489526/posts, visited 1 Feb. 2008.)

As distinct from the conspiratorial rhetoric in which it is embedded, there are reasons that might be adduced in support of the above counter-claim that Duckworth invented nothing very distinctive:

  • call-and-response work songs or chanteys were long used by agricultural laborers, seamen, chain-gang members and gandy dancers;
  • the phrase “Sound Off” predates 1944 (as the title of a collection of Army songs edited by Edward Arthur Dolph in 1924, reissued in 1942; and even appears as the legend on a WWI-era postcard from Fort Slocum itself);
  • there is a long history of drill in the U.S. Army and before WWII;
  • the specific phrase “count off your numbers loud and strong” appears in Maj. Edmund L. Gruber’s 1907 “Caisson Song” (still the official anthem of the US Army);
  • the Duckworth Chant resembles popular songs like “Hey Ladee Ladee Lo,” particularly inasmuch as it uses call-and-response.

Perhaps the most unusual story about the origin of the Jody is, “In WWII, black troops were, apparently, given more freedom of self-expression than were white troops. Fancy drill teams, particularly from Fort Duckworth, Alabama, toured and popularized jazzier cadence counts.”   (The identical claim is found at http://www.mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=5488 andhttp://sniff.numachi.com/pages/tiSOUNDOFF;ttSOUNDOFF.html, both visited 1 Feb.  2008.)  Surely this tale “loses something in the original;” though perhaps mythical “Fort Duckworth, Alabama” as a sort of G.I. Grambling University would render some measure of  poetic justice?

Despite parallels or precursors, the fact remains that the Jody is not just any chant, work song, or the like.  And the related phrases cited above also do not amount to the Duckworth chant.  There is no record of the original chant as developed by Duckworth in mid-1944.   As noted in the received narrative cited above, upon returning to post it was quickly embellished and added to;  even early on there were significant variations in the verses, and this sort of innovation continues still.  But think of the “Duckworth Chant” as like a jazz ballad: there is a basic core, around which the performers can still weave significant improvisations.   The earliest known versions, from 1944 to 1950, have three basic core elements:

  1. the character Jody;  (later versions of  what are called Jodies will not always mention the character Jody;  the early versions all do.  Incidentally some have puzzled over who Jody was.  The best answer is: a character from Black folklore, named “Joe de Grinder.”  [“Grind” is slang for sex.]  “Joe de Grinder” was alided to “Jody Grinder,” then just plain “Jody.”  Cf. Bruce Jackson,  “What Happened to Jody,”Journal of American Folklore 80(318):387-396, 1967,)
  2. some reference to left and right;  and,
  3. a chorus of Sound Off, 1, 2, 3, 4.

Defined in this manner, it is clear from the historical record that the Jody did in fact appear first as the “Duckworth Chant” at Ft. Slocum, NY, in 1944.

Though it was a genuine innovation, at the same time the Jody did not appear in a vacuum.   The Jody as we now know it caught on and spread as widely as it did for identifiable historical reasons.  These involved an unlikely collaboration between a Black draftee from rural Georgia, Pvt. Duckworth, and his commanding officer at Ft. Slocum, Col. Bernard Lentz.  Lentz, the most senior colonel in the Army at the time, was a graduate of USMA West Point  —  a “ring-knocker,” in Army slang.  The draftee and the ring-knocker came from quite different backgrounds and social milieus.   They just met up, serendipitously, in the right place at the right time.

Col. Lentz had paved the way for something like the Jody when, during WWI, he had devised his Cadence System of Teaching Close Order Drill.   To carry out this system,  troops themselves vocalized the drill commands before executing them.  (Lentz in turn had his precursors, particularly Lt. Col. Herman J. Koehler, Master of the Sword at USMA.)   When the Duckworth Chant appeared on Lentz’ post in WWII, he was just the person to seize on it and promote it to a wider audience.    Col. Lentz’ Cadence System is not identical to the “Duckworth Chant,” nor did Lentz anticipate it specifically.  But Lentz must have been delighted to find a Pvt. Duckworth, and recognized the latter’s innovation as an extension of all his prior efforts.   The ring-knocker and the draftee found synergy;  Col. Lentz was the command enabler for Pvt. Duckworth’s innovation.   The origin of the Jody at Ft. Slocum in 1944, therefore, represents an interesting fortuitous coincidence, one in which command permission combined with soldierly initiative to produce an enduring Army custom.

In short, there were chanteys, work songs, cadences and the like before 1944.   There was also troop vocalization during drill.   However there were no Jody Calls.

Exactly what did the first Duckworth chant sound like?   Alas Alan Lomax did not lug a tape recorder on that May 1944 bivouac.  I would like to ask Pvt. Duckworth himself but alas this too is now impossible.  The original oral tradition clearly underwent later musical shaping as well as  literary redaction.  But the improvisation that continues in the later developed Jody is just the point of the Duckworth chant:  make it up as you go along.  Eskimos, GI Grits, My Recruiter, Viet Cong, Ho Chi Minh, Iran, C-130s, whatever.  Think of the Jody as like a jazz ballad:  no one would confuse say Charlie Parker’s solo on the 1946 JATP recording of “Oh, Lady Be Good” with any of the Ella Fitzgerald versions, but anyone can recognize it is the same basic (Gershwin) ballad.

However there are some identifiable early versions, and these (along with some clues given by Duckworth himself)  can tell us something.   Duckworth gave several accounts, which may or may not square with the received version cited at the outset:  one, that he made it up in his head;  two, that when summoned before Col. Lentz he was so scared he just said the first thing that occurred, namely, that he adapted it from hog calling back home.   But the earliest account he gave came in correspondence with Col Lentz;  in a letter dated 7 Nov. 1949 (in the possession of the Lentz family), Duckworth added the following intriguing detail: “The Chant was started in the drill field behind the gymnasium.  When the chant became of use to our company we were marching to Osley (sic;  Ardsley), N.Y. for 14 days.”  If so it would appear that the chant underwent some preliminary development, on post at Ft. Slocum, before being used on the march —  notice, Duckworth says to,  not just from  —  the bivouac at Ardsley.

Duckworth mentions that he drilled his class using the chant at the graduation ceremony  —  an early instance of a Black soldier drilling white troops.  (Is there an earlier?)  But Duckworth did not remain long at Ft. Slocum;  he was only there on TDY for the PTC and after his class graduation on 8 June, returned to his permanent station at Camp Kilmer.   During the time he remained at Slocum, he worked up some verses with the PTC staff, and apparently they continued working after he left.  By summer’s end the chant was well-established in the PTC graduation ceremonies;  and the post newspaper, the Casual News for 21 Sept. 1944 gives this snippet on the front page:

I had a good time but I left  —

You’re right (repeat)

Jodie (sic) was there when you left  —

You’re right (repeat)


Sound off 1-2                                                   Sound off 3-4

Cadence Count 1-2-3-4                                   1-2 . . . 3-4


Heads and Eyes off the ground

Forty inches, cover down

(CHORUS, etc.)


The three basic elements (Jody/Jodie;  left & right;  Sound Off) are already present in this earliest recorded version.

The next versions come from an unnumbered V-Disc recorded at sometime in 1945, indoors at Raymond Hall (the post theater).   The PTC ended late in 1944, though the same staff continued in a Rehabilitation Center for court-martialed soldiers.  The A Side of the disc consists of the received narrative, and then one version of the chant performed by rehabilitation inmates, both led by T. Sgt Felice.  The second cut on the B Side, also rehabilitation inmates, is led by one Pvt. James Tyus.  The first cut on the B Side is a distinctive WAC version led by S. Sgt Gladys “Woodie” Woodard (1920-2009).   She  recalled, in a 2007 interview, that she had to learn the existing lyrics but also “make up some of my own about the women and so forth.”   The three versions are notably different from each other.

Here are the lrics of the Felice version.  (The call is simply written; the response, enclosed in parentheses.)

“Horeward:   harch!


The heads are up, the chests are out

The arms are swingin’;  in cadence,  count:


Sound off (one, two!)

Sound off (three, four!)

Cadence count (one, two, three, four, one, two   —  threefour!)

Eeny meeny miney moe

Let’s go back and count some mo’


We will march to beat the band

And we’ll never bite The Hand,


I had a good home but I left (you’re right!)

I had a good home but I left (you’re right!)

Jody was there when you left (you’re right!)

Jody was there when you left (you’re right!)


It won’t get by if it ain’t GI

It won’t get by if it ain’t GI


We will march with a broken leg

So we can get that Golden Egg


The Second Platoon is just like Krauts (Krout?  see below)

They’re all afflicted with the gout


The Third Platoon can’t stand the [gaffe?]

Tryin’ to get ol’ [on? Blennett’s staff?] [these lines are obscure in more than one sense]


If I get shot in a combat zone

Just box me up and send me home,


I had a good home but I left (you’re right!)

You had a good home but you left (you’re right!)

Jody was there when you left (you’re right!)

Jody was there when you left (you’re right!)


I don’t mind to take a hike

If I could take along a bike


I don’t mind a bivouac

If I could take along a WAC


I don’t mind if I get dirty

As long as the Brow gets Gravel Gertie


The WACs and WAVEs will win the war

So tell us what we’re fighting for


I had a good home but I left (you’re right!)

I had a good home but I left (you’re right!)

Jody was there when you left (you’re right!)

Jody was there when you left (you’re right!)


Gump’knee, HALT!”

A note on the content of the lyrics.  Some of them are entirely obscure even today.

  • But even if we didn’t already know the Duckworth Chant came from Fort Slocum in 1944, internal evidence would make this clear enough.  Col. Lentz’ pet story:  quoting Samuel Goldwyn’s characteristic malapropism, “Oh dem directors!  They’re always biting the hand that lays the golden egg,” Lentz would warn his listeners:  “Gentlemen . . . I am the hand that lays the golden egg.  And my advice to you is don’t bite the hand that lays the golden egg.”    This became proverbial on post; The Hand became  Lentz’ most common nickname.
  • The post newspaper, the Casual News,  offered (15 Feb. 1944, p. 7), believe it or not, “Slocum’s Haircut Slogan:”  If it isn’t G.I./It won’t get by.
  • The one verse may refer to Krauts (Germans;  and it did say this in a later version of Lentz’ drill system) but there was a drillmaster with the Provisional Training Center  named S. Sgt Francis H. Krout.   His medical condition however is unknown.
  • The Brow and Gravel Gertie refer to characters in the syndicated comic strip Dick Tracy.  The Brow, a Nazi naval spy, had a meteoric rise and fall lasting only four months, from 22 May to 26 Sept. 1944. Gravel Gertie first appears 3 Sept.   The Brow is temporarily blinded; Gertie (a hag, smitten by once again having a man in her life) shelters him &  nurses him back to health; he may be on the verge of reciprocating her love but is killed when Tracy causes him to fall through a window and die, impaled on an American flag.  Therefore, this verse still in suspense about The Brow getting Gravel Gertie cannot be original with Duckworth’s May 1944 bivouac;  but it must also be one of the older ones, its form fixed sometime in Sept. 1944.

Clearly, some of the early lyrics were not meant for the Ages.  The lines about The Hand and the Golden Egg don’t travel well;  the Brow was universally known but didn’t survive Hitler; the lines about Second & Third platoons are, well, just lame.  No doubt the same is true about many other lines improvised through the years and now forgotten.

Copies of the chant were printed and distributed at Ft. Slocum;  Col. Lentz reports that the War Department had them circulated as well overseas.  The chant was in use in the ETO by at least around V-E day.    Alan Lomax documents a version in Missouri by 1945.  By 1947 it was well-known enough to elicit a parody, also on a V-Disc, called “Worth Duckin” by pianist Dick Farney and bassist “Slam” Stewart.  Lentz documents its use in  various branches of service by 1949.   And, as mentioned, it has become a staple of military films ever since.

That the Jody spread throughout the military, and military films, is unsurprising.  It might simply have remained a staple of marching soldiers, never heard off-post.   What is astounding is it went commercial as well.  (Try imagining, for instance, the airborne cadence “Blood on the Risers” making the Hit Parade.)   But the Jody did, and here is how.    Early in 1949, as MGM was preparing to film Battleground,  Lily M. Hyland called Col. Lentz to inquire about using the chant, and whether it was copyrighted.  In a letter of 22 March, Lentz responded to her by giving the history of the Jody chant and added:

Though there is no copyright owner of the piece, I think it would be a fine gesture on the part of your Company, in case your Studio makes use of the chant, to seek out the former negro soldier, Willie Duckworth and offer him some financial reward.  Nothing would please me —  his commanding officer at the time the chant had its inception  —  more than to have him rewarded in some way.  I shall be glad to assist in a search for Willie’s present whereabouts.

Lentz also asked for free passes to the movie for others who had worked on the chant, and were living in or near the City:  Herman L. Johnson Jr., Richard M. Gorman, Henry C. “Jack” Felice, Robert Vincent, and Edward Sadowski.  (Then 1st Lt [later Capt.]  Johnson [1916-1995], an honor graduate of the first WWII training class at Slocum,  rose to detachment commander of the Provisional Training Center;  2d Lt Gorman [1915-1974] started as a saxophonist with the band but became a PTC instructor; then S. Sgt [later T. Sgt, then M. Sgt] Felice [1914-2001], a dancer in civilian life, was an instructor and drillmaster with the PTC;  Capt. [George]  Robert Vincent [1898-1985], a pioneer in recording who sparked the V-Disc program and in particular  recorded the Duckworth Chant for V-Disc on his portable Presto recorder;  and WO Edward Sadowski [1921-1990] was the second bandmaster of the 378th  Army Service Forces Band at Ft. Slocum.)

MGM responded with free passes, plus a check to Duckworth for $200.  (Considering what profits MGM must have made on this Academy-Award winning film, $200 does not seem like much.  In contemporary perspective,  however, as of 1 October 1949,  starting pay for a M. Sgt was $198.45 monthly;   for a 2d Lt, $213.75.)  Lentz, as he had offered, brokered the deal by seeking out Duckworth.  In October Lentz wrote to Duckworth at his last known address, and asked specific questions in order to establish that he was dealing with the same Willie Duckworth he had known at Ft. Slocum.  These answers, as noted above, provide considerable insight into the origin of the chant.

Battleground would mark the first time the civilian public at large was introduced to the Jody chant. It is also interesting in that in addition to the soundtrack, the film dramatizes how the chant would be used in drill.  The chant occurs in three places.   In the opening scene, fresh troops in a replacement camp are shown doing fancy dismounted drill (including such non-standard commands as freeze and box-step). There is a brief scene where one soldier walks into a tent chanting a verse of the Jody.  Finally the film closes with battle-weary GI’s relieved from Bastogne, trying to show some élan as they march out past their replacements, and here the drill is just straightforward marching while chanting the Jody  —  much as is described in the received account of the Jody’s origin on the tiresome march back from Ardsley.

The film premiered in New York on Veterans’ Day.  Col. Lentz saw the film, and in a letter dated 24 Nov. 1949 to Mark Avramo (of  the legal department of MGM) wrote:  “. . .  the  end scene in ‘Battleground’ is nothing more nor less than  this Story’s transfer from Fort Slocum and vicinity to the Bulge Battlefield.”    There is no direct evidence that the Jody reached the ETO as early as Dec. 1944, but it is interesting that Lentz specifies the closing scene (rather than the opening, fancy drill) to characterize the way the Jody actually was performed under his command at Slocum.

The Battleground version is pre-copyright, and once again the lyrics are largely different from the earlier known versions.   The version performed by Leonard de Paur’s Infantry Chorus at Carnegie Hall in January 1950 is probably also pre-copyright.   But the film triggered a process whereby, in 1950, Lentz had the song copyrighted by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co.  This formed the basis for later performances, e.g., Vaughn Monroe in 1951.  The Lentz and Duckworth families continued to receive royalties.    Duckworth got his initial $200 check; and by the time the film Sound Off came out in 1952, he estimated he was receiving $1,000 per month in royalties.  (The 2010 value of $200 in 1949 is at least $1,830;  that of $1,000 in 1952, at least $8,210 [www.measuringworth.com].)   That was the high-water mark, but royalties would continue and all told they allowed Duckworth to buy a truck and start his own small pulpwood business, whereby he and his wife Edna raised six children.   Furthermore, an article in the New York Times, 29 Dec. 1951, notes that Duckworth will be awarded the first annual achievement award of the George Washington Carver Monument Foundation in Joplin, MO in January.  The dateline of the article is not Joplin, but Larchmont; suggesting the Col. Lentz (who had retired to Larchmont, nearby Ft. Slocum) may have been behind the award.

Thus the ring-knocker saw to it that the draftee was rewarded as well as recognized for his innovation. Recognition did not stop there.   In 2010, thanks to a committee of local admirers led by Rosby Gordon, Georgia named a portion of its State Road 242 in Washington County (along which Duckworth lived, and is now buried) for T/4 Duckworth;  and on Veterans’ Day of that year, a large stone marker was unveiled on the ground of the Washington County Courthhouse.  (There is a photo on the Ft. Slocum Facebook page.)

Ironically, the Jody thrived in the movies, in recordings,  and in basic training, but not at Ft. Slocum.  Visitors to that post in the Cold War expressed surprise that soldiers were not constantly drilling.  At the time, the post contained two schools.  Students at the Information School had already received basic training and were now pursuing technical subjects.   Students at the Chaplain School did receive basic military orientation in things like close-order drill and military courtesy.  Yet, although film footage survives of chaplains being marched about at the northern end of the parade field in close-order drill (cf. YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=st3sYKi2lPg), the drillmaster is using neither the Lentz cadence system nor the Jody.   Perhaps what worked for airborne, other elite units and aspirants in basic training was a little too salty and louche for the chaplains?

Duckworth is remembered for his chant.   Lentz’ Cadence System,  born in WWI,  has not been heard for many years now. (It may have been used as late as 1967 at Infantry OCS, Ft. Benning.)   But Duckworth’s Jody has survived now some six decades and more, and is heard almost everywhere in the US forces, and probably every day.

Yet while the words of the Jody may have come from Pvt. Duckworth (and others at Ft. Slocum), command permission for the troops to vocalize during drill is the enduring contribution of Lentz’ Cadence System. Outside of those who may know Ft. Slocum in WWII, no one remembers the name of Lentz.  During both world wars, he was a staff officer and not a combat commander.    He was no Patton, he was no Gavin;   he never made general.     Like many officers of his generation (Eisenhower, for example) he wore but one row of ribbons, none for valor in combat.  (It makes a difference whether one is judged by the standards of Gen. Eisenhower or Gen. Petraeus.)    Yet insofar as the Army allows and encourages the retention of the Jody, thus far does the influence on Army drill of Col. Lentz (and of his predecessors, Lt. Col. Koehler and Brig. Gen. Butts)  still echo  —  for those who have the ears to hear it  —  from West Point through abandoned Ft. Slocum and beyond, from the old Brownshoe Army to the Army of One.


Michael A Cavanaugh
historian of former Ft Slocum, NY

Updated: January 7, 2016 — 7:15 pm
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