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Caissons Rolling

Joe Holley

Most everybody knows "The Caisson Song" -- "over hill, over dale, we have hit the dusty trail, and the caissons go rolling along" -- even if they've never hit the trail, dusty or otherwise; grade-school music teachers considered the rousing piece a staple and maybe still do. But as popular as the song is, most people don't know who wrote it.

John Philip Sousa didn't know either. When, during World War I, the famed composer and band master was asked to transform the popular tune into a march, he thought he was working with a ditty from the Civil War. He tinkered with it a bit, changed the title to "U.S. Field Artillery" and proudly presented it to the Army. Only after it became wildly popular did the actual composer step forward -- an Army officer named Edmund L. Gruber, who wrote it while he was a young lieutenant stationed in the Philippines in 1908. He asked Sousa for a share of the royalties. Some versions of the story say an embarrassed Sousa shared; others say Gruber had to sue. I haven't taken the time to do the research yet.

The only reason I know about Gruber and the "Caisson Song" saga is because of the obit I've worked on all day for Harold W. Arberg, the man who in 1956 adapted the "Caisson Song" into "The Army Goes Rolling Along," which remains the Army's official song. Arberg, who died Aug. 4 in Arlington, was an Army musician, a Department of Education administrator and a barbershop harmonizer who was elected to the Barbershopping Elite 100, an honor society with only 100 members. The obit will be available in tomorrow's paper.

The New York Times reported in 1941 that Gruber declined to be a candidate for a $1,000 prize offered for an official air force song. "Soldiers' songs grow up where soldiers gather," he said. "When that song comes, it will come from a young flyer who's got the feel of flying in his bones and knows the thrill and glamour of the air corps."

Gruber -- who, interestingly enough, was related to Franz Gruber, composer of "Silent Night" -- died a few months before the outbreak of World War II. The old soldier suffered a heart attack while playing bridge at the home of friends.

By Joe Holley |  August 5, 2009; 3:17 PM ET  | Category:  Joe Holley
Previous: A Vietnam War That Never Ends | Next: Budd Schulberg and Fleeting Fame

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