Adjutant General's Corps Regimental Association

Armed Forces Song Folios and Shared Music Making within the U.S. Army

By CW2 Jonathan L. Crane

Beginning in 1943, the Army Special Services Division published the first Hit Kit, which provided copyright-free lyrics and music for the exclusive use of the U.S. Military.  Public sacrifice for World War II during this time was very high, so music publishers, not wanting to appear unsupportive of the war effort, waived normal copyright costs.  This was with the understanding that the sheet music was to be distributed for the sole use by U.S. service members. 

An Army Hit Kit cover from World War II, which later became the Armed Forces Song Folio.

Even the Steinway company supported U.S. troops by designing special upright pianos which were then air-dropped to the front lines.  The package included the piano, sheet music, instructions, and tools for tuning the instrument.  The Hit Kits and donated airborne pianos, allowed military members access to popular tunes and relevant information about the music industry for their enjoyment and morale.  It also gave them a means to create their own music, adapting popular songs of the day to their experience.  These publications changed to the Armed Forces Song Folio in January of 1951.  They also became a program aid for the now defunct Army Entertainment Program.

U.S. Army Soldiers gather around a recently air-dropped Steinway Victory Vertical Piano.

The Folio provided piano and vocal versions of popular songs, often with an overarching theme, such as Jazz, Broadway, and Christmas carols.  These publications harken back to a time when music-making was an encouraged activity, not just for the professional military musician, but for all Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines.  The internet has also allowed for unprecedented access to information, including sheet music.  We take for granted how easy it is to obtain musical materials, but these folios were the only way service members could learn and play the songs together (other than what songs they might have memorized).

A collection of Armed Forces Song Folios.

One might think that very few Soldiers engage in musical activity.  However, over the past ten years I have met countless numbers of Soldiers who not only engage in music but could be professional musicians in their own right.  I once met a military intelligence officer with a bachelor’s degree in bassoon performance!  He was thrilled to perform traditional concert music with the band on a community outreach mission. 

The Army sometimes recognizes this talent, by highlighting it through social media; an example being a video posted to the official U.S. Army Twitter and Instagram pages of a Soldier singing a tune from A Star is Born in the barracks.  Her willingness to share the song humanizes what it means to be a Soldier and keeps the profession of arms connected to the public.  There is sometimes a fundamental misconception about the purpose of music in the lives of Soldiers.  When Soldiers create their own music with the support of community, it bears an authenticity and connectedness, which enables deeper meaning among their fellow service members.  An example of this connectedness can be seen in the service members who used the Song Folios and their musical experience to create small impromptu music groups.

During the Vietnam War a group called the Rotations played at many venues from Saigon clubs to the Long Binh Jail (From Music and War in the United States, Kraaz, 2019, Ch.12).  Barely functioning guitars were used to help facilitate group singing popular songs such as “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Twist and Shout.”  These musical events both impromptu and organized, provided a safe space to air out the complex emotions experienced by Soldiers in combat.  It also provided a means to stay in touch with the musical culture of home.

The current environment allows almost unlimited access to the bulk of recorded music history.  Listening to music is certainly a way in which Soldiers can regulate their mood.  Having access to this resource may lead one to believe that Soldiers have no need for the social creation of their own music.  However, music listening and music creation are completely different activities that yield different outcomes.  Creating music in groups has been shown to synchronize biological signals including heart rate variability.  This synchronization leads to increased bonding, trust, and empathy.  These are the traits of social cohesion and the bedrock of successful teams.

I am not suggesting the return of the Armed Forces Song Folio but expanding Soldier-led music making will have pre- and post-combat effects essential to our profession.  During the team forming stage, shared songs would assist in binding the team around a common emotional guidepost.  As the group’s confidence grows, the music becomes an external expression of what it means to be a member of the team.  That sense of purpose and trust is carried through to mission completion.  Upon reset, new music making opportunities arise to help make sense of the mission and to celebrate the accomplishments of the team. 

As subject-matter experts, professional Army musicians can facilitate musical expression for their fellow Soldiers.  Rather than only performing music to the audience (Soldiers), Army Bands could include their audience in the creation process.  This would allow the drawing out of the unique emotional narratives of individuals and groups.  Army teams big and small could craft their own “sound identity,” which has a higher likelihood of being meaningful, since it wasn’t created by an outsider.  Senior commanders would support these efforts by assessing the mutual trust and cohesion within their commands.  Then, they can utilize shared music making as a tool to enhance and maintain positive bonds between Soldiers, thereby increasing the chances for effective mission accomplishment.

About the Author:

CW2 Jonathan Crane is a graduate of The Hartt School of music in composition.  His composition professors were Robert Carl, Kenneth Steen, and Stephen Gryc.  During his studies, Jon also took double bass lessons with world-renowned contemporary performer Robert Black.  Mr. Crane has also studied with Anthony Stoops, Aaron Keaster, and Jim Miller.  Along with his Hartt School Artist Diploma, he has a Master’s degree in composition from Bowling Green State University, and a Bachelor’s degree in music education from Lebanon Valley College.  In 2013, Mr. Crane was given the National Federation of Music Clubs Military Composition Award for “Open Field.”  His compositions have been performed by the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, the Avery Ensemble, and various military and university groups.  As a bassist, Mr. Crane has worked for Hersheypark Entertainment, Celebrity Cruises, and Holland America Line.

Mr. Crane attended basic training at Fort Jackson, SC in 2009, and completed initial training at the U.S. Army School of Music.  His first duty station was with the 25th Infantry Division Band, while there he deployed to Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn.  He has also served with the Signal Corps Band from Fort Gordon, GA.  In 2014, he graduated from Warrant Officer Candidate School and became the Commander of the United States Army Military Intelligence Corps Band until May 2017.  Currently, he is a research analyst for the Army Music Analytics Team, centered at the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY.

CW2 Crane is also a researcher for the Army Music Program focused on the interaction between music and human performance in the psychological, social, and emotional domains.  His work seeks to quantify and articulate music’s effects on Soldiers and its ability to connect those Soldiers to the public they defend.  He has published essays for 1775:  The Journal of the Adjutant General’s Corps Regimental Association and the Modern War Institute.

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