The Air Force Song and Field Music Traditions
Since its first usage in 1939, the Air Force song has become an integral part of American culture. It has made its way into films, books, and drama productions across the country. I first heard it when I was ten years old in a school production honoring the military. It was my favorite song to sing in the program. I remember the excitement of shout-singing “Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun!”
Years ago, I got to see my great-great grandfather’s flute.
My family and I were vacationing in San Diego when we visited a history museum that held several artifacts from the early pioneering days in America. There were Bibles, worn photographs of strong prairie women, and of course, musical instruments. The flute, small and rusted, was accompanied by a little sign denoting the significance behind the worn instrument. It spoke of my great-great grandfather George Washington Taggart who had walked across the entirety of the United States in a militia commissioned to fight in the Mexican-American war. He was a talented flutist and had rallied troops daily as a part of the band.
Although he never held a weapon (to our knowledge), he did his part to serve his country with his knack for music. In the time of my great-great grandfather, “field music” was an essential part of the U.S. military. When visual signals became virtually impossible due to various factors, musicians, such as drummers or fife players, had the role of directing and signaling the troops. These musicians did not fight or lead with guns, but were armed with their instruments.
For several years, field music was an irreplaceable part of the U.S. military. As the need for signaling musicians slowly faded out, however, the importance of music shifted from the battlefield to bands. Military bands slowly rose in popularity and importance, used in formal, ceremonial settings to rally troops and raise morale. Each branch of the military now has its own band that perform this helpful function. My great-great grandfather was a small part of this great tradition that extends from the Army to the Marines to the Air Force itself.
In addition to the bands, each branch of the military also has its own song. The songs all came to fruition in different years and for different reasons. The Navy’s song, “Anchors Away”, was written in 1906 as a tribute for the Naval Academy Class of 1907. The Army’s song, “The Caisson Song,” was written in WWI, and it wasn’t till 1938 that the U.S. Air Force’s song came to existence as a response to a magazine competition.
Air Force Song’s History
In the year 1938, the Air Force was not yet called the Air Force, but was still a part of the Army and was referred to as the Army Air Corps. Brigadier General H. Arnold proposed a song-writing competition for the Air Corps. He felt an individualized song would help them gain their own identity and pride. Liberty magazine picked up the contest and more than six hundred people sent in over seven hundred submissions, some of which were submitted by great songwriters and successful composers.
In the end, Robert Crawford, an amateur pilot and music professional, won the contest with his submission of “Off We Go.” Crawford famously wrote the song in two hours on a plane as a last-minute submission to the contest since all other entries proved unsatisfying to the committee of Army wives that were charged with judging the contest. Crawford himself introduced it to the public by singing it on September 2, 1939 in that year’s Cleveland Air Races. Eight years later, in 1947, the Air Force was created and established as its own separate military branch. The song survived, continuing to inspire all members of the newly-created Air Force through this transition. The legacy is still carried on today, as the song is still used to represent and motivate the Air Force and its members.
At the time, I didn’t know who or what the Air Force was or why they were important, but the lyrics of the Air force song were so exciting that, to this day, they still play on repeat in my head at times, reminiscent of my grade-school days. “Off we go into the wild blue yonder, Climbing high into the sun…”