America’s Top 10 Military Musicians, #9 and #10

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

For the next five weeks, our Fun Friday posts will showcase some of the military’s best historical musicians. As we count down each week, will you be able to guess who is Number 1?

The Department of Defense spends about $200 million per year on military bands. That seems like a lot of money, but it’s actually down from about $388 million. There are over 5,000 servicemembers employed as military members – a program that cost taxpayers some $1.55 billion over the four years ending in September.

But there’s another side to that expenditure: A tremendously rich cultural history that’s paid immense dividends not just to the military community, but to the nation as a whole. 

With this series, I’d like to pay tribute to a group of musicians who became legends after getting their start in military bands – or who were already legends, and who went above and beyond the call of duty or citizenship in generously giving themselves and their musical gifts to American troops of all services – sometimes at great risk to themselves. Here are the top ten military musicians in U.S. history – so far.


10. Paul Desmond

Saxophonist Paul Desmond was born on November 25th, 1924 in San Francisco, California. He played clarinet and alto saxophone while in school, but was drafted into the Army during his freshman year in college. By that time, his musicianship was strong enough to land him an assignment to the 253rd Army Band, also in San Francisco.

Desmond would spend three years in the Army, but never deployed to combat. He stayed with the band his entire enlistment.

After World War Two, Desmond continued to play music up and down the West Coast, and soon connected with Dave Brubeck – another Army musician (also on this list) whom Desmond had met when Brubeck auditioned for the 253rd.

Brubeck eventually brought Desmond on as a full partner in the Dave Brubeck Quartet – a legendary ensemble that broke new musical ground while fighting Jim Crow laws in the South throughout its history, from 1951 to its disbandment in 1967. 

Paul Desmond left behind a rich legacy of dozens of recordings, mostly with Dave Brubeck, but also with legendary guitarist Jim Hall, pop vocal star Art Garfunkel, Chet Baker, Don Sebesky, Jack Sheedy and under his own leadership with the Paul Desmond Quartet.

After his death of lung cancer in 1977, Desmond directed that all his substantial royalties from the popular Dave Brubeck tune Take Five be donated to the Red Cross.


9. Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie is the legendary folk singer who wrote scores of enduring favorites that have become icons of Americana, including This Land is Your Land, Pastures of Plenty, and Wildwood Flower, and many others. He was a huge influence on a later generation of songwriters that included Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, John Cougar, John Prine, and thousands of others.

Guthrie also frequently appeared with a guitar that had a sign on it reading “This machine kills fascists.” While Guthrie and many other singer songwriters prominent in folk music in the interwar years were frequently associated with left-wing causes, Guthrie, unlike his contemporary Pete Seeger, was apparently never a member of the Communist Party.

When World War Two broke out, Guthrie sought to offer his services to the USO as a musician, and sought a draft exemption on that basis, believing his contribution to the war effort singing anti-fascist songs and songs extolling the nobility of the American common man who would ultimately triumph over the Nazis and Imperial Japanese would be greater than what he could contribute as a private soldier or sailor.

The Selective Service folks didn’t bite, though, and Guthrie joined the Merchant Marine during World War Two. At the time, with the U-Boat War at its height, the Merchant Marine was an immensely hazardous profession. By some accounts, the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered the greatest losses as a percentage of those engaged out of all the services. Guthrie has his detractors – one linked here accuses him of cowardice. But statistically, Guthrie had more of a chance of being killed in the Merchant Marine than as a draftee in the Army, Navy or Marine Corps. However, Guthrie served in the Merchant Marine throughout World War Two, as a messman and cook, and he sang and played his guitar for the enjoyment of his fellow sailors.

During his time in the Merchant Marine, he was on three torpedoed ships.

After the war, Guthrie was discharged from the Merchant Marine because of his association with Communist causes. However, he was still eligible to serve in the uniformed branches, and he was quickly drafted into the Army, where he served an additional two years.

Like many folk musicians of his time, he was closely associated with agrarian and mining labor interests and pro-labor politics. In the 20s, 30s and 40s and to some extent beyond that, that put him in close and regular association with communists and radicals, as this article from the socialist publication Monthly Review documents.


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