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Military Finds That Patriotic Songwriting Is at a Fever Pitch

<i> Steve Padilla is a Times staff writer. </i>

Francis Scott Key it was not.

Barely audible over a screaming electric guitar and a thundering bass, the lead singer of a heavy metal band belted out the group’s salute to the men and women of Desert Storm.

There was no rocket’s glare, nor a bomb bursting in air:

It’s the power and glory , it’s the freedom story.

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Freedom story? The guitars and drums smothered the remaining lyrics, although an occasional glory and power squeezed through.

Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Williams was not encouraged.

“You can’t understand the words,” he said.

Williams is a veteran broadcaster with the Sun Valley-based Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, which beams news and entertainment programs to 1.5 million servicemen and women in 57 countries. Geographically speaking, it is the largest broadcast network in the world.

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Since September, AFRTS has been inundated with thousands of original patriotic songs, often written by amateurs with nothing more than a guitar and spirit. Others submitted recitations. One man sent in a box of original taped dramas, many of them westerns with titles such as “Wagon Master” and “King Red Hawk.”

Even as victory neared this week, the flood of tapes continued.

Williams has made it his personal mission to compile a fraction of them for a program called The Desert Mailbag. Boxes of tapes cluttered his office, most of which won’t make the final cut.

“I don’t really think I can fit that in,” he said, snapping off the heavy metal salute to the freedom story.

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It was the night after President Bush declared victory over Iraq. Williams and Army 1st Sgt. Michael Meadows rushed to prepare the latest edition of The Desert Mailbag as a janitor vacuumed empty offices nearby.

Williams had served as producer, director, engineer and disc jockey for the first two installments, working on his own time, hustling from control booth to microphone and back. On this rainy night of victory, Meadows joined him as engineer.

“Ready?” Williams asked.

“We’re rolling,” Meadows replied in his smooth announcer’s baritone.

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“To start us off we call on Pam Kirby and Haven,” Williams said. He did not actually play Kirby’s song, “Proud Soldiers,” which would be spliced in later.

Earlier Williams had played the song for a visitor. Kirby’s Cindi Lauper-like voice was backed by pulsing synthesizers: Godspeed them, speed them, speed our soldiers home ...

In a letter, Kirby explained that she wrote the song after seeing the battered face of an American POW, Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun, broadcast by Iraqi TV. The image haunted her.

Darla Ghyers penned “The Flag, Keep It Safe for Me” after watching footage of a flag-burning overseas:

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I was watching news on TV

There was a sight hard to believe

It filled my eyes with teardrops

I thought this just cannot be.

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Kirby and Ghyers, and the thousands like them, are carrying on a long tradition. For hundreds of years American composers have answered a call to arms with quarter notes and eight-bar phrases. But the quality trend may not be encouraging.

The War of 1812 gave the nation “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Civil War produced the majestic “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the rousing “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” From Vicksburg to Appomattox, Union soldiers heartily sang:

The Union forever, Hurrah, boys, hurrah!

Down with the traitor, up with the star.

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The tune was so catchy that Confederates altered the lyrics to reflect politically correct thought in Richmond:

Our Dixie forever, she’s never at a loss ,

Down with the eagle, up with the cross.

Tin Pan Alley composers set a lighter tone in World War I with “Oh How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning” and “We’re Gonna Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line.”

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Broadway showman George M. Cohan wrote “Over There” in a one-day fit of inspiration after reading newspaper reports of America’s entry into the war. President Wilson called Cohan’s song “a genuine inspiration to all American manhood.” Even Enrico Caruso recorded it.

By World War II, Americans were humming “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” taken from the words of a chaplain during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.”

Vietnam, a defeat even in musical terms, gave us the lugubrious “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”

Has the war song steadily declined? As in most matters of war, history will judge.

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The songs arriving at AFRTS often mix flag-waving fervor with pop melodies. John Philip Sousa meets MTV.

Williams, who can listen to only a handful of the submissions, said he prefers “patriotic-sentimental” songs. And although he rejects those that attack Arabs or Saddam Hussein personally, he accepts “admonishments” to the Iraqi leader. Two Canadian college students prophetically warned:

Buddy, when you fool with the U.S.A., you’re fooling with the wrong crews.

So damned Hussein, you’re going to be totally through.

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Williams didn’t even bother listening to one with an obscene pun, because “there’s no way you could say the title on the air.”

But even amateurish songs are encouraging in their own way, the sergeants say. In contrast to the way soldiers often felt during the Vietnam War, the troops of Desert Storm have had an outpouring of evidence that the public loves and supports them. “It’s all from the heart,” Meadows said.

Still, some songs will never hit the airwaves. Williams pulled a tape from a recently arrived envelope: “The Road Home Is Through Baghdad.”

“Hah!” Williams laughed. He put the tape back.

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