As a member of the nation’s segregated Army, Duckworth was marching with his fellow black soldiers during a cold day at Fort Slocum, N.Y.
According to Duckworth’s oldest daughter, Connie Duckworth Pinkston, her father was ordered to drill his fellow troops by his white commanding officer, who believed the soldiers needed more pep in their steps.
What resulted was the Duckworth “Sound Off” chant or cadence.
The young private created a rhythmic chant that helped his fellow soldiers keep time, provided motivation and boosted their morale, said Pinkston, one of five Duckworth children. Pinkston lives in Sandersville, where her late father is a household name in the rural community of about 6,000 residents 65 miles southwest of Augusta.
“My father was a humble man,” said Pinkston, a 911 emergency dispatcher for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. “He never talked much about his accomplishments, but we knew enough about it when we’re growing up.”
In the Oct. 28, 1951, edition of The New York Times, the headline reads “Tired GI’s chant becomes song hit.” The story’s dateline is New Rochelle, N.Y., where writer John Stevens refers to 200 weary-legged soldiers dragging home after a 13-mile walk. An excerpt from the news article says:
“Today the staccato wail of ex-Private Duckworth’s ‘Sound Off’ resounds from radio and TV loudspeakers, from the brass sections of college football bands and from jukeboxes throughout the land. Squads of marching youngsters shout or bark it in the streets - one - two - three - four.”
The popularity of “Sound Off” among the GIs was noticed at the Pentagon, and before VJ Day, copies had been distributed by the War Department to U.S. military posts around the world.
Duckworth’s composition has been recognized by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers since 1951, according to ASCAP’s Repertory department in New York City.
During a 2002 newspaper interview with The Macon Telegraph, Duckworth said the cadence “made me famous for a while. And, it put some money in my pocket.”
Duckworth was a sharecropper’s son and worked in a sawmill before being drafted into World War II. After leaving the Army, he used royalty checks from “Sound Off” to help purchase equipment to start his own pulpwood business, which he ran until his death in 2004, at age 80.
John “General” Mills, a former professional boxer and Sandersville native, is credited with instigating a movement to recognize Duckworth.
“I heard about Willie Lee’s accolades, but I didn’t see anything in the town that gave him any credit. Heck, I figured if Harlem (Ga.) could give comedian Oliver Hardy a museum and Macon could name a bridge for Otis Redding, then we needed to step up and give our guy some attention, too,” said Mills, who lived most of his adult life on Long Island, N.Y., until returning to Georgia after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Mills-led committee, along with community activist Rosby Gordon and state, city and community cooperation, was able to successfully honor Duckworth with the renaming of a section of Georgia Highway 242 to Willie Lee Duckworth Highway.
The committee raised enough money to honor Duckworth with a granite marker that is placed on the Washington County courthouse grounds.
Georgia Rep. Mack Jackson, D-Sandersville, presented Duckworth’s wife, Edna Duckworth, with a legislative resolution honoring her late husband. The document was signed by members of the Georgia House of Representatives. She died in April.
Layne Kitchens, the president of the Washington County Historical Society in the county seat of Sandersville, said, “We are very proud that Mr. Duckworth is from Washington County and of his accomplishments that put us on the world map.”
Pinkston said her father was always a creative soul.
“Our dad was a jokester,” she said. “He would tell us short, funny stories. He was the type of person everyone liked to be around. ‘Sound Off’ was his independence. After leaving the Army, he bought a tractor, wood truck, saws and developed his own pulpwood company. He treated his employees well, and to this day they still love him.”
Pinkston and Mills credit Col. Bernard Lentz, the superior officer at Fort Slocum who recognized that Duckworth’s creation warranted copyright protection. Lentz saw to it that Duckworth’s work was legally protected by ASCAP.
The song appeared in a 1949 film called “Battleground” and the 1951 movie “Sound Off,” starring Mickey Rooney. The title song was recorded and sung by RCA Victor vocalist and bandleader Vaughn Moore, a film and TV actor in the 1940s and 1950s.
Adrian King, a Georgia music educator and Army veteran, said he recalls marching to the Duckworth chant while stationed at Fort Jackson, S.C.
“We recited the cadence primarily during boot camp. It was motivational and also served to bond our unit,” said King, adding that he never realized the composer was a native Georgian.
The chant has since been used in several TV commercials, including for Dick’s Sporting Goods, according to Mills. The Jody phrase appears in recordings by R&B singers Titus Turner, Johnnie Taylor and on TV’s “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Mills says it’s vital that young soldiers realize the true origins of “Sound Off.”
“Amazingly, you’ve got drill sergeants all over the nation thinking that the ‘Sound Off’ cadence was created by some hot-shot soldier at West Point,” Mills said, “when it was really written by a young, black private from a small, country town in Georgia. It’s a phenomenal accomplishment.”
The actual cadence rendition reads:
“Ain’t no use in goin’ home
Jody’s got your gal and gone
Ain’t no use in feelin’ blue
Jody’s got your sister too