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Banding Together: Protecting Humanity in War

National Music Museum


Lynn       I took it apart because I was curious about what the pickups were built like because they looked handmade


VO           This is Lynn Wheelwright, describing an electric guitar that he has donated to the National Music Museum in Vermillion, which is now on display in the exhibition, Banding Together: The American Soldiers’ Musical Arsenal.


Lynn       And there was a paper inside with the maker’s name, and I think it was… in Saigon in ’65… and the pickups, I thought, were highly unusual because they were all hand built, and the magnets that were used to energize the coils looked like they were chunks of generator magnets out of a vehicle. Don’t know how it got over here, must have come over with a GI


VO           Lynn, who went to boot camp at 17 and served on a 300-foot ship, had a guitar and an amp built for himself in the Philippines. He and a friend found a shop that quickly made copies of American instruments for soldiers on leave. These were of lesser quality:


Roger Kehm behind his kit at the National Music Museum in Vermillion

  Lynn       I think, actually, the song we were trying to play when the amp blew up was “Roundabout.”


VO           The instruments were sent overboard. The amp sank into the depths. The ship trekked on, leaving the guitars floating in its wake, electric guitars jettisoned in the south Asian seas, an image that captures the time quite poetically.



Patricia   By World War I, definitely there are harmonicas, but by that time you’ve got brass instruments.


VO           Patricia Bornhofen, manager of communications at the National Music Museum. One of the stories the exhibition tells is of the changing instruments of war, not only the development of new instruments, but the crafting of old instruments using new materials.


Patricia   But by this time, too, there’s more of the government issued instrument -


VO           During World War I, the English were issued ocarinas, a simple chamber flute instrument that looks a bit like a zeppelin with a single appendage. In the trenches, these ancient little instruments were a rare bit of warmth and humanity. American soldiers began to pick them up. Those lucky enough to come home, brought back the ocarina, and the United States government issued Bakelite ocarinas during World War II. They were the first American soldiers brought together by music made with plastic.


Patricia   We’re focusing on how musical instruments keep a soldier sane, keep a soldier grounded, allow a soldier to be, still, an individual within this big collective, anonymous, extreme situation, and how these instruments help the soldier, on the opposite side of things, bond with other people and maintain that collective sense of humanity, and then defend a whole community, you know, a sense of community.


Roger     I was drafted in 1943.


VO           Roger Kehm


Roger     I had a HAM radio license in high school, and if you know anything about the service, if you have radio experience, they send you to cook and baker school…


VO           Roger, atypically, was selected by the Coast Guard to work in his field or expertise. He was stationed in the South Pacific at a LORAN radio station – a secret navigational system.


Roger     It was secret at the time. You couldn’t even say the name.


VO           While stationed, one field Roger couldn’t pursue was music. As a high school student, he had been a professional drummer - his Slingerland kit is on display in the Banding Together exhibition.


Roger     The LORAN stations were essentially, oh, twenty- five/twenty-seven people and isolated duty, and we had no music except V-Discs.


VO           Victory Discs. A project begun in 1941 brought recorded music to the troops. Artists such as Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Big Bill Broonzy, Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys, and…


Patricia   In this case, music and musical instruments help defend the self. And by self, that’s not just the body, that’s the psychological well-being, neurological fitness, social happiness…


Lynn       I just remember sitting around on deck and playing guitar with four or five other guys. We’d do it whenever we could, and sometimes there would be two of us. Hardly anybody ever played alone out on deck. You’d play alone where you slept, but we’d try to get as many guys together as we could on deck and have a good time.


Patricia   And in the end, you know the other factor about music instruments, on the most basic level, they allow the human begin to play, as opposed to work, as opposed to fight. People have talked throughout time about that ludic capacity of music, that playful capacity, that lets you divert, that lets you re-create, recreate, yourself, and do something other than what your obliged to do.


VO           A fiddle on display at the National Music Museum belonged to a soldier in the Civil War. On it, he carved into its body a schedule, a reminder of whom he would play for, and, for us, whom he did play for. There is also, in his hand, a heart and his wife’s name.


The exhibit, which is open through Labor Day, uses the instruments of humanity used at war to reveal the changing times, the fragility of our being, and the need, whether on an open battlefield, in a trench, on a ship, secreted away on a remote island, we have to be a part of something good, which is found especially in music.


For FM90, I’m Mark Munger





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