The song is based on the "Caisson Song" written by field artilleryFirst Lieutenant (later Brigadier General) Edmund L. Gruber, Lieutenant William Bryden, and Lieutenant (later Major General) Robert Danford while stationed at Fort Stotsenburg in the Philippines in March 1908. The tune quickly became popular in field artillery units. In 1917 the Secretary of the Navy and army Lieutenant George Friedlander of the 306th Field Artillery asked John Philip Sousa to create a march using the "Caisson Song." Sousa changed the key, harmony, and rhythm and renamed it "U.S. Field Artillery." Sousa didn't know who had written the song and had been told that it dated back to the Civil War. Although an army magazine claims that Sousa passed on his royalties to Gruber, other sources state that Gruber became involved in a prolonged legal battle to recover the rights to music he had written and that had been lifted (unknowingly or not) by Sousa and widely sold by sheet music publishers who reaped profits while Gruber received nothing. The music became so popular that it was also used in radio ads by firms such as the Hoover Vacuum Company. Gruber lost his battle in the courts. They ruled that he had waited too long to complain and that his music was by that time in the public domain.
"The Caisson Song" was never designated as the official U.S. Army song likely because the lyrics were too closely identified with the field artillery and not the entire army. The official song retains Gruber's music, but with re-written lyrics.
The archaic phrase in the first line -- normal American English would have "over hills" and "into valleys" -- is Shakespearean, from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene 1: "Over hill, over dale / Thorough bush, thorough briar / Over park, over pale / Thorough flood, thorough fire". The author then must rhyme it with "hit the dusty trail", which would suggest cavalry more than artillery.
U.S. Field Artillery (1918)
(Music by Gruber, arranged by Sousa, copyright and published by Carl Fischer)
The tune was used in 44 movies or television series from 1934 to 2011.
Robert A. Heinlein used the 1908 Caisson Song as the basis for "The Road Song of the Transport Cadets," the official song of the fictional United States Academy of Transport in his 1940 short story "The Roads Must Roll". However, characters in the story refer to the origin as both "Song of the Caissons" and the "field artillery song.".
Hasbro used the tune for its G.I. Joe toyline during the 1960s with the words "G.I. Joe...G.I. Joe...fighting man from head to toe...on the land...on the sea...in the air."
It was again used by the toy company for their Army Ant toys in the 80s.
In 1962, the song was parodied in The Jetsons Season 1, Episode 6, "The Good Little Scouts." It was the marching song of Elroy Jetson's space troop.