Perhaps nothing expresses patriotism more than a parade—an Independence Day parade to be more specific. Old Glory and its honor guard lead the parade with the stars and stripes fluttering in the breeze. Following the flag is a band most likely playing The Stars and Stripes Forever.
The Stars and Stripes Forever is not only one of the most recognizable marches of all time but is the official march of the United States and one of the most popular marches by John Philip Sousa. I challenge anyone to listen to it and not feel a lump in the throat, a tear in the eye, or goose bumps on the arms. As popular as this tune is, it is only one of over 300 musical works composed by Sousa and only a third of those works were marches. It was composed during a voyage home after a tour of Europe and was reported in his obituary as one of his favorites. It was also the last piece he conducted the day before his death.
Other popular pieces composed by Sousa include Semper Fidelis (the Marine Corps march), The High School Cadets, King Cotton, El Capitan, Liberty Bell, Manhattan Beach, The Thunderer , Washington Post and many others.
Sousa was a man of many talents and was very prolific. In addition to his famous marches he also composed operettas; ten operas; a number of suites; The Last Crusade for orchestra, choir and organ, considered his major work; wrote three novels; a full-length autobiography; and was an avid trapshooter. He is known as the father of organized trapshooting in America.
A timeline of Sousa’s Life
John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, D.C. Nov. 6, 1854, the third of 10 children. He is a true product of the American melting pot, a child of immigrant parents. His father was born in Spain of Portuguese parents and his mother was born in Bavaria.
He began his musical studies at the age of 6 studying voice, violin, piano, flute, cornet, baritone, trombone and alto horn. It is said he had perfect pitch. When he was 13 his father enlisted him in the Marines as a musical apprentice to keep him from running away to join a circus band. (His father played trombone in the U.S. Marine band at the time.) In 1875 he was discharged from the Marines and began performing the violin with a touring company. He eventually took over as a conductor and conducted Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore on Broadway.
In 1880 he returned to Washington to be the leader of the U.S. Marine Band. He conducted The President’s own band serving under presidents Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Arthur and Harrison. In 1892 he resigned from the Marine band and formed the Sousa Band. In 1900 Sousa’s Band represented the United States as the official band to the Paris Exposition.
Between 1900 and 1905 The Sousa Band made three successful European tours. In 1910 the band took a World Tour which included New York, Great Britain, Canary Islands, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji Islands, Hawaii, and Canada. In 1917, during World War I, Sousa joined the U.S. Naval Reserve at age 62. He was a lieutenant and was paid a salary of $1 per month.
After the war, between 1919 and 1932 Sousa continued to tour with his band. He championed the cause of music education, received several honorary degrees and fought for composers’ rights, testifying before Congress in 1927 and 1928.
Souse died March 6, 1932 in Reading, Pa. at the age of 77. According to his obituary he died of “an attack of heart disease.” He was in Reading to conduct the local Ringgold Band in its 80th anniversary concert as its guest conductor.
John Philip Sousa’s obituary
Also included in his obituary, as reported by the New York Times in an attempt to explain his musical career and patriotic enthusiasm, it said:
Mr. Sousa was born in Washington in 1854. The fact that his father was a musician and a member of the Marine Band which his son was later to lead, combined with the marital spirit of Civil War days of his youth in Washington, served to give his talent the bent which made him the “march king” to all the world for a quarter of a century.
Regarding Sousa’s service record the New York Times reported:
One thing on which Mr. Sousa prided himself was his service record, it being his boast that he had seen service with the army, the navy and the Marine Corps. The latter was represented by his service at the head of the White House Band. During the Spanish- American War he served as musical director for the Sixth Army Corps. In the World War he organized bands at the Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Ill.
Sousa’s worldwide influence
Sousa’s influence even reached Broadway thirty years after his death. Meredith Wilson’s hit musical The Music Man had its roots in Wilson’s years playing flute and piccolo in Sousa’s band. Wilson’s band experience and small town Iowa roots inspired him to write the Broadway and motion picture hit The Music Man starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones.
John Philip Sousa was the beloved March King of the U.S. and performed before over a million people. His influence was felt by many around the world and he was, perhaps, the best ambassador for America and its ideals during the early years of the twentieth century. During this Independence Day celebration you will hear several of Sousa’s compositions and I bet you, you can’t listen to them without tapping your toes and feeling an emotional stir in your soul. Hurrah for the flag of the free!
For an interesting read and to learn more about Sousa’s life click on the link below for The New York Times obituary from 1932.