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“The March King”


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John Philip Sousa’s passion for music influenced the standards for marching compositions and served to inspire American patriotism

John Philip Sousa marching in front of the Great Lakes Navy Band, between 1915 and 1920 Wikimedia/Creative Commons/Library of Congress/George Grantham Bain collection

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, July 4th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

LINDSAY MAST, HOST: And I’m Lindsay Mast.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The story of the “king of the march.”

John Philip Sousa composed and conducted so much wonderful music throughout his life. But it was one particular march that became a staple for celebrating Independence Day.

WORLD reporter Emma Perley brings us the story.

MUSIC: [The Stars and Stripes Forever]

EMMA PERLEY: Just as fireworks and finger-lickin’ barbeque are popular on Independence Day, so is this especially lively tune. The “Stars and Stripes Forever” is standard Fourth of July fanfare. Trumpets, drums, and clashing cymbals tend to bolster patriotic spirits, and that’s the intention behind the piece, according to composer John Philip Sousa. Voice actor Kim Rasmussen reads a quote from an 1897 interview with Sousa.

SOUSA: I began to think of all the countries I had visited, of the foreign people I had met, of the vast difference between America and American people and other countries and other peoples, and that flag of ours became glorified and to my imagination it seemed to be the biggest, grandest, flag in the world, and I could not get back under it quick enough.

Sousa was born in 1854 in Washington D.C. His father played trombone in the U.S. Marine Corps Band, and growing up Sousa enjoyed listening to the melodies drifting from the nearby barracks. His musical journey began by playing the violin, and he enlisted in the Marine Band aged 13. Sousa wrote this in his autobiography, Marching Along.

SOUSA: From childhood I was passionately fond of music and wanted to be a musician. I have no recollection of any real desire ever to be anything else—strange is the boy who doesn’t love a band! I loved all of them, good and bad alike. So far as I know, there was no question of heredity in my love for music; I simply loved it because it was music.

Sousa played in the Band for seven years and formally studied composition. He then joined a theater ensemble and learned how to conduct from the orchestra pit. At just 19 years-old, he published his first march called The Review. Audio here from the Seacoast Wind Ensemble.

MUSIC: [The Review]

Sousa had the chance to go abroad and study under prominent European music masters. But he instead turned to entertainment and opera music. He traveled around the country conducting and performing in various orchestras.

All the while he composed operettas, waltzes, and marches. Audio here from the Marine Band performing Sousa’s “Our Flirtation,” composed for an 1880 musical comedy.

MUSIC: [Our Flirtation]

Sousa accepted a position as conductor of the Marine Band that same year, beginning a new era of marching compositions. He raised the standards of the band’s performance, tightened rehearsal discipline, and replaced almost all of its music with his own.

Under his leadership, the band became a popular and respected show of military excellence and refinement. And Sousa’s jaunty tunes—found in ballrooms and government ceremonies around the country—soon made him a household name. In his autobiography, Sousa muses on the march.

SOUSA: The march speaks to a fundamental rhythm in the human organization and is answered. With me the thought comes, sometimes slowly, sometimes with ease and rapidity. The idea gathers force in my brain and takes form not only melodically but harmonically at the same time. It must be complete before I commit it to paper.

But it wasn’t simply Sousa’s innovative arrangements and methods that set him up for success. The country was well-primed for music that spurred on flag-waving and pride in America.

The national mood was optimism for the future as America experienced economic growth and flourishing industries. And this idealism went hand in hand with Sousa’s spirited anthems. No sound was more distinctly American than Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Sousa himself was a patriot through and through. Having been in the military service for more than 19 years, Sousa believed that the American flag meant dogged pursuit of freedom. “Hurrah for the flag of the free!” he writes, “May it wave as our standard forever …”

LYRICS: Hurrah for the flag of the free! May it wave as our standard forever. The banner of the right. Let despots remember the day…

The country heralded Sousa as “The March King.” And Sousa’s legacy influenced other bands to standardize methods of performance and perfection.

And nothing is perhaps more appropriate for fairground fireworks than Sousa’s rousing marches.

MUSIC: [The Stars and Stripes Forever]

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Emma Perley.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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