The Story Behind the Man Who Made Music for the Fourth of July

“The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, July 4, 2018. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Master Sgt. Kristin duBois/released.

Any Fourth of July celebration is incomplete without a march by the “March King,” John Philip Sousa. His work — “The Stars and Stripes Forever” — is usually played on the national holiday, but he was a prolific composer, writing many marches (the audio for each of them can be found here), and a few operettas.

Sousa was a D.C. native, born in 1854 near the 8th and I Street Marine Barracks, where his father, Antonio — a Portuguese-Spanish immigrant — played trombone in the Marine Band. His mother was German. The match may seem surprising today, but the City of Washington in the mid-1800s had a substantial German population. One of the oldest Catholic churches in D.C. was founded by Germans in 1845.

Antonio nurtured his son’s talent by having tutors provide him with a comprehensive musical education, which included composition.

When John Phillip reached age 13, he was tempted to join a circus band, so his father had him enlist in the Marines as an apprentice musician instead. John Phillip left the Marines at age 20 to play in theater orchestras in the Philadelphia area and tour with various musical theater groups.

About six years after he had left the Marines, he was invited back in 1880 — to be the Marine Band leader.

With his background in composition and his ability to play many types of instruments, he reshaped the band and its music. He transcribed popular symphonies and arranged the instrumentation. For example, he transformed the opening music of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Mikado, into a march (listen here).

The first Sousa march I can remember is the Washington Post March, as the newspaper used it as a jingle in a television ad. 

It’s a good thing I remembered the tune, as my husband thought it was the theme for Monty Python’s Flying Circus — not! However, the Pythons did use a Sousa march: “The Liberty Bell” (listen here).

Strangely, this march nearly had a Python-esque name: The Devil’s Deputy (the name of an unfinished Sousa operetta). When Sousa and the operetta’s backer could not settle on finances, Sousa scrapped the old name for The Liberty Bell. Lastly, when the Marine Band from the Barracks plays this march, they use the bell from the World War II Liberty Ship, the S.S. John Philip Sousa.

In 1891, Sousa sought and received permission from President Benjamin Harrison to take the Marine Band on tour for the first time. After the 1892 tour, Sousa asked to be discharged from the Marines, after twelve years leading of the Band. His successes in the 1891 and 1892 tours led him to immediately begin forming his own hand-picked Sousa Band.

John Philip Sousa and his Sousa Band went from strength to strength for the next 39 years, constantly touring the nation to great acclaim. It also made him a wealthy man.

When America entered World War I in 1917, Sousa temporarily suspended his band to join the Naval Reserve and conduct its band at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago. He donated all but one dollar of his Navy pay to Sailors and Marines Relief Fund.

At the war’s end in 1918, he reassembled the Sousa Band. Right up to the end of his life he was a band conductor, dying at age 77 in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he was conducting the Ringgold Band.

His funeral was conducted with full military honors at the Marine Barracks. Sousa was buried at the nearby Congressional Cemetery in the Sousa family plot.

Sousa’s personal monument (which needs refurbishing) can be seen here. If you expand the photo, a bar of music is faintly inscribed at the foot of the monument. It’s from Sousa’s favorite march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Legend has it this bar is commonly known as “Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s mother,” a tune many of us (including me) learned as kids.

To round out your Sousa knowledge, you can hear audio recordings from the Library of Congress, some of which date to the late 1800s.

If you want to do a Sousa-binge over the July 4th week, you can listen to all the marches here. If lighting fireworks are illegal where you live, turn up the volume, and let Sousa provide his brand of fireworks.

Lastly, the Marine Barracks President’s Own Band has a set of YouTube videos; some have background material on their individual marches. Watch and listen to their “Stars and Stripes Forever” video — it’s that good. If you’re curious, the “duck” part starts at 1:59.

In our politically divided nation, I suppose some see Sousa’s work as militaristic and inappropriate for the 21st century. What rubbish! How else would we learn to be kind to our web-footed friends?

The Stars and Stripes Forever — indeed!


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About the Contributor

Joanne Butler

Joanne Butler

Joanne Butler of Wilmington is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional staff member of the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.