John Philip Sousa

• Composers and Lyricists

John Philip Sousa (18541932)

Some music makes people want to stomp their feet, some music makes them want to dance-and some makes them want to march. John Philip Sousa once said a march "should make a man with a wooden leg step out." The March King certainly knew what he was talking about. For well over 100 years, the United States and much of the world have been marching in step to the band music of Sousa.

John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, D.C., in 1854. He was the third of ten children. His father, who was Portuguese by birth, played trombone in "The President's Own" United States Marine Band. His mother was Bavarian. By the age of six, he could play an assortment of instruments, brass, woodwind and strings, and soon began to organize his friends into bands. At the age of 11, he was leading his own "Quadrille Orchestra"-the other seven members were all grown men. In 1867, when the boy tried to run off and join the circus, his father enlisted him as an apprentice in the U.S. Marine Corps. Sousa loved the military life but left after his apprenticeship to join a theatrical band. He soon took charge of it, began to conduct, and in 1880 he returned to the marines to lead "The President's Own" United States Marine Band.

For the next 12 years, Sousa led, conducted, and composed for the band. Under his baton, it became one of the most popular musical entertainments in the U.S. The band toured, played on ceremonial occasions, and entertained presidents and the public alike. In 1892, frustrated by the limited performing possibilities of a military band, he left to start a civilian concert band. Over the next 40 years, the Sousa Band became one of the great national institutions, touring the world many times over, and constantly adding to its repertoire. The only interruption came when Sousa did his patriotic duty by enlisting in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1917, on a salary of $1 per month. He died in 1932 amid national mourning.

Sousa wrote over 100 marches, among them "Semper Fidelis," "The Liberty Bell," "The Stars and Stripes Forever," "El Capitán," and "Daughters of Texas." He also wrote many suites for orchestra, and ten operettas. He was devoted to Gilbert and Sullivan and met his wife, singer Jane van Middlesworth Bellis, during rehearsals for a Broadway production of HMS Pinafore in 1879. He also wrote three novels and an autobiography, and was an expert trapshooter and horseman.

Sousa had very decided views on music and the music industry. He disliked jazz, and said, "Jazz will endure just as long people hear it through their feet instead of their brains"-but he shocked audiences by including ragtime in his concert selections. He refused to perform on radio until 1929 because he felt it lacked true contact with the audience. In fact, he regarded the emerging recording industry as a gang of pirates, and in 1906 stated in a submission to a congressional hearing: "These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy. in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape." Sousa's marches are among the most widely recorded music in the world.