This Day in History
John Philip Sousa

On a day like this in 1898…

It is typical of American culture that the man who composed “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and came to represent American music to much of the world should have been born of a Portuguese father and a Bavarian mother. At the age of thirteen, John Philip Sousa enlisted in the Marine Band, and thereafter the whole of his long life was devoted chiefly to giving musical respectability to band music. He was, indeed to band music what Stephen Foster had been to Negro folk music and Johann Strauss had been to the waltz. As a young man, Sousa played violin in Jacques Offenbach’s orchestra at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. In 1880 he returned to his first love - the Marine Band. As Director, he remade the band in his own image and composed scores of marching tunes for it - including “Semper Fidelis,” the official song of the Marine Corps. A few years later Sousa organized his own band, which rapidly became the most popular in the country, and in other countries as well, for it visited most major European cities.

Altogether Sousa composed over one hundred marching songs (as well as operettas and novels.) Of these, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was deservedly the most popular. He tells us in his autobiography how he came to compose it. Called back to America from Italy, he set sail from England:

On board the steamer, as I walked up and down the deck, back and forth, a mental band was playing the “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Day after day it persisted. I wrote it on Christmas Day, 1896.
When it was played in Philadelphia the next spring, a music critic said prophetically that “it is stirring enough to rouse the American eagle from his crag and set him to shriek exultantly while he hurls his arrows at the aurora borealis.” It was, indeed, and it came just in time to stir the emotions and the passions inflamed by the 1898 war with Spain. One hundred years later, it remains one of the most popular of all American marching songs.

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.