No celebration of Flag Week would be complete without a salute to John Philip Sousa. The great man wrote 136 marches, of which The Stars and Stripes Forever is undoubtedly the country’s favorite. In fact, Congress wrote it into law as our National March (U.S. Code, Title 36, Section 304).
The melody for the popular march came to Sousa through unusual circumstances. While he and his wife were on vacation in Europe in late 1896, he received word that the manager of the Sousa Band had died suddenly. The grieving Sousa and his wife immediately set sail for home.
Sousa tells in his own biography Marching Along, how the march came to be:
“Here came one of the most vivid incidents of my career. As the vessel (the Teutonic) steamed out of the harbor I was pacing on the deck, absorbed in thoughts of my manager’s death and the many duties and decisions which awaited me in New York. Suddenly, I began to sense a rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain. Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody. I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore, I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever changed.”
Sousa wrote lyrics to The Stars and Stripes Forever, but I’ve never heard them sung that I can recall. Here is the chorus:
Hurrah for the flag of the free,
May it wave as our standard forever,
The gem of the land and the sea,
The Banner of the Right.
Let despots remember the day
When our fathers with mighty endeavor,
Proclaim’d as they march’d to the fray,
That by their might, And by their right,
It waves forever!
John Philip Sousa was a prolific composer. In addition to his marches, he wrote 15 operettas, 11 suites, 2 descriptive pieces, 70 songs, 7 other vocal works, 4 overtures, 2 concert pieces, 4 instrumental solos, 12 trumpet and drum pieces, and worked on the arrangements and transcriptions for 322 other works.
When he wasn’t thinking about music, Sousa wrote novels and poetry, in addition to his autobiography. Marching Along is no longer in print, but I found copies available on eBay and Amazon.
On a personal note, let me say that as a former flautist, and occasional piccolo player, no one ever honored these instruments as much as John Philip Sousa, and I always loved playing his marches.