Skip to main content


A Nation on the March

By Michael Gill | HUMANITIES, November/December 1997 | Volume 18, Number 6

He began his musical studies as a violinist at the age of seven. He tried to run away as a circus musician when he was thirteen, and his father enlisted him the marines. He took leadership of the U.S. Marine Band when he was twenty-six; after a successful career there he left to form his own band. He would become the most famous bandleader the world has ever known -- John Philip Sousa.

Certainly, no composer is more thoroughly woven through the American experience. Memorial day concerts, homecoming parades, and Fourth of July celebrations all march along on the jaunty strains of Sousa. In 1988 his "Stars and Stripes Forever" became the official march of the United States.

A part of this legacy is being recatalogued and microfilmed at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. The collection, which dates back to Sousa's death in 1932, comprises nearly ten thousand pounds of musical scores, manuscripts, reviews, photographs, and letters.

Materials in the collection provide critical details on performances and musical treatments. Sousa's programs were designed to entertain with lively and accessible works by composers like Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Victor Herbert. He believed that a concert band's role was more to entertain than to teach, and that composers and bandleaders should trust the preferences of the people. Sousa generally performed his own works as encores, and such was their popularity, he would draw an audience even when none of his works was listed in the program.

The Topeka Daily Capital noted in 1902, "All the way through a Sousa program you can see the old flag waving, hear the clothes flapping on the line in the back yard, and smell the pork and beans cooking in the kitchen." His music was of and for the people.

The University of Illinois collection is one of three major Sousa repositories. The others are The Library of Congress and the U.S Marine Band Archives. The Illinois collection includes related material from the estate of Sousa's cornet soloist, Herbert L. Clarke.

As archivist Phyllis W. Danner tells the story: "Sousa didn't attend the university or live here, but in 1906, while the Sousa band was in Champaign for a performance, he met a young man named Albert Austin Harding at a reception. Sousa was near the age that Harding's father would have been if he were alive, and a mentoring relationship developed between the two."

Danner continues: "Harding became director of bands at Illinois and a prominent member of the university faculty. The friendship between the two lasted until Sousa's death nearly three decades later." Sousa had intended that the materials from his band library be placed in Harding's care at Illinois, but he never said so in his will. After Sousa's death in 1932, Harding wrote letters to the Sousa family and their attorneys, and just a few months later, it was agreed that the collection would be moved from warehouses in New York City to the university. It was Harding's assistant, Ray Dvorak, who made the trip to New York, sorted through the materials, and oversaw the packing and shipping of 39 trunks and two boxes containing 9,700 pounds of music and other materials. The preservation project, which is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, will serve the dual purpose of improving access to documents and slowing the process of embrittlement which endangers the entire collection.

One might find irony in the fact that public funds are being used to preserve his legacy. Sousa's faith in popular taste as a guiding artistic force was true in his attitude toward a free market as well. He wrote emphatic newspaper and magazine editorials against federal subsidy for the arts. In his autobiography, he comments "If a musician . . . has anything in him, he will dig it out of himself, if the State will only let him starve long enough."

Of course Sousa was never in danger of starvation, Danner points out. "Because his band was so popular and paid for itself through ticket sales, and since Sousa was more than able to survive without endowments or grants, he thought everyone else should, too."

Few bands before or since could claim a comparable level of popularity. Danner offers a financial and historical context: "At the turn of the century you could buy a good cigar or ride the trolley for a nickel. In 1897, after the wild success of his light opera El Capitan, he was offered $100,000 for exclusive rights to his next operetta -- The Bride Elect. He also turned down $10,000 for publication of "The Bride Elect March" by the New York Journal.

"Refusing those advances was a mistake, as the work didn't get the acclaim that El Capitan did, but the prices testify to the public's appetite for his work."

Sousa's band toured most of the English speaking world in 1910 and 1911, his music representing America abroad in the same way that Strauss waltzes represent Austria. Europe began to call the popular "two-step," dance the "Washington Post," after Sousa's famous march. The enormous popularity of his works, realized by the superb musicianship in his band, became a telegram to the world spreading news of a new national pride, as well as a growing center of culture.

Attempting to define such a significant force in American culture with a single term would be a risky proposition. Composer, conductor, author, businessman, cultural statesman: Any of these titles bears truth but only on one side of the man. Experience with managers and promoters made him an authority on copyright law, as well as a savvy tour planner. Sousa's range of skills and manners served each other so that the entire product--his persona, his music, his musicians, his uniform, the promotional efforts, and the resultant crowds -- was as harmonious as the music itself.

"Sousa was much more than an entertainer," says Danner. "His commentary was sought on social and political issues. His creative output was enormous, including not only the marches and other music, but also novels. The Fifth String is about a man who sells his soul to the devil to obtain a violin that will attract the love of a beautiful woman. His books are full of references to history and mythology. "

Another of Sousa's novels, Pipetown Sandy, is a romanticized tale in the popular vernacular of the day, telling of his childhood in Washington DC. One of ten children, John Philip Sousa was born in a small, two-story frame house at 636 G Street Southeast. A few months later, the family moved a few blocks away to another house in what at the time was called the Pipetown District. The novel sings the praises of hunting, fishing, and a carefree child's life in an idyllic America. When Sousa was seven years old, the Civil War broke out. Washington became an armed camp, and military bands crisscrossed the city with marches. The novel, as might be expected of a Sousa project, became a best seller.

Throughout his life it is easy to find situations in which Sousa's ability to give the people what they want would open doors or assuage crowds and critics. His autobiography, Marching Along, tells of a tour of the Southern U.S. during which he was not well received because the people looked at him as a yankee band leader. Then it occurred to him to perform "Dixie" as an encore, which inspired the crowd to wild applause. He performed the southern anthem on every concert date south of the Mason Dixon line after that, and was always greeted with enthusiasm.

His arrangement of church hymns, "Songs of Grace and Glory," served a similar purpose. Shortly after leaving the Marines and starting his own band in 1892, Sousa realized that Sunday afternoon concerts would draw crowds and make money. Fearing criticism from the church, he arranged the collection of hymns and played it as the first number on every Sunday program. The small concession assuaged any critics and ensured an enthusiastic audience for the other music he would perform.

That particular brand of Sousa's market acumen could just as easily be called diplomacy. While still leading the Marine band, he compiled National, Patriotic, and Typical Airs of All Lands as a handy reference so that traveling military bands could pay homage to their host country and perhaps be more welcome there.

The collection at Illinois contains materials from throughout Sousa's career, including early editions of Tchaikovsky scores which Sousa purchased in Russia, early editions of Respighi tone poems which were given their first American performance by the Sousa band, holograph manuscripts of works composed for President Garfield and President Arthur, and many other manuscripts and rare photos.

"At this point," says Danner, "the collection means more to scholars than to marching-band students. We're making archival negatives and use copies of all manuscripts and photos. All of these will be available to researchers in a binder. The music itself will be made into microfilm, then rehoused. So far the collection has supported seven dissertations. There has been lots of interest from Japanese scholars, one of which referred to Sousa's biographer Paul Bierly as `the pathfinder of Sousa.' The scholars using the collection have been interested in arrangements, musical scores, and performance practices. I'm trying to encourage interest by vocalists in Sousa's songs. There has been very little use of the collection by vocalists probably because people don't know there is vocal music.

"We recently presented a recital of Sousa songs here at the university, and the audience was thrilled. The songs are charming. One called "2:15" tells the story of a young suitor's attempts to win consent to marry his bride-to-be. The first time he approaches her father, the young man says he is earning $2.15 per week. That is not enough for her father. So he goes to school and gets a better job and, earning $2.17 per day, he asks again. That's still not good enough for the bride's father, so he goes back to work, eventually landing a wage of $2.15 an hour. That's still not good enough, and so the couple elopes on the 2:15 train. The songs are very witty. Another song called "Smick, Smack, Smuck" is about man involved in a kissing contest."

Sousa's songs and other lesser known works will eventually gain wider exposure as result of the project. The public component of the project is an internet website that will eventually make much of the collection available worldwide.

"Our website currently offers a photo of Sousa with a narrative of the history and tradition of the Sousa Collection at the University," says Danner. "There are links to related websites. Eventually we'll offer 120 photographs -- many unique snapshots and candids, including rare photos of Sousa out of uniform. The finding aid -- a function that enables people to determine the availability of particular scores -- will also be available. Eventually we will even have an NEH news page -- a button people can click on to check progress on the project."

About the Author

 Michael Gill is a freelance writer living in Lakewood, Ohio.

Funding Information

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received $162,710 from the National Endowment for the Humanities for its Sousa Archives for Band Research Preservation Project (SABREPP).

To reach the University of Illinois Sousa Archives for Band Research on the internet, go to