By Jean-Marie Bralley

Its familiar and lively strains fill the air every Fourth of July. It sets our feet tapping as we raise our hands and wave our flags. It is a musical tribute to that same red, white and blue flag rippling above our heads. It is the iconic American march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” composed by the legendary John Philip Sousa, a name synonymous with patriotic American marches.

But how much do you know about this renowned musician and composer? Here are 10 facts to help you expand your knowledge about the man behind the marches.

Editor’s note: Unless otherwise noted, all information and substantive quotations taken from the Marine Corps’ official website.

1. The Marine Corps and music were the family business.

Sousa was born close to the Marine Barracks in Washington on November 6, 1854. Antonio Sousa, his father, was a member of the United States Marine Band.

2. He almost joined the circus as a teenager.

He had training in piano and many other instruments. However, violin was his instrument of choice and he exhibited prodigious skill. A youthful Sousa nearly joined the circus band when he was 13, but luckily, his father stepped in and enrolled his son as an apprentice musician in the Marine Band instead. He was part of the band for seven years, with the exception of six months, until the age of 20.

John Philip Sousa

3. Sousa was employed by traveling theater orchestras.

When he received his discharge from the Marine Corps, Sousa conducted and played violin in Washington. He also toured with multiple theater orchestras. In 1876, he moved to Philadelphia where he was a composer, arranger and proofreader for various publishing houses. He composed the incidental music and the march for the musical “Our Flirtation” and toured with the production.

4. He was a respected and disciplined conductor.

Sousa became the Marine Band’s 17th leader on October 1, 1880, and he undoubtedly left his mark. “Rehearsals became exceptionally strict, and he shaped his musicians into the country’s premier military band … attract(ing) discriminating audiences” and gaining a widespread reputation for excellence.

5. Sousa was head of the Marine Band for two important firsts.

At the end of the 19th century, the Columbia Phonograph Company was seeking to put out a recording with its titular technology (comparatively new on the scene): the phonograph. With Sousa at the helm of the Marine ensemble, Columbia picked the Marine Band, which released its first recordings in 1890. As the decade neared its close, over 400 various works by Sousa could be purchased. This made Sousa’s marches among the first and most popular pieces ever recorded. Moreover, the Marine Band had become one of the world’s first recording stars.

Under the direction of Sousa, the Marine Band also embarked on its first tour. President Benjamin Harrison authorized the performance circuit in 1891, and with that, the tradition of a Marine Band annual tour was begun. It is only during wartime that this tour has been suspended.

6. Sousa composed the official Marine march.

Titled “Semper Fidelis,” Sousa dedicated his 1888 composition to the officers and men of the Marine Corps.

7. A British band journalist is responsible for Sousa’s nickname – the March King.

Sousa’s 1889 work, the “Washington Post” march garnered immense popularity. He had originally written it as a promotion for an essay contest put on by the Washington Post newspaper. The march was even adapted and became associated with a dance: the two-step. The “Washington Post” march’s overwhelming critical and popular acclaim prompted a British journalist to dub Sousa the March King following the model of composer Johann Strauss, Jr., known as the Waltz King.

8. Sousa’s baton has been passed down through generations.

Sousa’s farewell gift upon retirement from his post as Marine Band conductor is passed down to each new leader of the ensemble. Sousa’s musicians gifted him with an engraved baton as a token of their respect and esteem in 1892. His daughters Jane Priscilla Sousa and Helen Sousa Abert gave the baton back to the band in 1953, and it is now presented to each incoming director at change of command ceremonies – a literal passing of the baton.

9. Sousa rejoined the military in his 60s.

According to the Dallas Winds Symphony’s John Philip Sousa website, Sousa joined the Naval Reserve in 1917 during World War I. He was 62 years old. The rank of lieutenant was bestowed on him and his salary was a dollar per month.

10. Sousa received numerous posthumous accolades.

He died on March 6, 1932, in Pennsylvania, and his body lay in state in the Band Hall at Marine Barracks in Washington. In the ensuing decades, this legendary patriot and his music were honored in diverse tributes.

  • December 9, 1939: The Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge spanning the Anacostia River in Washington was dedicated to the memory of the great American composer and musician.
  • 1974: The Marine Band renamed its historic hall at the Barracks, John Philip Sousa Band Hall. It houses a World War II bell from the Liberty ship, the S.S. John Philip Sousa.
  • 1976: Sousa was enshrined in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
  • December 11, 1987: “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is officially made the United States’ national march. A White House memorandum declared it “an integral part of the celebration of American life.”
  • 2004: Colonel Timothy W. Foley, the 26th director of the Marine Band, ushers in the season with a Sousa-style concert to commemorate the year of Sousa’s 150th birthday. These shows are now put on at the opening of each concert season.
  • November 6, 2004: General Michael W. Hagee, 33rd Commandant of the Marine Corps, named the new band hall at Marine Barracks Annex after Sousa in honor of the composer’s 150th birthday.
  • November 5, 2005: General Hagee revealed an 8-foot bronze statue of the “March King” outside the Band Hall. The statue is unique and its creation was sponsored by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, the John Philip Sousa Foundation and Mickey Gordon, a private donor. It was sculpted by artist Terry Jones.

– Jean-Marie Bralley is a professional ballerina with Charlottesville Ballet in Charlottesville, Va. She graduated summa cum laude from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where she wrote her senior thesis on the founding and importance of the USO during WWII.