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5 5MAHMP: March on with John Philip Sousa and The Stars and Stripes Forever

5 5MAHMP: March on with John Philip Sousa and The Stars and Stripes Forever

This is Dr. Susan Rempel. Welcome to another edition of 5 Minutes of American History for the Modern Patriot

What is a national symbol? How does it come to pass that something becomes a national symbol? What is our national march? How did the song receive it’s designation? What can we learn about the amazing life of its composer, John Philip Sousa?

A national symbol is somewhat different from a patriotic symbol because it has been officially designated as such after legislation has been passed by the Congress and signed by the President. The history behind the movement and passage of each of our national symbols is rich with interesting details and stories. The patriotic symbols that are frequently associated with our country, such as the Liberty Bell or the Statue of Liberty, have interesting stories associated with them as well.

After the President signs the legislation which designates something as a national symbol, that designation is incorporated into the US Code. What is the US Code?

It is an organization of the general and permanent laws of the United States into groups based upon subject matter. There are currently 54 chapter headings, or titles, and 5 appendices of the code.

Title 36 of the US Code is specifically devoted to “Patriotic and National Observances, Ceremonies and Organizations.” Specifically, Title 36, Subtitle 1, Part 1, Chapter 3 of the US Code includes the sections which designate our national anthem, motto, floral emblem, march, and tree. In this episode, we will focus on our national march. Section 304 of Title 36, Chapter 3, of the US Code states: “The composition by John Philip Sousa entitled The Stars and Stripes Forever is the national march.” Before we learn about the song itself, let’s focus on one of America’s most famous composers: John Philip Sousa.

John Philip Sousa was born on November 6th, 1854. He grew up in Washington, D.C. where his father played trombone for the U.S. Marine Band. Sousa dreamed of playing in a circus band. That idea did not go over well with his parents. His father enlisted him in the Marines, at the ripe old age of 13, and Sousa became an apprentice musician with the Marine Band. Sousa began writing his own music, and published his first composition, Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes  when, he was only 18 years of age.

In 1875, he was discharged from the Marines. He began performing as a first violinist,  but quickly moved on to conducting. It was during rehearsals for an on Broadway production of the H.M.S. Pinafore  that he met his future wife Jan van Middlesworth Bellis. They eventually married on December 30, 1879 and had three children.

Sousa returned to the Marine Band in 1880 as its leader and remained in that role until 1892. He and his band entertained many Presidents and their families. He took great care to know the preferences of those for whom he performed. During that time, he composed many of his best known pieces, including Semper Fidelis.

the United States Marine Band, which Sousa led, has an interesting background in and of itself. It is also known as “The President’s Own” band. It was founded in 1789 by an Act of Congress and charged with the purpose of providing music for the President and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Sousa was the Band’s 17th Director, and he is credited with raising its performance level to that of a world class band. The Band currently performs an average of 200 times each year.

In 1892, Sousa was convinced by David Blakely to resign from the Marines, and form his own band. It was to be the first of two life changing inspirations that Blakely would provide for Sousa.

Sousa’s own band first performed on September 26, 1892 at the Stillman Music Hall in Plainfield, New Jersey. The band he constructed and conducted, toured for 40 years. During that time a multitude of well-known musicians could be found amongst its ranks.

It represented the United States at the 1900 Paris Exposition and went on to be the first American based musical organization in more than a quarter century to tour the European continent.

After World War I, Sousa generously worked with high schools, and other youth groups, to promote the development of marching bands. He contributed a portion of the proceeds from his semi-annual tour toward the furtherance of music education.

Although he is known as “The March King,” Sousa was a prolific composer of other types of music as well. His works includes 15 Operettas, 70 songs, 11 waltzes, 11 suites, 13 dances, 5 overtures, 7 other vocal works, 2 concert pieces, 4 instrumental solos, 12 trumpet and drum pieces, 322 arrangements and transcriptions, and of course, 135 marches.

Now, let’s move on to the fascinating story behind the composition of perhaps Sousa’s most famous piece of music: The Stars and Stripes Forever.

This would be David Blakely’s second life changing inspiration for Sousa. He wrote in his biography that he composed “The Stars and Stripes Forever” on Christmas Day in 1896. The tune for the song came to him while he was a passenger on the S.S. Teutonic. He was returning home from Europe upon learning of Blakely’s death.

In Sousa’s own words from his autobiography, “Here came one of the most vivid incidents of my career.  As the vessel 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.”

The song which played in Sousa’s head was first performed on May 14, 1897 by his band in Willow Grove Park, Pennsylvania before President McKinley  at an unveiling ceremony of a statue of George Washington. His band continued to play the song at most every performance over the course of the next 25 years.

Sousa even wrote lyrics for the song.  I won’t include the lyrics in this brief podcast, but you can hear them in the complete version of this podcast or read them on my website.

How did it come to pass that The Stars and Stripes Forever became our national march? It was quite a lengthy process Although I had understood legislation proposing that the song be designated as our national march was first raised in 1976, I found 29 separate congressional resolutions proposing that designation.

It was not until the 100th Congress that action finally was taken. After more than 250,000 people signed petitions in support of the bill, Congress finally passed bipartisan legislation  which was signed by President Reagan on December 11, 1987.

John Philip Sousa passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack in 1932 at the age of 77. He died shortly after guest conducting a rehearsal of the Ringgold Band prior to its scheduled 80th anniversary concert. The final piece of music he conducted? It was none other than The Stars and Stripes Forever.

If you would like to listen to a 1909 recording of John Philip Sousa conducting a rousing rendition of The Stars and Stripes Forever, either listen to the complete version of this podcast, or watch a video I have created about John Philp Sousa on Youtube. Search for my channel on Youtube. Just type in Susan Rempel in the search box.

If you would like to hear the complete edition of this podcast, go to, and scroll down under the “subscribe to American History for the Modern Patriot Podcast” to the American History for the Modern Patriot Episodes tab. Better yet, subscribe to both podcasts and choose each week whether you would like to listen to the 5 minute or the comprehensive version.

Until next time, this is Dr. Susan Rempel encouraging you to remain motivated, vigilant, and engaged in the political process. Visit my website,, with more than 500 pages of documents, products, and information designed to motivate the modern patriot.
































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