With all due respect to Lee Greenwood and the enduring 28-year success of his mega-hit “God Bless the USA,” he’s got a long way to go to catch up to another patriotic composer.In 1896, John Phillip Sousa returned from a European vacation with a heavy heart, and he probably had no idea that the thoughts circulating in his head would coalesce into a song Congress would ultimately recognize as the official march of the United States. Sousa had just learned that his band manager had died back home in the U.S., and the maestro was rushing back to deal with the band’s business affairs.
Here’s how Sousa described that trip in his autobiography: “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 finished his composition on Christmas Day of 1896, and for 116 years now the majestic “Stars and Stripes Forever” has prevailed as the pre-eminent march for expressing Americans’ love of America. So, on this Fourth of July, we won’t dispute any claim that Greenwood has the best patriotic ballad, but we’ll also cling to the notion that Sousa has the best patriotic march.
Sousa’s bands regaled audiences with “Stars and Stripes Forever” for 35 years until his death in 1932, and the song continues more than a century after its composition as a major musical element at Fourth of July ceremonies across the nation, often serving as the closing song at fireworks celebrations. One of the best sources of information about the march is a website run by the Dallas Wind Symphony.
Noteworthy in this composer’s legacy is the quantity of his work: 136 marches, 15 operettas, 70 songs and many other compositions. Anyone who has played in a military or marching band will quickly recognize Sousa’s “The Gladiator March” and “The Washington Post.” His “Semper Fidelis” is known as the official march of the U.S. Marine Corps, whose band Sousa directed for 12 years.
While the march is most popular for its grandiose tune — showcasing the full orchestral array from low-brass thunderings to piccolo tweets — Sousa also wrote lyrics for it. Here’s our favorite passage from those lyrics; it describes perfectly the tone of the Fourth of July. (Musicians, this passage is where the piccolo solo occurs. Others will recognize this passage as part of the “Be kind to your web-footed friends” parody):
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
Proclaimed as they marched to the fray
That by their might and by their right
It waves forever!
As Americans celebrate their independence, the Fourth of July is treasured by many people largely for its sights, especially in the evening. But each year, Greenwood and Sousa remind us of another aspect: the glorious sounds of the Fourth.