Noah's ARKives

(Archive - Week of March 4, 2006)

John Philip Sousa

John Philip Sousa (November 6, 1854 – March 6, 1932), popularly known as "The March King", is an American composer of the late Romantic era.

He is probably the most famous conductor and composer in history of military marches.

Early life

Sousa was born in Washington, D.C. to John Antonio de Sousa and Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus, parents of Portuguese and Bavarian (German) descent. When the young Sousa reached the age of 13, his father enlisted his son in the United States Marine Corps as an apprentice, shortly after he attempted to run away and join a circus.

There is a fairly unknown ledgend that Sousa was actually born Souso, but since he was the pinacle of American patriotism, he wanted his country in his name.

Several years later, John left his apprenticeship to join a theatrical band. He learned to conduct, and returned to the U.S. Marine Band as its head in 1880. Sousa also led the marching band of Gonzaga College High School.

Sousa organized his own band in 1892. It toured widely, and in 1900, represented the United States at the Paris Exposition before touring Europe. Sousa repeatedly refused to conduct on the radio, fearing a lack of personal contact with the audience. He was finally persuaded to do so in 1929, and became a smash hit.


He wrote well over 100 marches; some of his most popular are:

  • Transit of Venus March (1883)
  • Semper Fidelis (1888)
  • The Washington Post March (1889)
  • The Thunderer (1889)
  • The Liberty Bell (1893)
  • Manhattan Beach March (1893)
  • King Cotton (1895)
  • The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896)
  • El Capitan (1896)
  • Hands Across the Sea (1899)
  • Fairest of the Fair (1908)
  • U.S. Field Artillery (1917)
  • The Gallant Seventh (1922)
  • The Black Horse Troop (1924)
  • Daughters of Texas (1929)

The marching brass bass, or sousaphone, is named after him.

Other music

In addition to hundreds of marches, Sousa wrote ten operas and a number of musical suites.

Sousa exhibited many talents aside from music. He authored three novels and a full length autobiography as well as a great number of articles and letters-to-the-editor on a variety of subjects. As a trapshooter, he ranks as one of the all-time greats, and his skill as a horseman met championship criteria.

He was in the vanguard of the reactionary camp in the music piracy wars of his era (cf. Recording Industry Association of America), in which authors of sheet music railed against the upstart recording industry. In a submission to a congressional hearing in 1906, he argued that:,

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy ... in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

The operettas

  • The Queen of Hearts , 1885, also known as Royalty and Roguery .
  • The Smugglers , 1882.
  • Desiree , 1883.
  • El Capitan , 1895.
  • The Bride Elect , 1897, libretto by Sousa.
  • The Charlatan , 1898, also known as The Mystical Miss , lyrics by Sousa.
  • Chris and the Wonderful Lamp , 1899.
  • The Free Lance , 1905.
  • The American Maid , 1909, also known as The Glass Blowers .

Sousa also composed the music for six operettas that were either unfinished or not produced: The Devils' Deputy , Florine , The Irish Dragoon , Katherine , The Victory , and The Wolf . The operetta El Capitan is the best known of the operettas. It has been in production somewhere in the world ever since it was written. Desiree and The Glass Blowers have had revivals. The music of the operettas is light and cheerful. Many of the marches are derived from themes of the operettas.

Sousa the Freemason

One year after the 1882 Transit of Venus, Sousa was commissioned to compose a processional for the unveiling of a bronze statue of American physicist Prof. Joseph Henry, who had died in 1878. Henry, who had developed the first electric motor, was also the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

A Freemason, Sousa was fascinated by what the group considered mystical qualities in otherwise natural phenomena. According to Sten Odenwald of the NASA IMAGE Science Center, this played a significant role in the selection of the time and date of the performance, April 19, 1883, at 4:00 P.M. Dr. Odenwald points out that Venus and Mars, invisible to the participants, were setting in the west. At the same time, the Moon, Uranus and Virgo were rising in the east, Saturn had crossed the meridian, and Jupiter was directly overhead. According to Masonic lore, Venus was associated with the element copper, and Joseph Henry had used large quantities of copper to build his electric motors.

The "Transit of Venus March" never caught on, and went unplayed for more than 100 years, after Sousa's copies of the music were destroyed in a flood. As reported in The Washington Post, Library of Congress employee Loras Schissel recently found copies of the old sheet music for "Venus" “languishing in the library's files.” The piece was resurrected recently, in time for the 2004 Transit.

Sousa also composed a March dedicated to the high degree freemasonry Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, named: "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine".


The composer and bandleader later wrote another work called The Transit of Venus — a 40,000-word prose story (written 1920) about a group of misogynists called the Alimony Club who, as a way of temporarily escaping the society of women, embark on a sea voyage to observe the transit of Venus. The captain's niece, however, has stown away on board and soon has won over the men.

Marine Barracks, Washington, DC

John Phillip Sousa standing in the middle with the Great Lakes Naval Base Band in 1918.  

On March 31, 1801 newly-inaugurated President Thomas Jefferson rode out with Lieutenant Colonel William Ward Burrows, the second Commandant, to locate a site for a Marine Barracks "within easy marching distance of the Capitol." The selection of the site for the barracks was a matter of personal interest to President Thomas Jefferson, who rode through Washington with Lieutenant Colonel Commandant Burrows in search of a suitable location. The site now occupied was approved since it lay near the Navy Yard and within easy marching distance of the Capitol.

Located at square 927 in Southeast Washington, D.C., "The Oldest Post of the Corps" is bound by "G," "I," 8th and 9th streets. The areas on the south and east sides were used for offices, maintenance facilities and living quarters for the troops, and the officers lived in a building on the west side.

The early nineteenth-century barracks was arranged in a quadrangle as it is today, and the use of the building was similar. The areas on the south and east side of the quadrangle were used for offices, maintenance facilities and living spaces for troops, and a building on the west was the location of the officers' quarters. The Commandant's House at the north end of the barracks was completed in 1806 and is the only original building still standing. It is the oldest public building in continuous use in the Nation's Capital. The rest of the barracks was rebuilt between 1900 and 1907.

The training of new officers and recruits started at the barracks soon after it was established and continued throughout the nineteenth-century. Until 1901, it was also the location of Marine Corps Headquarters. Marines from the barracks participated in the defense of Washington in the War of 1812, and served in the Indian Wars of 1826-37, the War with Mexico, the Civil War and the Spanish American War. Most recently, Marines from the barracks deployed to Southwest Asia and participated in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

The Marine Barracks has also been home of the United States Marine Band since 1801. Shortly after its formation, the Band was requested to play for President John Adams at the Executive Mansion. This White House engagement began a tradition which became so established that today the names "Marine Band" and "President's Own" are synonymous. It was at the barracks that John Philip Sousa, during the time he was the director of the Marine Band, wrote many of his immortal marches.

The Home of the Commandants is the only original building still standing as it was in the 19th century. It was one of the few buildings not burned by the British when they sacked the Capitol during the War of 1812. The house now holds the title as the oldest public building in continuous use in the nation's capital.

Both the barracks site and the Home of the Commandants were designated National Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1976. During our nation's Bicentennial, the Home of the Commandants and the Barracks were re-designated as National Historic Landmarks by the Department of the Interior.

Today's barracks Marines perform a variety of tasks in support of diverse missions. These include light infantry training, ceremonies, and presidential support duty. A company of "8th and I" Marines serves at Camp David; another serves at the U.S. Naval Academy. The barracks is also home to the Marine Corps Institute - the Corps' distance training center, which is responsible for all nonresident military education programs.

Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. is home to more than 1,100 Marines, Sailors and civilians. The Barracks performs infantry, special security and ceremonial missions, and is comprised of the following units:

Headquarters and Service Company is comprised of 13 separate sections and is responsible for the security, administrative, logistical and grounds/maintenance support for the Barracks.

Company A is trained, equipped and organized to perform infantry and security operations, and ceremonies as directed. In addition, it also provides contingency forces in support of the White House Emergency Plan. The U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard and the Silent Drill Platoon are elements of the company. The Silent Drill Platoon performs for thousands of spectators annually in the United States and abroad.

Company B, like Company A, is trained, equipped and organized to perform infantry and security operations, ceremonies and also provides contingency forces in support of the White House Emergency Plan. Company B's Body Bearer Section is tasked to support Marine Corps funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and elsewhere.

Security Company is an infantry company based at Naval Support Facility, Thurmont, Md. The company provides security and protection for the Presidential Retreat.

Marine Corps Institute Company was established in 1920 by Gen. John A. Lejeune, the Corps' 13th Commandant. MCI provides nonresident specialized skill training courses and professional military education for the Marine Corps.

The United States Marine Band was authorized in 1798 by President John Adams and has played for every president since John Adams. Known as the "President's Own," the Band provides music for the President of the United States. Its most renowned director was John Philip Sousa, the Band's 17th director.

The United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps was formed Nov. 4, 1934. "The Commandant's Own," provides musical support for hundreds of ceremonies across the nation and abroad each year.

United States Naval Academy Company is located at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Marines have been guarding the academy's grounds since 1851. In addition to manning three Naval Academy gates, and guarding the tomb of John Paul Jones, the Marines also perform numerous ceremonies at the Academy and perform at local parades.

Reminiscent of expeditionary practices before World War I, a rifle company was stripped out of the ceremonial guard at the Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., and sent to Saudi Arabia in 1990 as part of Operation Desert Shield.

Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., has many diverse missions. The "Evening Parade" and "Sunset Parade" are undoubtedly the two best-known ceremonies conducted by the barracks. Of equal importance are the numerous ceremonies performed throughout the National Capital region, including armed forces full honors arrivals, departures and wreath ceremonies at the White House, Pentagon, and Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Barracks Marines participate in hundreds of ceremonies annually.

JPS conducts the UCLA Marching Band on Oct. 19, 1928 in Pershing Square near the old Philharmonic Auditorium.

The barracks has performed military reviews and ceremonies since its establishment. The present-day "Evening Parade" was first conducted on July 5, 1957. Presidential inaugurations and specific occasions prompted the parades and ceremonies conducted at the barracks during the early 1800s. The traditional reveille and morning muster parades were conducted with varying frequency at the post, and they eventually resulted in more formalized ceremonies.

On November 10, 1954, the 179th birthday of the United States Marine Corps, a bronze monument modeled after the famous photo of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi, was unveiled near Arlington National Cemetery. President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicated the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial to all Marines who died to keep their country free. Since September 1956, the marching and musical units from Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., have paid homage to whom "uncommon valor was a common virtue," by presenting "Sunset Parades" in the shadow of the 32 foot-high figures of the Marine Corps War Memorial.

Throughout the year, a delicate balance between ceremonial and military skills training is maintained. Barracks Marines continue to train for ceremonial functions and develop combat and occupational skills which will serve them well in future assignments to Fleet Marine Force units.

NOTE: If you care to listen to some of Sousa's music, please clink on the link Semper Fidelis March when the Web site appears, select any piece of the marching music under the words Semper Fidelis March.



Click below to pause or play Semper Fidelis

If you care to listen to more of Sousa's music, please clink on the link below
Semper Fidelis March

and when the Web site appears, select any piece of marching music listed.