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A Timeless Christmas Gift to America: Stars and Stripes Forever

Freemason and composer John Philip Sousa gave all Americans and an extraordinary gift on Christmas Day in 1896 with his timeless march, “Stars and Stripes Forever”.

Sousa and his wife Jane were on the final leg of a grand European tour and returning home to the United States on a steamship. Having recently learned of the death of David Blakely, who managed the Sousa Band, Sousa was filled with emotion not only from the loss of his friend but also with a heart full of love for America.

Like many Americans when they have traveled far and wide across the globe, Sousa was overwhelmed with joy and pride as he returned home to America. Known as the “March King”, Sousa’s head was filled with musical notes as the ship sailed toward America. Trilling notes and a prideful drumbeat set his mind to composing a new march while aboard ship and the tune was all but finished in his mind before the ship docked.

As Sousa would later describe, “Stars and Stripes Forever” as recalling in his mind three geographical regions of America. The main melody represented the Northern states. the high notes of the piccolo represented the Southern States, and trombones the Western states and territories.

Sousa’s final composition of “Stars and Stripes Forever” was first performed just four months after Sousa set foot on American soil at a concert near Philadelphia and was an immediate hit. Soon, an Act of Congress officially made Sousa’s new composition the National March of the United States.

The march was also adopted by musical troupes, theaters and even circuses as the rousing song could be used by bands to create a sense of high excitement, chaos and danger. Later, the tune would also inspire a blockbuster Hollywood film.

John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, D.C., on November 6, 1854. His father was of Portuguese ancestry but had immigrated to America from Spain. Sousa’s father had been a trombonist in the U.S. Marine Band and encouraged his son’s interest in music.

Young Sousa was a natural musician and studied the piano, violin, and various brass instruments as well as musical composition and theory as a young man. His father, fearing that his young son might be tempted to join a circus band or leave home to find work in a theater, enlisted his 13-year old son John in the United States Marine Band in 1868. This was good training for young Sousa and, after leaving the Marine Band in 1875, he focused his time and creativity on composing and conducting. In later years, he returned as the Director of the Marine Band for more than a decade.

During the years when Sousa was not with the Marine Band, he gained fame and performed thousands of concerts across America with his own Sousa Band as well as traveling to prestigious events worldwide including performing at the World Exposition in Paris, and in concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Sousa and his wife were parents to three children. The Sousa’s spent their later years living in Sands Point, New York. Sousa was a Master Mason and also a member of the Scottish Rite.

The March King was in Reading, Pennsylvania preparing for another concert at the age of 77. He had conducted a rehearsal of his most famous composition, “Stars and Stripes Forever” and returned to his room at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel. The next day, on March 6,1932, the patriotic composer died suddenly of heart failure and was buried in Washington’s, Congressional Cemetery. While Sousa’s heart had stopped beating, his musical marches beloved by generations of Americans will last forever.

It is not so commonly known that Sousa also wrote lyrics for his musical composition of “Stars and Stripes Forever”. As you read some of the lyrics below, it is clear how patriotism was deeply ingrained in the heart of America’s March King, John Philip Sousa.

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.

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