On August 20, 1882, the United States Marine Band and the Washington Light Infantry Corps traveled to Cape May via locomotive, arriving early in the morning. Among them was a young man who would redefine how the military used music to drum up patriotism.
John Philip Sousa, 26 years old, had been leading the Marine Band since 1880. Not wanting to appear too young, he had grown a beard — a gesture which would eventually become his trademark. He came to lead a series of seven concerts performed at Congress Hall. The Secretary of the Navy and the Commandant of the Marine Corps granted special permission for the Marine Band to hold the concerts in Cape May.
As the light infantry erected 28 tents on the Congress Hall lawn to house the troops, a special music stand was constructed, resembling a seashell, and an innovative arc-lamp illuminated the bandstand. About 3,000 people attended that first concert, which featured works from Mendelssohn and Wagner.
Into this setting stepped Sousa, with his newly-penned composition titled “Congress Hall March,” written to honor H.J. and G.R. Crump, owners of the Congress Hall Hotel. A jaunty, happy piece, “Congress Hall March” was a minor composition, written for an occasion.
While in Cape May that summer, Sousa relaxed and enjoyed himself, finding time to umpire a baseball game — one popular Cape May past time — on the Congress Hall lawn between local residents and the corps. The corps won 17 to 2.
During his Cape May visit, Sousa, later dubbed “The March King,” left behind one composition and a noteworthy concert that formed the seeds of what later would be the greatest example of military marches written in America. His most rousing compositions “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “El Capitan” and “Semper Fidelis” were yet to be written.
Sousa was born in Washington, D.C. in 1854, the third of ten children. His father, John Antonio Sousa, had Portuguese parents but was born in Spain. His mother, Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus, hailed from Bavaria. Sousa’s father served as a musician in the United States Navy and met Maria Elisabeth in Brooklyn and were married there in 1848. The family moved to Washington in 1854 where Antonio joined the U.S. Marine Band, playing trombone.
Young John Philip may have received his first music lesson in 1861, with solfeggio lessons at home. In 1862, John Philip was enrolled in a conservatory at the home of John Esputa, a respected violin and viola instructor. John Philip proved to be a gifted pupil under Esputa’s tutelage.
Sousa’s enlistment in the Marine Corps came about accidentally, when the boy was overheard playing a violin by a circus bandleader. The bandleader offered the young man a position for a tour beginning the following day. However, Sousa’s father discovered the scheme and immediately took his son to marine Corps headquarters where Sousa was enlisted as an apprentice in the U.S. Marine Corps band for seven years.
Serving with his father in the Marine Corps band, Sousa received instruction and training in the fife, drum, clarinet and trombone. It was here where Sousa’s ideas of military marches germinated, where his compositions were given positive attention by instructors. In 1872, Sousa published his first composition, “Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes,” a piece commissioned by a friend who wanted to present a lady with a composition dedicated to her.
In 1873, Sousa composed a march “Salutation” for Louis Schneider, the new leader of the Marine band. When Schneider learned a novice band member wrote the march, he forbid it from being played. Sousa performed with the orchestra at the Washington Theatre Comique and Ford’s Theatre around this time, attracting the attention of William Hunter, assistant secretary of state. Hunter arranged for Sousa’s special discharge from the Marine Corps in 1875. Sousa divided his time teaching music and working with the orchestra at Ford’s Theater.
Philadelphia became Sousa’s home for four years in 1876. He composed several pieces for the city’s theaters and shows, and continued teaching music. In 1877, he performed in a vaudeville orchestra in Cape May Point.
While rehearsing for Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore in February, 1879, Sousa met Jan van Middlesworth Bellis, a Philadelphia carpenter’s daughter. The two were married that December and vacationed in Cape May afterwards. It was around this time Sousa composed “Our Flirtations,” variety show music.
Sousa’s life probably would have been relegated to playing orchestra pieces in opera houses and theaters if he hadn’t been considered as a leader in the U.S. marine Band. He enlisted in the Marine Corps for the third time in 1880 and won the commandant over with “Our Flirtations.” Sousa became the first American born U.S. Marine Band leader.
After Cape May, Sousa’s stature grew. In 1889, he composed “The Washington Post,” a march penned as an essay contest promotion for The Washington Post newspaper. Soon after, John Philip Sousa would be known as “the March King.”
He would go to compose 15 operettas, 136 marches, 11 suites, 4 overtures, 70 songs, 11 waltzes, 14 humoresques, 2 concert pieces, 12 trumpet and drum pieces, author 7 books and 132 newspaper and magazine articles during his lifetime. Sousa’s best known works were his exciting military marches, whose combination of brass and percussion resonated with American patriotism and pride.
Troops fighting in the Spanish-American war and World War I went to battle filled with Sousa’s marches, and his “Stars and Stripes Forever” became the official march of the United States. His works were some of the first ever to be recorded, with “Stars and Stripes Forever” selling more copies than any other composition for years in the phonograph’s early history.
John Philip Sousa’s image as a uniformed band leader conducting marching bands remains part of the American culture today in military processionals and parades and will live on for generations to come as high school marching bands continue the Sousa tradition.
If You Knew Sousa …
John Philip Sousa came to Cape May in 1882, part of an entourage that included Marine Corps personnel and musicians. The end result of that concert series for Sousa fans anyway, was his “Congress Hall March” dedicated to the Congress Hall Inn owners.
But that visit was just a beginning on a long career that redefined the military march as a musical style. The instruments, wind and percussion, joined to form a pounding beat, a cadence of vibrant noise and clanging cymbals, like Fourth of July firecrackers.
Sousa’s legacy is reflected in some of his most endearing and respected marches, composed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
One myth attributed to Sousa was conceived by Colonel George Frederick Hinton, a publicity manager during Sousa’s European tours. According to the legend, Sousa was an English immigrant named Sam Ogden and saw a label, “S.O., U.S.A.” on a steamer trunk. Out of patriotism, “Ogden” added U.S.A. to his initials, forming “Sousa.” Totally untrue, but a wildly circulated piece of Sousa lore.
Some of Sousa’s works are still heard during military pageants, processionals and patriotic celebrations.
Sousa died March 6, 1932 of a heart attack. He was interred in Congressional Cemetery, Washington D.C. Carved on his grave marker is a partial piece of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in musical notation. At his funeral, the band played “Semper Fidelis,” a musical theme intertwined indelibly with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Many of Sousa’s recorded works are for sale in the classical music section of record stores. Some are immediately recognizable — Sousa’s music has been ingrained into the American psyche.