Americana Music Songwriting

Perfect Song #3: “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa

I probably should have written this blog last week during the Fourth of July holiday, but better late than never.

There is a reason that John Philip Sousa is called “The March King.” Look at all of the great marches he composed: “Semper Fidelis,” “El Capitan,” “The Washington Post,” “The Liberty Bell,” and his most famous, “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I consider this last one to be a perfect song, especially for its intent.

Sousa spent most of his life conducting military bands. He enlisted into the US Marine Band as an apprentice at the age of 14, and would eventually serve as its conductor for 12 years starting in 1880. Afterward, he led his own marching band until his death in 1932. However, during World War I, he was commissioned a lieutenant commander to direct the US Naval Reserve Band in Illinois. Most of his composing was done after his time in the Marine Band, which included 130 marches along with 15 operettas and 11 suites.

Sousa wrote “Stars and Stripes Forever” returning to the US after a trip to Europe in 1896, and it was first performed in Philadelphia a year later. The structure of the march is typical Sousa fare. A four-bar introduction. Followed by the first strain two times, the second strain two times, a break strain, the third strain (recognizable by the piccolos), break strain, and the final third strain, this time with the second strain in the background.

What makes this song so powerful is that it totally describes the land that was the United States so perfectly without any words, although lyrics do exist for this composition. The introduction comes in bluntly, like a battleship cutting through the ocean waves. Next comes a strong first strain, a musical interpretation of the industrial strength found in the northeast part of the nation. The second strain gives off a feeling that one is in the agricultural and laid-back South. The break strain reminds the listener of the conflicts that the country has faced and triumphed over to keep the nation as one (the first break strain could represent the Revolutionary War, the second could represent the Civil War). The third strain represents, as Sousa once stated in an interview, the expansion toward the West, discovering new adventures across the land.

My only differing opinion is that third strain. To me, those piccolos represent the voice of the common man, the voice that has kept the US a wonderful democratic republic that is still the envy of the world, despite all of the internal conflicts going on. Sousa had a musical mind that was comparable to the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. He knew exactly what he wanted from all of the instruments in the band throughout the entire composition, This song, as well as most of his other marches, have amazing counter melodies working against the main melodies is a subtle but fulfilling way.

How can any American not be moved once those piccolos come into the mix? I can’t think of a time when I have heard the song performed in public and the audience doesn’t applaud for that moment. While most people think of brass horns when it comes to marches, Sousa had equal respect for woodwinds and percussion in his bands. All contribute to making this and his other marches ones that any army would be proud to march to. Just listen to that final strain! The song represents the US so well that, in 1987, Congress passed an act that declared it the official National March of the United States.

I give you some great examples of this work. First is the song performed by “The President’s Own” US Marine Band. This is followed by the Dallas Winds, which included 94 piccolos in the final strain. We follow that up with a touching rendition performed by The Band of the Grenadier Guards in Great Britain (when another nation is so moved by one of your country’s songs, you have to be proud). Finally, the day after the tragedy of the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001, Queen Elizabeth requested her regimental band to perform the song during the changing of the guard. As an added tribute, the band performed “The Star Spangled Banner.” I cannot lie, I was totally moved to tears the first time I saw that video.

Chew on it and comment.