By Lizann Lightfoot

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Eighty-five years ago today John Philip Sousa died. The “March King,” as he is known, composed 137 marches, many of which are still standards at military and government events.

Sousa started his musical career in the Marine Corps. His father, a trombonist in the Marine Corps Band, allowed John Philip to become an apprentice to the band when he was only 13 years old to keep him from joining a circus band. John Philip remained with them as an enlisted apprentice for seven years.

After learning to conduct, he returned to the band in 1880, when he was 26. He directed it for the next 12 years. Under Sousa’s leadership, the Marine Corps Band became famous and began touring. The tradition of an annual band tour continues today.

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Sousa during his military career.

Thanks to the invention of the phonograph, we can still hear recordings of the band during the time Sousa was the conductor. The Columbia Phonograph Company recorded the Marine Corps Band between 1890 and 1897. They produced over 400 different titles, available for purchase on cylinders (the precursor to records). Although Sousa was not a fan of the sound of recorded music, he and the Marine Corps Band became the first top-selling recording artists.

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Sousa and the Marine Corps Band.

Sousa eventually retired from the military and went on to lead his own civilian band. At first, it was called “Sousa’s New Marine Band” but the name was later changed to leave out the word Marine. Sousa’s New Band performed over 15,000 concerts all over the world.

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This photo originates from the band’s 1910-11 world tour.

During World War I, when Sousa was 62, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Navy Reserve so that he could lead the Navy Band at Great Lakes Naval Station. Since he was already famous and wealthy by then, he only accepted $1 of his monthly salary and donated the rest to the Sailors’ and Marines’ Relief Fund.

Sousa composed some of the military’s most loved marches including:

One of Sousa’s most recognizable marches, “Stars and Stripes Forever” was named the National March of the United States in 1987 because the song had become “an integral part of the celebration of American life.” It is traditionally played after the President has given a speech.

(A Sesame Street version of the song uses the words “Be kind to our web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s mother.”)

“U.S. Field Artillery” is a march that was modified and retitled “The Army Goes Rolling Along” to become the official song of the Army. You know this one: “Count off the cadence loud and strong/ For wherever we go/ You will always know/ That the Army goes rolling along.”

“Semper Fidelis,” dedicated to “the officers and men of the Marine Corps,” is the official march of the United States Marine Corps. You’ll every year at the Marine Corps ball, or when there is a change of command ceremony. The words Semper Fidelis — Latin for “always faithful” — are the motto of the Corps.

“The Gallant Seventh” was composed to honor the 7th Regiment of the New York National Guard. Their band leader had been one of Sousa’s students.

The Liberty Bell” is a march traditionally performed at presidential inaugurations. It may also be recognized from the British TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Hands Across the Sea” was composed after the Spanish-American War. Sousa dedicated the march “to no particular nation, but to all of America’s friends abroad.” The song is upbeat, patriotic, and fun.

Who’s Who in Navy Blue” was composed after a request from the US Naval Academy’s graduating class of 1920. They dedicated the song to Tecumseh, the Native American statue located on the Naval Academy campus in Annapolis, MD.


More fun facts about John Philip Sousa:

  • Sousa’s birthplace in Washington, D.C. is still owned by a member of “The President’s Own” Marine Corps Band.
  • Sousa and the band were selected to play at the 1886 wedding of Grover Cleveland, the only President to be married in a White House ceremony. In his autobiography, Sousa recalls measuring the distance the bride would travel so that the entrance march would be perfectly timed.
  • The World War II ship SS John Philip Sousa was named after him. The Marine Corps Band uses that ship’s bell during concerts. When not in use, it is stored at the John Philip Sousa Band Hall at the Marine barracks in Washington.
  • Sousa didn’t just write music. He also wrote three novels and his own autobiography.
  • Sousa is attributed with the idea of the musical instrument called the sousaphone. It is a brass instrument similar to a tuba but designed to wrap around the musician’s body so it is easier to play while marching.

Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at