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We got interested in the American patriotic marches while we were writing an article on American patriotic songs. We thought: these are great, too. Let’s do an entire post on them.
We were definitely impressed when we kept running across marches when we were looking for great national tunes.
People so love these. They are fun to listen to and watch even though we have videos only, not the real in-life performances.
We were certainly motivated as a result to look up great performances.
As we were looking for the greatest and best patriot marches that America has to offer, we came across a funny thing. Interestingly, they were almost all written by the same person! That person is John Philip Sousa.
Our favorite Sousa marches:
- Stars and Stripes Forever
- Semper Fidelis
- The Washington Post
But before we get to talking about Sousa and his brilliant music, let’s look back at what came before.
Before bands, the military marched to music
The history of marches is fascinating. How they came into being, who wrote the words and the music. Who and where they first performed. What was going on in the country at the time. The inspirations for their composition. The famous and great performances that occurred early on and subsequently. And who is still doing them
March music has a serious past
We have a blast attending parades and listening to bands play marches. This happens these days mainly on our patriotic holidays and at sports events. It’s easy to forget that they have a serious function in past history.
They date to centuries before the origin of our country, and in fact, to the early history of Europe in the Ottoman Empire. Military marching bands came into being and helped to coordinate the movement of armies in the field.
The music evolved and influenced the development of the work of major artists such as Haydn and Mozart. Major Classical symphonies incorporated march segments in the later 1700s and early 1800s. Witness Beethoven’s Turkish March. And, also, Ode to Joy (in the Ninth Symphony).
The pictures we are familiar with of American soldiers marching to a fife (piccolo) and drum are true! During the American Revolution, that’s what they did.
We continued to see this practice through the land’s early history, including through the Civil War.
Today, it’s amazing to be able to watch local reenactments and concerts put on by modern military and civilian tributary groups to replicate those early colonial and Civil War marchers.
Modern marches evolved during the 19th century
There were other composers who also helped evolve this musical form into what we know in our contemporary life.
But few authored works that were inspired or noble enough to fit a national military branch, a presidential request, or remain in our memories today. Singular among them was John Philip Sousa.
By the time of the wars of the twentieth century, solders on the field no longer packed musical instruments along with them to play as they marched and fought.
But during these times, the compositions were a major source of inspiration to them and the folks back home.
Along with patriotic songs, radio broadcasts played them during both World Wars.
Marches became a prominent form of entertainment
Out of that early history evolved what we are more familiar with nowadays: entertainment during patriotic holiday parades and on the sports fields. This has become our modern tradition. We expect it during half-time performances at university competitions and even high schools.
Some college marching bands have become well known. If you are not interested in competitive sports, participating in the marches can be quite fulfilling and immensely engaging to participate in and to watch.
If and when you have the opportunity to go see any of them in person, be sure to do that. What we found is that you don’t need to experience a rendition by a world-famous band. Your local high school band will still do a great job! Well, at least a good job!
Because it’s not just the beautifully written music, it’s the trappings of the parade and the entire atmosphere that is evoked. Even if it’s not on a holiday.
Of course encountering these on the Fourth of July or Memorial Day is the tops. Even so, maybe you love football or baseball, or maybe your kid is in college or high school. Then you have an excuse to go watch the town’s team(s), and meanwhile enjoy the local bands playing.
You can’t always be there in person to listen to them and watch an enthusiastic band perform in public. In the meantime, watching a good video is not a bad substitute.
The March King
The name of Sousa is almost synonymous with American marches. In fact, he is prominently called “The (American) March King“. Prolific is an understatement: He composed 137 marches as well as many other musical pieces. Not only did he create many, but the quality was and is high. The man energized the music form in his time.
He was born in Washington D.C. and as a child learned multiple musical instruments and singing. His father, who played the trombone in the Marines, introduced him to military themes.
Over the years he became identified with the U.S. Marine Band as its conductor. It is also known as the “President’s Own Band”. His administration continued through the terms of five Presidents in the late 1800s.
“I would rather be the composer of an inspired march than of a manufactured symphony.”
– John Philip Sousa
He had a national reputation, but eventually decided to leave the military environment and strike out with his own band. His fame expanded and he remained in the limelight for probably 40 years.
Sousa composed the best American marches
How did we manage to pick out only a few pieces of his work to write about here? With well over a hundred pieces, it may seem difficult. It was a little hard because we were determined to go over only three or four of the Sousa marches at most.
As it turned out, there were quite a number that
They so captured the spirit of the American people that every one knows them. Almost every one could hum them or toot a good part on their home made horns.
Let’s look at (and listen to!) the best loved Sousa marches.
Stars and Stripes Forever
If you read our recent article on patriotic songs, you may have seen near the end that we did bring up this piece of music as a march to contrast it with a song. And we included a good video of the OSU marching band.
The Stars and Stripes Forever is truly a rousing hit. You cannot listen to it without, I think, reaching for a flag to wave. And just standing up and marching about a bit yourself.
It was composed by John Philip Sousa in 1896. In 1986, it was named the U.S.national march.
Listen to an early recording
What a treasure to be able to hear an actual radio broadcast, vintage 1929, with the voice of the master himself! It is an amazingly good quality recording from that era and worth listening to.
Do you know the lyrics of The Stars and Stripes Forever?
We hardly ever hear the words sung. We couldn’t remember them (if we ever really knew them …).
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.
This is an especially nice recording of this piece. We usually don’t like seated performances that much. But this one is very fine.
We’ve included it in particular because of the singing!
Sousa wrote Semper Fidelis in 1888. The name is obvious, if you are familiar with the Marines. It is their motto. The Latin for “Always Faithful“. This is the official march of the United States Marine Corps.
Note: By the way, he also wrote the official marches of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corp.
Sousa began writing this particular one after President Chester Arthur requested a replacement for “Hail to the Chief”, the presidential march, which that occupant of the office did not like. Arthur died before the new piece of music was composed.
You know this march!
The following performance is really special, we think, because it is by the U.S. Marine Band itself. This particular recording also has a bit of a formal introduction and story, which is nice.
Rarely played lyrics of Semper Fidelis
There are lyrics, although they are not commonly sung.
Here is the first stanza of the trio (refrain or last strain):
Don’t you know the Marines are marching,
When you can hear this song?
So, when all of the boys are marching,
Sing as they march along.
We realize there is a lot of crowd noise and the picture is a little dim (overcast sky?), but we have included this anyway.
Because we think there’s nothing better than seeing a live band produce this sort of music.
We can almost envision being there. Yes, the folks are heavily dressed, so it must have been a bad weather day.
The Marine Corps hymn inspired the march
The story is that listening to the Marine Corps singing their hymn inspired him.
You are familiar, we expect, with the opening lines of this beautiful song:
“From the halls of Montezuma, To the shores of Tripoli …”
Marines’ Hymn Lyrics
From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.
Our flag’s unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in ev’ry clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off Northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes;
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines
Here’s health to you and to our CorpsLyrics authorized in 1929 and last changed in 1942
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife
We’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.
Its exact origin is unknown. It’s may have originated in a French comic opera (!) by that country’s composer Jacques Offenbach. Clearly, the lyrics were different then!
We think of the Marines’ Hymn as a song, but here it can be marched to, too! The clip is a segment from the 1942 movie, To The Shores Of Tripoli, with Randolph Scott and John Payne.
The Washington Post March
This is such a phenomenal-sounding work. It was surprising to learn how it was first thought of.
John Philip Sousa composed it in 1889 for the newspaper’s essay contest awards ceremony! Now, that does not sound so important, does it?
It was not composed as a military march, so maybe you don’t consider that we should include it as a “patriotic” march. Heck, it’s so cool, we had to put it up here regardless.
We did not find any lyrics to this Sousa march. Actually, it was surprising at first to come across lyrics to any of the marches. But, as we noted previously, some do.
Hey, we know it’s a very uninteresting name, too. But all you have to do is listen to it to be impressed. And then you will realize you know this
tune march after all. It is light and lively. It’s one of the most popular patriotic marches in this land.
Take a listen.
Marching at half time to a Sousa composition
We realize the sound quality and video of this choice
P.S. Yes, we had to look it up. There were definitely football players that day. The final score: Rutgers Scarlet Knights 45 to/ over Indiana Hoosiers 23. (It looks like Indiana was leading at half time.)
Recognizing that you might rather appreciate hearing a better-sounding version of this cool composition, we have another one right here for you.
It is from the Hal Leonard Concert Band, the educational music publisher. It is arranged by Joy Bocook, a respected composer in his own right.
Q & A
Which march by Sousa inspired a dance?
The Washington Post set off a bit of a dance craze in 1891. It worked well with the “two-step” which was just coming out at the same time. While the music of the march has withstood the sands of time, that particular dance step has not.
What’s it like if you heard the Marines play and march to Semper Fidelis and the Marine Hymn at the same time? Doesn’t that sound awful?
No, as a matter of fact, it’s pretty cool. Here it is.
What is the worst version of the Stars And Stripes Forever ever played (and recorded)?
The Guckenheimer Sauerkraut Band – Stars & Stripes.
The “music” is from the 1958 vinyl release of the album Music For Non-Thinkers by the San Francisco spoof band.
Before you go
We hope you have enjoyed our post on the American patriotic marches. We liked these ones the best! You may like our article on some of the patriot songs.
Did ya like that Sauerkraut Band? We don’t know about that, but we noted that it was an old vinyl recording! Do you love vinyl too? You make want to take a look at some of our posts on the world of vinyl records.
All this marching, note they are carrying the national emblem! More on our flag in this post.
Thanks for visiting with us. We are so glad to have you.