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Who Was John Philip Sousa?

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Think Tank is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Donner Canadian Foundation.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. You are listening to the most famous, and perhaps most frequently played piece of American music ever written, John Phillip Sousaís The Stars and Stripes Forever. This week Think Tank takes a look at Sousa the man, the composer, and the promoter. Just who was The March King, and how is it that almost 150 years after his birth his music is still such a central part of the American experience. The topic before the house, John Phillip Sousa, the first American musical superstar, this week on Think Tank.

To most people the name John Phillip Sousa is synonymous with patriotism. For over 100 years orchestras and bands around the world have been playing his songs nonstop. He was the most famous band leader the world has ever known, and Americanís first superstar. John Phillip Sousa was born on November 6th, 1854 in Washington, D.C., just a block and a half away from the Marine barracks. His parents, Elizabeth and Antonio were immigrants. His Portuguese father played trombone with the Marine band, and encourage young John to join him as an apprentice musician at the age of 13.

In 1880, at the age of 26, Sousa began a career as the leader of the Marine band. In his 12 years at the helm Sousa transformed this Marine outfit into the countryís premier military band, known as The Presidentís Own. Their concerts attracted large and appreciative audiences. The bandís reputation spread. In 1889 Sousa wrote what would become the most popular song in America and in Europe, the Washington Post March.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: In 1892 Sousa left the Marines and formed his own civilian band. He saw it as his chance to introduce a wide spectrum of quality music to millions of people. He was tireless in his pursuit of that goal. For almost 40 years his travel and performance schedules were relentless. His enormous success has been credited to a number of factors. His unabashed patriotism emerged triumphantly in his marches. America was ready, indeed hungry for it. The Stars and Stripes Forever came out just before the Spanish-American War. Patriotic fever was soaring. The massive numbers of immigrants coming into the country at the time created a deeper need for national identity. Sousa spoke to that need, expressing musically what was the essence of America.

Sousaís skill as a self-promoter was also legendary. Even Barnum-like. When the band traveled to small towns schools and businesses would shut down. The day would be declared Sousa Day, in his honor. He played to the public taste, believing that composers and band leaders should trust the preferences of the people. He has been described as the consummate opportunist, and a master at walking the line between the elitist and populist orientation. His most popular song, The Stars and Stripes Forever became the last piece John Phillip Sousa ever conducted. He played it in March of 1932, on the day he died. Few if any bands before or since can claim a level of popularity comparable to that which the Sousa band commanded. No composer is more thoroughly woven through the American experience.

Memorial Day concerts, home coming parades, football games, and Fourth of July celebrations continue to march along to the music of the March King, John Phillip Sousa.

Joining us for a discussion on the man and his music are: John Newsom, director of music division at the Library of Congress, and editor of Perspectives on John Phillip Sousa; Jerry Rife, professor of music at Rider University in New Jersey, and music director of the Rareton Valley Symphonic Band; and Loras Schissel, composer, conductor of the Virginia Grand Military Band, and musicologist at the Library of Congress.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. I have had the pleasure of hearing Lorasí band play, and it is dynamite. Letís go around the room first, John, letís begin with you, and just try to fix this man in our mind. Each of you, briefly, how would you characterize Sousaís place in American musical and cultural history? What was he then, how is he regarded now?

MR. NEWSOM: Well, he was regarded in his time as really the great American musician, by at least most Americans, if not those who were looking for some symphonic composer. You have to keep in mind that he was a bandsman, and growing up in a time when bands did fulfill the work of a full symphony orchestra. So he was carrying this enormous weight of introducing Americans to a wide range of serious and entertaining music from all over, through his band. On top of that he was the superb composer of marches, the composer of marches better than I think anybody who came before him, and anybody who has ever come after him. And that, I think, is the most distinctive feature of Sousa, as the great American composer of marches.

MR. WATTENBERG: Jerry, how is he regarded now?

MR. RIFE: Well, if we think of Sousa, everybody gets in their mind a concept, the idea of the summer concert, the gazebo, the immaculately dressed uniform band, the superb musician, the wonderful kids playing and running around through the grass. That is what most people think of as American music. A lot of people think this is what American music is, and certainly thatís what Sousa was.

MR. WATTENBERG: Loras, what about his talent as a composer? How good was his music?

MR. SCHISSEL: He has about a year of schooling, regular schooling. But, spent most of his childhood in an Italian conservatory down on Eighth Street in Washington, here, doing the same things that Johann Strauss learned about, the same things that Brahms had to learn about. It was your basic, you know, three hours of music --

MR. WATTENBERG: But, where is the beef? How did it come out, a lot of people went through classical musical training and they are forgotten people now, and they wrote a lot of music. How good was his music?

MR. SCHISSEL: Sousa is to marches what Beethoven is to symphonies. I mean, it doesnít get any better than Sousa when it comes to writing marches.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, marches -- I mean, we think of marches sort of subconsciously as Sousa. But, marches are a great part of music history themselves?

MR. SCHISSEL: Itís dance music, really. A march is dance music. You talk now about the Washington Post March, when it was written it was synonymous with the two-step. I mean, it killed the waltz. The two step came in in the late 1880s early í90s, and the Washington Post March was so synonymous with the two-step that if you were to dance with your girlfriend and you wanted a two-step, you didnít tell the orchestra conductor, you didnít say play a two-step, we want a two-step, youíd say play a Washington Post. It was so synonymous with the dance step that the dance step was known as the Washington Post. I mean, in his time, Sousa was the Madonna, Sousa was Elvis, he was the most popular musician in the United States, maybe one of the most popular musicians in the world, because his music went all over the world. It was pop, pop music. And this was before radio, before records. And he did this -- he became a superstar in person.

MR. NEWSOM: Absolutely. And I think that may have hurt his chances of being taken seriously, because anyone who is that popular canít possibly, to certain people, be all that serious. He was, as he said himself, was an entertainer first, he was not an educator.

MR. WATTENBERG: Of course, the same thing I think would have been said by Shakespeare

MR. NEWSOM: Sure, exactly.

MR. WATTENBERG: That he was a playwright, an entertainer who writes about people stabbing each other, killing each other, and whatever.

MR. NEWSOM: What he has to overcome still I think is a prejudice, at least in America towards band music as being a second class kind of music. Thatís been a long term problem. We are still in a situation where bands are regarded as a second class kind of music.

MR. WATTENBERG: How do you distinguish between a band and an orchestra, I guess is what I meant?

MR. NEWSOM: Itís purely a matter of the strings.

MR. RIFE: The strings are in an orchestras, bands do not have strings. Bands, instead of the string section will have a large clarinet section, or a woodwinds section that will take over the position that a string section would have, violins, and violas, and cellos and things. So thatís the difference between the two organizations, orchestra and band. Now, there was a huge tradition of bands in the United States in the 19th Century, and into the early 20th Century, every little town had a band.

MR. WATTENBERG: Still do, I mean, youíve got 150-200 piece marching bands in Texas high schools.

MR. RIFE: Youíve got 20-piece community bands in little towns across the country. But, there were tens of thousands of them across the United States, and when John Phillip Sousa brought his professional touring concert band into these towns, it was as if they were playing directly to the people, and that was one of the reasons he was so popular, I think. So many people were playing band instruments.

MR. WATTENBERG: We did a program on Think Tank last year when they opened the Norman Rockwell exhibit at the Hy Museum in Atlanta. Is there a similar sort of elitist scorn of Sousa? Can you say that Sousa -- you say that Rockwell was Americaís Vernier, could you say Sousa was Americaís Mozart or whatever?

MR. RIFE: You could say that, I would think. He doesnít have the standing today that he deserves, I think we all agree with that. When Sousa died in 1932, a good chunk of the band movement died with him, I believe. And academic band took over, at that point, there were still some professional bands around, but the academics took over, and it was a different period, a different time. The band movement was fading. Sousa knew this in the end of his life, he knew that with the depression, and with jazz coming in, and new popular music, that there was a different feeling. In fact, his tours became less long at the end of his life. So itís up to us now, I believe, to bring Sousa back, to make him popular again, and to perform his music, in the way he performed it. And Iím very pleased to be a part of that.

MR. NEWSOM: In the area of the march he is absolutely unmatched, he is superb. He didnít write extended works, he didnít write long symphonies, he didnít write works that were challenging to audiences, and dealt with challenging musical problems. And I think thereís a legitimate area for that kind of work. But, in the area of writing these absolutely amazing pieces thereís nobody in the world who can touch him. And I think for that reason alone he should be honored as one of our absolutely great composers, along with Gershwin, and Copeland, and many others.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is there disagreement with that?

MR. SCHISSEL: Well, Iím not ready to put any requiem on anything, but I think Sousaís music has been as popular as the day he wrote it. I think thereís always been this great tradition of bands and band music, and I think part of the problem is weíve often forgotten that this music is the peopleís music, itís as basic as anything American, itís as basic as those covers on the Saturday Evening Post.

MR. WATTENBERG: Immortalized in the music.


MR. NEWSOM: Exactly.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hold on one minute. I just want to talk to our viewers for a moment. We at Think Tank, as you regular viewers know, depend on your feedback to make our program better. Please, email us at thinktank@pbs.org.

Now, back to where we were. I want to ask you each a question. What should our viewers hear?

MR. SCHISSEL: The Stars and Stripes Forever, I mean, itís --


MR. SCHISSEL: Itís the national march of the United States. We have two official pieces of music in the United States, The Star Spangled Banner is our national anthem, and The Stars and Stripes Forever is our national march.

MR. RIFE: I would say the Washington Post, because it played such an important part in the development of Sousa, it was his springboard, his first really important march. And as Loras said, it was adopted by the dancing masterís convention, and the dancing masters said, well, letís make this into the new two-step. And it became popular worldwide, it really did the most to make him the superstar that he was to become.


MR. NEWSOM: I canít -- you could pick a number of other pieces, and these guys have picked up some of the best choices. There are individual marches that are so wonderful that you could start with any of them and make the case.

MR. WATTENBERG: Letís hear the three of you do something? No, seriously, I have a plan.

(Musical break.)

MR. NEWSOM: I have one other, just in case you have room for another, El Capitan, which has --

MR. WATTENBERG: Thatís a full opera, isnít it?

MR. NEWSOM: It comes from an opera, and Sousa got some of his best things from his operas, from his operettas. And El Capitan has one -- he does something in that, that he does elsewhere, but he does it so well in El Capitan. Itís this very simple unison strain, itís not remarkable in itself, but it comes in just the right place. He had a genius for doing something, you could say itís so simple, how could that be impressive, how could that come off? He does, in the Pathfinder of Panama thereís this wonderful little brass fanfare right in the middle of everything, if you took that out and put it aside --

MR. WATTENBERG: How does it go?

MR. NEWSOM: Just a little bugle call.

MR. RIFE: It would be just like Mozart. Mozart had this uncanny ability to know when to write what. And Sousa in these marches, in the marches that weíre talking about, had that same ability, that same instinct to know exactly what simple piece should go right in the middle and where.

MR. WATTENBERG: I have a confession to make. I probably have about 20 CDs of collected marches, and whenever Iím feeling blue thatís what I put on. And itís right up there with boosting, I mean, wake up.

MR. SCHISSEL: Itís a drug.

MR. RIFE: I tell my students, use this music, use the Back Brandenburg Concertos, use Sousaís music as a mood changing thing to do. And it really does work for everybody.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, one of the raps on Sousa is that he was a blatant self-promoter, true?



MR. RIFE: Sousa was an enthusiast, he had two goals in his life, he wanted his music to be successful and his performance to be successful, and he had a great deal of ambition, and he was very proud of his ambition.

MR. NEWSOM: He was a blatant self-promoter, and brilliant, and for the right reasons, because -- at least I think he was so for the right reasons, he believed that this was and is a great country. He believed that somebody who is as in the public eye as he was should be a model of comportment. He thought his morals and his ethical standards should be held up to scrutiny and found to be unimpeachable.

MR. WATTENBERG: Did he ever consider running for political office?

MR. NEWSOM: Never, he couldnít have gotten more than he had already. He was the president already in that field that he chose for himself.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, am I correct, in the course of him thinking that his first role was to be an entertainer, I guess the popular way to say it was did he pander to public taste, rather than try to elevate it?

MR. SCHISSEL: Itís funny, when I first started doing all this Sousa businesses I started talking to a lot of people either that played in his band or went to his concerts. And itís funny how you get a different answer from everyone about what it was like to go to a Sousa concert, and I think mainly itís because he aimed sort of right for the middle, in a sense. And he always had a phrase, one of the great orchestra conductors of the time was Theodore Thomas, and they played a lot of the same music, you know, a lot of the same type pieces of it. And he said, Thomas gives them Wagner and Beethoven and popular music hoping to educate them. He said, I play Wagner and Beethoven and popular music and hope I entertain them. The same music, just a different approach.

MR. WATTENBERG: And the theory would be that by entertaining them you impart a lot more education?

MR. RIFE: Absolutely, yes. He did make programming -- it was a special talent of his. He knew through the back of his neck what the audience wanted to hear. And he would announce an encore during the bow to the first clarinet player, and it would filter through the band, and he would come swinging around and the downbeat would happen, and there would be the encore, because he knew thatís what the people wanted. And he delivered what they wanted. And thatís why he was so successful.

MR. NEWSOM: We have programs that are the printed programs that were handed out, and that was the set piece. The programs that he really gave were not always documented, but we do have some wonderful examples where people have written in-between. This is what he played between two numbers. In a way you can think of programming as a kind of composing. He is putting together the evening or the afternoon of entertainment on the spot. He knows this framework will work, but if he has a Wagner selection that maybe theyíre going to have to have a new Sousa march to perk them up.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, by the time Sousa died there was already a recording industry. Do we have recordings of him?

MR. NEWSOM: Lots with the band, and a very few with himself.

MR. SCHISSEL: He didnít like it.

MR. NEWSOM: He didnít like recording.

MR. SCHISSEL: He said even radio broadcasts he didnít like, because he said, I turn around and no one is there.

MR. NEWSOM: I think he was afraid that the experience of going out to the park and sitting on the grass, and smelling the trees, and the grass, and everything would be lost. You canít replicate the experience of a band concert on any known media, even today with virtual reality, and everything weíve --

MR. WATTENBERG: What should Sousaís role in America today be?

MR. NEWSOM: I think in a way he has the role, and thereís nothing we can do about it one way or the other. And that is his music is there, and there really are bands who love it and understand it. I was talking to Jerry before the program saying, and I really mean this, that American music may be saved in the Midwest, where the tradition of bands goes on, whether the board of education decides to cut out music appreciation in high school or not. That tradition has kept us going when decisions that may not have been very good ones deprived a lot of kids from learning about good music. There is a real going concern. And when youíve got that, and youíve got the music, you donít have to do anything. I think itís there and itís going to continue.

MR. RIFE: I think when you play this music, as Loras and I do, for crowds of standing room only, and you do an encore of a Sousa march, and the response is overwhelming, you have to have faith that the music will live on, and that the audiences are out there wanting it, and supporting it, and making it live again. Sousa would be very pleased, I think, to know that his music is still being performed, not surprised, but very, very pleased. And I think it will be performed, The Stars and Stripes Forever.

MR. SCHISSEL: I just like turning around at my concerts and seeing people in their 80s and 90s, and when youíre playing that music their feet are moving. You donít see anyone not smiling. And whatís great is when you see a two-year old or a three-year old, or a 12-year old, something like that, the same smile, the same foot tapping. Itís music that belongs to all of us. And people can talk it to death, you play the music, everything is fine.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, another hot controversy on the Think Tank set, ranging the full gamut from A to B. I think we are in pretty solid agreement that this was a most remarkable American.

Thank you, Jerry Rife, John Newsom, and Loras Schissel. For Think Tank Iím Ben Wattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our show better. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1219 Connecticut Avenue, Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20036, or email us at thinktank@pbs.org. To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBS Online at pbs.org. And please let us know where you watch Think Tank.

This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Donner Canadian Foundation.

(End of program.)

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