Midweek Music Break: The Eyes of War, the Marches of John Philip Sousa

[Image: the Jersey Joes, on parade (somewhere) in the 1940s-50s. Twenty years ago, I’d have said this was too blurry or grainy. Now, I think it’s just about perfect.]

You could hear them for a full minute before they came into sight. A couple of blocks away, still, the horns sounded a little tinny; the drums were a muted, basso sort of approaching rumble. As they got nearer, each breath of the brass grew both fuller and more pointed, and you could hear not just the rattle of the snare drums’ skins but the slight ticky-ticky-tick of the sticks against the chrome or stainless-steel rims…

…and then they were there, suddenly.

You’d read (so you thought) all about The War, and you’d seen the movies and TV shows about it. You knew what they looked like in their service garb back then — ten, fifteen, twenty years before: rumpled khaki or olive uniforms, the helmets dirty dinged and battered and maybe camouflage-netted or even bullet-holed, the boots like something you’d see on a dirt farmer’s feet, their hands grimy, their chins unshaven, maybe a smear of grease or mud or something worse (the photos were all black-and-white) across a cheek or forehead, their eyes the eyes of men who’d never stop wincing at the sound of a backfire. You could trace a direct line to their old uniforms from the uniforms of the Revolutionary War marchers in that Spirit of ’76 painting.

And you’d seen them as they looked since then, too, still in uniforms perhaps (but with the logos of gasoline retailers, grocery-store chains, public utilities and bus companies swapped in for the medals and insigniae of rank), still with the smear of grease across a corner of their faces, weekend Budweisers clenched in the hands which once gripped rifles, wrenches, binoculars, and maps.

All of which made their transformation on  this muggy South Jersey July morning remarkable: crisp black cotton uniforms; brilliant black boots with white laces; white helmet liners; white gloves; clean and clean-shaven faces; and a distant look in their eyes… These uniforms had nothing to do with the Spirit of ’76 guys’ clothes, but these eyes came straight from those faces.

And always, always with the music, pounding, rattling the windows of the stores as they passed, vibrating through the soles of your feet, and making it impossible to remain seated on the curb.

When people say that they grew up in a “musical household,” they mean — nine-plus times out of ten — participatory music. They had a piano, say, and/or took violin lessons, and/or sang in church choirs. Or maybe their parents were theater-music buffs, or even played or sang in rock bands or onstage.

That wasn’t us, though. We had a (player) piano, seldom used; we had a guitar, fitfully played; and I think we may have had a harmonica or a kazoo or two mixed in there somewhere. (Uncle Jack played the guitar and sang, an exotic jungle bird among the sparrows.) But generally, no. Growing up in our musical household of the 1950s and 1960s, we absorbed primarily recorded and broadcast music, especially of the Big Band era.

But we also could not help having the martial rhythms and melodies of marching-band music — often live — hammered into our heads. Dad had been one of the founding members of a postwar national-champion drum-and-bugle corps, and Mom had been a drum majorette. (You could fairly say that the first time they laid eyes on each other they’d both been in uniform — one already strutting around the football field, the other awaiting his or her turn to do the same thing.) We had drum-and-bugle — and fife-and-drum! — albums occasionally playing on the hi-fi. We could not miss a single Memorial Day or July 4th parade, in which not just one of Dad’s bands but a few others always paraded and played.

(In hindsight, it’s a wonder that the four of us kids turned out to be undisciplined pacifists instead of obedient little brownshirts.)

I go for long stretches of time without thinking of march music at all, but it doesn’t take much to trigger memorized passages or entire songs. Naturally, one or the other of the two big summer(ish) holidays often flips that switch. This year, just this past weekend in fact, radio host Bob Edwards interviewed the great-grandson of John Philip Sousa (JPS #4), and the interview was spiced throughout with clips of the music. Down the rabbit hole I fell…

…and here I have emerged, blinking in the muggy North Florida air of mid-July, clutching a handful of full performances.

In the list below, each link takes you to the Wikipedia page on that selection. Not all those pages go into equal detail; “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” for example, is widely regarded as Sousa’s magnum opus, so it’s got a fairly substantial entry, while “The Thunderer” earns just a few sentences.

On all of the playlist’s songs but the last, performances are by the United States Marine Corps Band. That last item — recovered thanks to the Internet Archive — is an 1896 (!) recording, on wax cylinder (!!), of a performance by the Edison Grand Concert Band.

  1. The Washington Post
  2. El Capitan
  3. Semper Fidelis
  4. The Stars and Stripes Forever
  5. The Thunderer
  6. The Liberty Bell

Selected Sousa Marches


Lighter-hearted addendum: In his lifetime, Sousa was famously hostile to the hot musical innovation of the time: committing musical performances to a sort of permanence, via recordings:

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy, in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cords will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

A half-century (and a little more) after Sousa’s heyday, one of his apparently biggest fans had dived wholeheartedly into recorded music — especially music with a march beat. Think of “The Children’s Marching Song” (a/k/a “Knick-Knack Paddy-Whack”)… think of his recording of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” with that murmur of snare drums… think of… well, think of this:

And of course, for a large chunk of the English-American audience born after World War II, it’s impossible to hear “The Liberty Bell” without expecting to hear it end with a giant Splat!:

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  1. For an update on modern American march music, I’ve always felt that Springsteen must have been listening to much of it, before generating the song: Badlands. I’ve more than once entertained myself by imagining a summer parade with our usual expectation of marching bands playing their usual Sousa stuff, being ushered off the corner of Burlington Ave. and Walnut street by the E-Street Band in rag-tag 70’s rocker garb.

    • Wow — that’s a connection (i.e., from march music to “Badlands”) that I don’t think I’d have ever made. Cool picture though, especially imagining the band at that corner — I guess playing on a stage set up in the parking lot of the Cumberland Farms convenience store. (I know, I know: it can’t possibly still be a CumbyLand!)

      Now that you bring it up, though…

      Funny… the only Memorial Day/July 4th parades I really remember were in other towns (Riverside, Beverly). I guess we did have some up the street from us, though, huh?

      • Delanco definitely had it’s own Memorial Day parade. I’ve got vague memories of being in “Scout” uniform marching from like Delview Lane down to the “Old” municipal building across from Mrs. Oakerson’s house on Burlington Ave. on one year. I even have a vague notion of one or more floats being made one year out of the famous crepe paper flowers, over at Ed’s Garden Mart. No memory of what the floats were commemorating, however. While watching “Born on the Fourth of July”, I remember that opening parade sequence having the right feel of the Delanco parade, too. I also remember standing at the end of Holly St., at least one year, in front of the Post Office with some guy who was a vendor selling those whirling things on a stick, with some stars and stripes theme of some kind, waiting for the Parade to come by. Weird how clear that image is, and yet have barely/nary a memory of a parade in Riverside – I presume on Scott St. The “old” Town hall is a memory that’s pretty solid for me, as I remember back then thinking: Why would you tear down this old, really kind of nice “housey” kind of building, just to put up this very bland brick thing to replace it? Budding of a young architect? Or just architectural critic?

  2. When the Joes did the parade in Riverside during the 70’s, I think it was, I remember them coming down the street and me crying at the sounds. Not just the feet clomping, but the sound of the men singing in unison. I was filled with pride that our dad was in there, singing and marching (I believe it was accapella {how do you spell that word!}, as I’m pretty sure none of them had instruments any more).

    The Beverly parade was the “big one” everyone went to as it had bands and military guys from all over. I remember sitting on the curb for that, snippets really, of multiple years. The same sort of snippets for the Medford Halloween parades. All of them blend in together, except the Medford one I was always freezing by the time it got done.

    • …and then there were the Boy Scouts who sometimes marched in those parades, whose fathers were somewhere ahead or behind, tromping along in cadence in their black, white-laced boots. The casual slap of his own plain old shoe leather on the street seemed — to at least one of the little guys — simply to confirm what he already knew: he’d never get this thing of “being a man” right.

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