When I was in high school, our music teacher for a couple of years was an intense, strange, rather scary man who was also a preacher of some sort. Looking back on it now, I think there might have been something genuinely wrong with him. He had very little emotional control, losing himself in rapture at the music we were playing (or the version that was playing in his head, anyway; we were not particularly musical) or flying into fits of rage whenever kids got under his skin, which was often.
This teacher had two musical passions: old-time gospel music and Sousa marches. He selected far more gospel music than was appropriate for a public school, even in those days, and would close his eyes and sing in bliss as we squawked out the tune. Even the pious among us probably realized something was off about the level of his religious fanaticism as we marched down the street at the regional band festival playing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” But Sousa marches! Now there was something we all could embrace, even the rowdy saxophonists who otherwise lived only to torment our unbalanced band director with sotto voce sarcasm. The teacher’s favorite was the “Washington Post March,” which you don’t hear as much nowadays, but we students preferred the one that you will undoubtedly hear today, July 4, if you watch a fireworks show, listen to an Independence Day concert, or simply keep your ears open as you hit the stores: “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
“The Stars and Stripes Forever” is written in military march form, in which separate sections called “strains” can be repeated, recombined, and re-sequenced to meet the needs of the situation. If the band is actually marching, for example, the first and second strains can be repeated as many times as needed until the band reaches the reviewing stand, at which time the leader will undoubtedly head for the famous Trio/Grandioso strain that finishes the march, the one we all remember with that crazy piccolo flying up into the sky.
John Philip Sousa, the march’s composer as well as its popularizer, was not just a fine musician and composer; he was also a shrewd businessman. He recognized the potential of recorded music very early and made sixty recordings with the Marine Band during his time as its leader, bringing fame to the band and to himself, before leaving it to start the Sousa Band. Although Sousa was known as “the American March King,” the Sousa Band was emphatically not a marching band; our friend Wikipedia records only eight times that the band actually marched during its forty-year history. The Sousa Band can be found performing at practically every notable event and celebration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where it performed at the opening. By that time “The Stars and Stripes Forever” had become one of its signature pieces, as it was practically an instant hit after its composition in 1896-97.
Sousa also wrote lyrics for the march, although I’d have to describe them as unremarkable. They’re full of patriotic sentiment but not especially original; lots of “the gem of the land and the sea” going on here, filling out lines to match the tune. If you grew up watching Mitch Miller on TV, as I did, you’ll remember the nonsense lyrics better. “Be kind to your web-footed friends . . . ” What makes “The Stars and Stripes Forever” memorable is its grand and stirring music, and that’s all right. We don’t always need words to make us feel patriotic.
Speaking of patriotism, after that band director got fired or left on his own (who knows which?), the school hired a young music teacher, fresh out of college, who actually knew a thing or two about music and played a mean trumpet. He had gone to college after serving in the Army, where his trumpet skills had earned him an assignment to one of the several music ensembles that the Army maintained to entertain troops, play at events, and generally put forth a more humane face to the world than tanks and machine guns. And thus he had found himself out of the line of fire during that time, when the Army was engaged in a full-scale war in Vietnam. I remember him telling me as graduation approached to keep practicing my trombone in case things went sour and the draft was reimposed. “You’ll want to play that horn, trust me,” he said, or something like that.