This patriotic American march is widely considered the magnum opus of composer John Philip Sousa (1854–1932). Young Sousa grew up on military music. As a child, he enjoyed hearing the Civil War military bands that frequently played in Washington, DC as well as his father’s trombone in the US Marine Band. Sousa followed in his father’s footsteps, enlisting as an apprentice violinist and eventually becoming bandleader. Later he formed his own band, the Sousa Band, which toured for 39 years and entertained millions of people.
Sousa composed his famous march on Christmas Day, 1896 while at sea, returning from a trip to Europe. While on vacation, he had learned that his close friend and manager of the Sousa Band, David Blakely, had died. Sousa and his wife immediately booked the next ship back to New York, where he began work on the march. In his autobiography, Marching Along, Sousa said the song was about the feeling of coming home to America and how “in a foreign country the sight of the Stars and Stripes seems the most glorious in the world.” The march was designated the official National March of the United States of America in 1987.
Although not as familiar as the music itself, Sousa wrote lyrics for the march. What does it mean to say, of the Stars and Stripes, that it is “the flag of flags”? Can this view be justified? What does it mean to say “by their might, and by their right / It waves forever”? Is “forever” a wish, a hope, a goal, or a certainty? How does hearing the march make you feel? Does this song—words and music—add to your understanding of, and your attachment to, the flag?
For a musical rendition, watch the “The President’s Own” US Marine Band perform Sousa’s march on March, 3, 2009, in the John Philip Sousa Band Hall at the Marine Barracks Annex in Washington, DC.