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Researching Sousa

Researching Sousa | August September 2023

   To research the legendary bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa, scholars must visit at least three repositories. Although the materials at each location are fairly distinct, it is unusual for the archives and personal effects of one person to be so widely dispersed. How did that happen, and what materials are where?

United States Marine Band Library
   By the early 1970s, Sousa’s heirs needed to divest their famous ancestor’s townhouses in New York City and Washington, DC. The house at 318 Independence Avenue SE in Washington had been offered at a discount to the American Bandmasters Association as the location for a Sousa museum, along with a selection of Sousa memorabilia, including uniforms and other clothing, batons, medals and trophies, photographs, press clippings correspondence, financial documents, books, artwork, study scores, libretti, recordings, instruments, tour trunks, and firearms. The museum never happened, and the trove of Sousa artifacts became the property of the National Museum of the Marine Corps as curated by the United States Marine Band. There, the materials joined the encore books and several holograph music manuscripts described in the John Philip Sousa Papers.

   The Marine Band holds a portion of the Sousa Band and Victor Grabel Music Library, which arrived by a more circuitous route. After leaving the Marine Band in 1892, Sousa began collecting music to supply his new civilian band, the famed Sousa Band, managed by David Blakely (pictured left) from 1893 until Blakely’s death in 1896. Blakey’s widow then obtained ownership of the performance library through a lawsuit, and her children kept the materials for several years before selling them back to Sousa in 1924. After picking out a few works to keep, he gave the rest to fellow band director Victor Grabel in 1931. Grabel eventually took most of it with him when he became the band director at Stetson University in Florida in the 1940s. The collection remained at Stetson following Grabel’s retirement in the late 1940s until Stetson gave this music to the United States Marine Band in 1969.

The Library of Congress
   The small portion of the Sousa Band music library that Grabel did not take to Florida was sold to Louis M. Blaha, band director at J. Sterling Morton High School in Cicero, Illinois. The high school gave this music to the Library of Congress in 1992.

   When the Sousa family prepared his Manhattan townhouse located at 80 Washington Place for sale, they set aside two trunks full of music manuscripts for shipment to the Library of Congress. This music was to join the materials already held at the Library, which included holographs that former Music Division chief Oscar G. T. Sonneck began acquiring in 1917 as well as the holograph full score for band of The Stars and Stripes Forever, donated by family members in 1954. According to legend, two men walking past the nearly empty house spied the trunks through the living room windows and broke in to help themselves to the bulky antiques. To make the load lighter, they dumped out all the music, deeming it to be of little value compared to the trunks.

   We are grateful for their error, as this music represents the bulk of the holograph music in the John Philip Sousa Collection at the Library of Congress. The collection also includes photographs, drafts of three of Sousa’s books, memorabilia, and business papers. Over the years, several members of the Music Division have sorted and identified hundreds of sketches, individual pages, and previously unknown compositions and orchestrations for the concert hall and stage.

   These newly identified materials can enable a scientific investigation of Sousa’s remarkable organic compositional technique. Rich in holograph materials for his works for the stage, the collection invites serious appraisal of his efforts to create an American operetta genre. His first stage work, Katherine (1879) and his pioneering orchestrations of the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan and others have yet to receive serious examination. The archive stands ready for deeper exploration and a reappraisal of the famous composer.

Sousa Archives and Center for American Music – The University of Illinois
   Sousa started a second Sousa Band music library in 1897 when his initial holdings were in litigation with Blakely’s widow. This new library became the one most used by the Sousa Band during its last three decades. In 1931, Sousa gave a small segment of this music to the University of Illinois Bands, directed by Austin Harding. Sousa and Harding enjoyed a close professional and personal relationship, and the gift was a gesture of Sousa’s high esteem for his friend’s flagship band program. After Sousa’s death in 1932, the remainder of the Sousa Band’s second performance library was transferred to the University and is now held by the University’s Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, along with a small amount of correspondence, clippings, photographs, programs, and artifacts, as described in the John Philip Sousa Music and Personal Papers.

   Although these repositories hold the bulk of materials available for Sousa research, they are not the only places to look for information. Suggestions for further research include the New York Public Library and the Special Collections in the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland.

Reference Links

Information on the Sousa materials held by the United States Marine Band Library can be found at

For inquiries or to consult the Library of Congress collection, contact the Performing Arts Reading Room at

Several items from the collection can be viewed in the online presentation The March King: John Philip Sousa:

Information on the John Philip Sousa Music and Personal Papers at the University of Illinois can be found at: