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Remembering Sousa

Vincent Patterson | July 2009

  (John Philip Sousa, right, greets President Hoover, center, and the British Ambassador at the premiere of The Royal Welch Fusiliers.)

     President George Washington de­clined an offer to be King of America, but the United States does have a king in John Philip Sousa, The March King. His legendary achievements keep his name alive today, perhaps more so than in his lifetime. Sousa’s final resting place at the Historic Congressional Ceme­tery (1801 E Street, SE, Wash­ington, D.C.) is popular with tourists.1, 2

Sousa’s Early Years
    The story of how Sousa became interred in the Historic Congressional Cemetery is fascinating because it re­volves around music. Sousa was born on November 6, 1854 at 636 G Street, SE, Washington, D.C. and as a boy played near the Congressional Cemetery with his young schoolmates.3
    He began music lessons at an early age, encouraged by his Portuguese father, An­tonio, and Bavarian mother; Antonio was a trombonist and longtime member of the Marine Band. The couple had ten children, of which John Philip was the first son.4   Soon after Antonio’s death on April 27, 1892, John Philip had a monument to his father placed in the Historic Congressional Ce­metery at range 85, site 83, named The Antonio Sousa Plot. In three adjacent burial spaces the graves are deep with 11 stacked caskets: John’s mother and father, their children Josephine, Ferdinand, Ro­sina, Annie, Antonio A., and four others who are not identified. It was expected and natural that John Philip’s wife, Jane, bury The March King at the Historic Con­gressional Ce­metery in the family cemetery’s plot, range L77, site 163-S.1, 3, 4

Legendary Career

    Sousa’s lifetime connection with the Marine Band and military music is legendary. When 13-year-old John Philip wanted to join a traveling circus in 1867, Antonio enlisted the youth as an apprentice musician in the Marine Band. John grew musically, playing in the Marine Band, Washington pit or­chestras, and conducting musical theater.3
    He was selected as Marine Band Leader in 1880 and composed many of his famous marches while residing at 204 Sixth Street, SE. In 1892 at age 38 he founded his own civilian band just three months and three days after his father’s death. Guided by manager David Blakely, the Sousa Band began touring the United States with the goal of bringing fine-quality music to every corner of the growing nation.5

Congressional Cemetery

    The Historic Con­gressional Ce­me-tery was not yet considered historic when it accepted burials in 1807. A group of private citizens set up the cemetery by enclosing it with a fence and appointing a manager; plots sold for $2.00 each. By 1812 it was free of debt and ceded to the vestry of Christ Church, becoming known as Wash-ington Parish Burial Ground.6
    Because of its proximity to the Capitol, the cemetery developed a close association with Capitol Hill politicians. Even though the Historic Con­gressional Ce­metery is private and not  part of the U.S. government, it can be considered our first national cemetery. Today there are over 60,000 burials listed in the Historic Con­gressional Cemetery registry and more are currently being added.

Sousa Dies in His Sleep
    On March 5, 1932 Sousa arrived in Reading, Pennsylvania, scheduled to conduct the Ring­gold Band. He had ar­rived in the afternoon “and appeared in his usual health,” newspapers reported. Following re­hearsal, he dined at a banquet held in his honor at the Wyo­­missing Club, and although his voice seemed weak, he made a brief speech that included two or three funny stories and reflections on his lengthy career; he sat down amid enthusiastic applause.7
     He asked to be excused from saying more to save his strength for the next day’s concert and retired to his hotel room. Checking on him at 12:10 a.m., Lillian Finegan, his secretary, found him unconscious. Twenty minutes later the Lincoln Hotel physician pronounced him dead, having suffered a fatal heart attack as he slept.7, 8

Sousa’s Funeral
    Since the early days of the Ma­rine Band, its lea­ders have kept a logbook, the Lea­der’s Ledger, of the band’s daily activities. Cap­tain Taylor Bran­son, the leader at the time of Sou­sa’s death, recorded this timeline of events:9, 10

Sunday, March 6, 1932 – 8:00 p.m. John Philip Sousa’s body ar­rived at Union Station. Repo­s­ing at Gawler’s Undertaking Es­tablishment.

Monday, March 7 – 3:00 p.m. to 4 p.m. Band concert (radio) “Dream Hour.” All request program. Broad­cast by WRC-NBC. Leader conducting. Memorial concert to John Philip Sousa. Clarke R.E. (trombone) played “Lost Chord” and “There is no death.”

Tuesday, March 8 – Band Aud­itorium 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon. Broadcast by WRC-NBC. Dedicated to memory of John Philip Sousa.

Wednesday, March 9 – 8:00 p.m. Band at 8:15 p.m. to assist in Goodyear Company Broadcast mem­­orial to John Philip Sousa. Played in tribute to Sousa “Semper Fidelis.” Poor place for Broad­casting. (Ar­thur) Godfrey an­nouncer for Band.

Thursday, March 10 – Band Aud­it­orium 3:00 p.m. Funeral of the late John Philip Sousa, who lay in state from Wednesday. Chief Chap­lain Sidney Evans, U.S.   Navy and Rector Gable of Christ Episcopal Church, officiating clergyman. Grid­iron Quartet sang “Abide with Me” and “Jesus Lover of my Soul” directed by Leader of the Band behind floral background.
Band, company of Marines, and Sailors on parade ground. Band played “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” and “Nearer My God to Thee” as body was brought from Auditorium. On funeral escort to Congressional Cemetery played “Sem­­per Fidelis” in dirge time, “Garfield’s Funeral March” (Sousa), “Honored Dead” (Sousa).
    Played “Lead Kindly Light” at the grave.8 Beautiful but cold day. No eulogy. Very short service. 15 minutes. Notable musicians pallbearers, Gene Buck, Hen­ry Hadley, Arthur Pryor, George M. Cohan, Franko Goldman. Overflow gathering at funeral in Band Auditorium. Throngs of people lined the streets 8th to G to Potomac Avenue to E Streets, S.E. to Main Gate. Poor police protection at Cemetery.4, 9 

Earlier in the Band Auditorium the Evening Star newspaper reported:
    The service at the barracks, which the widow of the great bandmaster and his family will attend with many notables in Army, Navy, and congressional circles, will consist of the simple Epis­copal prayers for the dead. It will be broadcast to every part of the city by stations WMAL and WJSV. Sousa was laid out in his Navy Reserve uniform bearing the rank of Lieutenant Commander.11

The New York Times reported on March 11:
    The escort, in addition to the Marine Band, included two companies of bluejackets and marines. The coffin was borne on a flag-draped caisson drawn by eight dapple-gray horses.12 The burial service was concluded with the firing of a volley over the grave by a firing squad and the sounding of “Taps” by a marine trumpeter. [“Taps” was actually played by a former Sousa Band cornetist, Del Staigers.]
    As John Philip Sousa was buried today, Congress was asked to dedicate The March King’s famous Stars and Stripes Forever as the national march of the United States. A bill to that effect was introduced by Rep. Lich­tenwainer of Penn­sylvania whose district includes Reading, where Mr. Sousa died suddenly on Sunday.

    Among others attending the funeral were former Marine Band members  Walter F. Smith, Louis Kreuger, and John Ter Linden. “He was strict but fair,” Smith said, “a good conductor, the best bandmaster I have ever seen. He was to bands what Toscanini is to orchestras.” The former bandsman added that “Sousa, in his younger days, was amazingly alert and vigorous.  He was keen for perfection. A sour note was like a blow to him.”13

The Memorial Gravestone

    After Sousa’s death, many people talked about erecting some type of majestic memorial to him. The first attempt, proposed in 1938, was to collect $750,000 to build a new concert hall, the Sousa Memorial Auditorium. Supporters planned a series of radio broadcasts to raise funds, and the Mutual Broadcasting Company aired the first program. Because the nation’s economic picture was still bleak, directors of the memorial ceased fund­raising.4
    From their efforts, however, they were able to commission Walter Russell, a famed sculptor, to create a bronze model statue of Sousa and also a decorative marble seat. Now in the Historic Congressional Cemetery, this marble seat at Sousa’s grave gives visitors a place to pause for meditation and sit in contemplation and gratitude for the life of America’s March King, John Philip Sousa.4

Marine Band Concerts
    Guests to the Historic Con­gressional Cemetery can hear annual concerts on November 6 when a contingent of band musicians travels the short distance from Marine Barracks, resplendent in their brass-buttoned, sparkling red, blue, white, and black full dress uniforms for a morning concert. Marching smartly down the Historic Congressional Cemetery drive­way, they move into a horseshoe-shaped formation; the director stands before the marble seat and headstone to conduct.
The band plays two or three Sousa marches accompanied by words of com­fort and inspiration read by an officer or drum major. Then the ceremony concludes with the march, whose introduction is carved into Sousa’s gravestone – The Stars and Stripes Forever! – our National March.     

1Cindy S. Hays, Historic Con­gressional Cemetery Association, President. Interview, November 2008.
2The Instrumentalist Magazine, March-April, 1951, pages 12-16 (The Instrumentalist Publishing Co).
3Historic Congressional Cemetery, bro­chure, “A Salute to John Philip Sousa,” 2003. Archival clippings, undocumented, U.S. Marine Band Library.
4Paul Bierley, John Philip Sousa (In­tegrity).
5Master Gunnery Sergeant Michael Ressler, Marine Band Historian. Interview, Nov­ember 2008.
6Scottish Rite Journal, “History of Con­gressional Cemetery,” May 1998, pages. 13, 14.
7New York Times Newspaper, March 6 and March 11, 1932.
8Etude Magazine, June 1932.
9Leader’s Ledger, U.S. Marine Band, March 5, 1932, etc.
10Captain Taylor Branson, USMC, letter to Albert R. Hoffman, August 9, 1942.
11Evening Star Newspaper, March 10, 1932.
12Herald Tribune Newspaper, March 11, 1932.
13Washington Post Newspaper, March 11, 1932.