Sousa thump

The springboard is a Facebook exchange between Doug Ball and me back on August 11th — in the midst of which I erupted parenthetically and largely irrelevantly in recollections of Reading PA (an area I left in 1961):

Doug: I wonder which Sousa march was stuck in my head as I walked this evening. On second thought, I don’t want to know…

Arnold: In my experience, you really don’t. I once tried to identify a Sousa march by speed-listening through a collection of them, and it just clogged my mind up with all these very similar compositions and then I could no longer sing the melody line of the one I was after and had all of them jangling in my head for days. Perhaps you are made of sterner stuff.

(Reading PA, where I am sort of from, is prime marching band territory, with the Ringgold Band dating back to the 1850s (yes, 8), a local band composer, Althouse, of some note, and lots of bandshell concerts. Sousa conducted the last band performance of his life in Reading in 1932 — retired for the night to the Abraham Lincoln Hotel and died there. My dad remembered the occasion; he was 18 then.)

Doug: I’m suspicious that it was a blend of several marches, including The US Air Force song, which is not by Sousa. [AZ: melody line and original first verse — “Off we go into the wild blue yonder” — by Robert McArthur Crawford in May 1939, the winner of a competition]

Arnold: If so, you’re probably not going to extricate yourself from it. Flee!

The American tradition of military marching bands descends from the British tradition. The bands can be thought of as military stringless orchestras — brass, woodwinds, lots of percussion — performing loudly in uniform on foot in the open air; eventually traditions developed of performances in bandshells and on concert stages, and in sports-related rather than battle-related settings. Traditionally, the band members are white men in military-style uniforms, though there are many alternative forms, including the brass bands of (traditionally black) New Orleans jazz funerals.

But the military march itself is an extremely constrained genre. It’s not marches per se. The world of marches is extraordinarily diverse, embracing such items as Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold (from the Symphonie Fantastique); Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker March and his Marche Slave; Chopin’s Funeral March (Marche funèbre); Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca (the “Turkish March”) and the March of the Priests (from the Magic Flute); Wagner’s Grand March (from Tannhäuser) and Wedding March / Bridal Chorus (from Lohengrin); Mendelssohn’s Wedding March (from Midsummer Night’s Dream); while we’re on wedding music, Jeremiah Clark’s Trumpet Voluntary; and tons of marches by Handel.

These works aren’t easily confused, but military marches performed by a military band have an unfortunate sameness that makes them hard to distinguish: hence the problems Doug and I had in identifying them. (On the other hand, that sameness makes them familiar, comforting, and rousingly pleasing.)

Then there’s the fact that Sousa wrote 137 marches, and he was far from the only composer in the genre. From Wikipedia:


John Philip Sousa (November 6, 1854 – March 6, 1932) was an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era known primarily for American military marches. He is known as “The March King” or the “American March King”, to distinguish him from his British counterpart Kenneth J. Alford who is also known as “The March King”. Among his best-known marches are “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (National March of the United States of America), “Semper Fidelis” (official march of the United States Marine Corps), “The Liberty Bell”, “The Thunderer”, and “The Washington Post”.

… Sousa wrote 137 marches, 15 operettas, 5 overtures, 11 suites, 24 dances, 28 fantasies, and 322 arrangements of nineteenth-century western European symphonic works.

The golden age of American march music. Memorialized in The Music Man. From Wikipedia:

(#2) The 1962 film (and yes, in my opinion, it is indeed wonderful)

The Music Man is a musical with book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey. The plot concerns con man Harold Hill, who poses as a boys’ band organizer and leader and sells band instruments and uniforms to naive Midwestern townsfolk, promising to train the members of the new band.

… In 1957, the show became a hit on Broadway, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and running for 1,375 performances. The cast album won the first Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and spent 245 weeks on the Billboard charts. The show’s success led to revivals, including a long-running 2000 Broadway revival, a popular 1962 film adaptation and a 2003 television adaptation. It is frequently produced by both professional and amateur theater companies.

The relevant bit of the film script comes at the end of “Ya Got Trouble”, Prof. Harold Hill’s boys’-band pitch to the people of River City, Iowa, followed by the musical’s signature song, “Seventy-Six Trombines”, with this intervening lead-in (crucial bit in boldface):

… And you see the glitter
of crashing symbols
And you hear the thunder of rolling drums
And the shimmer of trumpets,
tah tah-dum!

And you feel something akin
to the electric thrill I once enjoyed
When Gilmore,
Liberati, Pat Conway,
The Great Creatore, W.C. Handy
and John Phillip Sousa
all came to town on the
very same historic day!

Seventy six trombones led the big parade
with a hundred and ten
cornets close at hand
They were followed by rows and rows
of the finest virtuosos,
the cream of every famous band! …

You can listen to the whole scene from the film’s soundtrack album, here (#3).

The list of the great band composers named in this scene (marvelously, named in the order of their birth dates):

Patrick Gilmore 12/25/1829 – 9/24/1892; Alessandro Liberati 8/24/1847 – 11/6/1927; Patrick Conway 7/4/1865 – 6/10/1929; Giuseppe Creatore 6/21/1871 – 8/15/1952; W. C. Handy 11/16/1873 – 3/28/1958

plus Sousa, above (born 1854), out of order, because he’s the greatest of these figures.

The Sousa of Reading PA. Missing from The Music Man, but contemporaneous with Sousa: Monroe Althouse. From Wikipedia:

Monroe A. Althouse (May 26, 1853 – October 12, 1924) was a composer and bandmaster best known for his parade marches. He was born in Centre Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania [the county of my childhood, with Reading as its county seat] and spent his youth working on the family farm. He learned to play the violin, trombone, and baritone as he toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show during his teens. After performing with several local bands, orchestras, and theater ensembles near Reading, Pennsylvania, he organized the pit orchestra for the Rajah Theater [in downtown Reading] and was selected to lead the Ringgold Band [details to come]. He became friends with John Philip Sousa and the two composers stayed in contact as each toured the country. Althouse co-founded the James S. Althouse & Co. music publisher. He retired from conducting in 1922 due to poor health.

It turns out that I was familiar with a number of Althouse’s marches, but thought they were Sousa’s. You can see a performance of Althouse’s “Always On the Road” here (#4),  by the Ringgold Band (under the direction of Jim Seidel), from its 165th spring anniversary concert on 4/30/17, at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, Wyomissing PA [where my dad grew up, and where I lived in the summer of 1961].

The Ringgold Band. From their site, on the band’s history:

June 28, 1852 – A musical group organizes under the name Independent American Brass Band of Reading, in Berks County, PA.

November 1852 – Band members unanimously agree to play for the Ringgold Light Artillery (a military company that would become the first to answer President Lincoln’s call for volunteers during mobilization for the Civil War).

June 1853 – The Independent American Brass Band changes its name to the Ringgold Artillery Brass Band and becomes attached to the U.S. Army’s 25th and 99th regiments.

June 21, 1862 – Ringgold Artillery Brass Band, along with other regimental bands, is mustered out by order of the federal government. The City of Reading receives widespread recognition for the band’s loyal and patriotic service.

1901-1923 – Monroe A. Althouse … is the next leader of the Ringgold Cornet Band. He would eventually become known as Reading’s “March King” because of the marches he crafted to commemorate special occasions or organizations throughout Berks County. (Today, Ringgold Band opens each concert with an Althouse march – our way of honoring his musical legacy.)

March 6, 1932 – Renowned “March King” John Philip Sousa conducts the last march of his life. Slated to appear as guest conductor at the Ringgold Band’s 80th Anniversary Concert, Sousa rehearses the band in one of his best-known marches, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Later that day, he attends a banquet and poses for [a] photo with Ringgold Band director Eugene Weidner … After dinner, Sousa retires to his room at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading and suffers a fatal heart attack. As a tribute to the late, great March King, the Ringgold Band concludes nearly every concert with a rousing rendition of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

And that’s where I came in, with JPS suddenly dead at the Abe Lincoln Hotel, 100 N. Fifth St. in Reading (the hotel then virtually brand-new, having been built in 1930). (About 15 years later, my parents opened a little costume jewelry shop, about a block south of the hotel, on the other, east, side of the street.)

Bonus round. Where did the name Ringgold come from?, you ask. I’ll explain, but first a trick question for you:

Where is the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park?

While you’re thinking about that, a piece from the Berks History Center site, “The Ringgold Light Artillery of Reading” by Nicholas D. Fognano, Jr.:

The Ringgold Light Artillery was formed unof­ficially in November of 1849 by the Company A volunteers, a group of veterans of the Mexican War, and called themselves, “The Ringgold Fly­ing Artillery,” named for Major Samuel Ringgold who commanded a battery of the Third Artillery and was mortally wounded on May 8, 1846 …, the first U.S. soldier to be killed in the Mexican War.

Major Ringgold was the first proponent of the “flying artillery,” a tactical concept which utilized the cannon in battle by having them accompany the infantry as it moved forward in battle instead of having the cannon remain behind to fire over the heads of the advancing infantry. On May 21, 1850, the unit named for Ringgold was officially formed and later changed its name, dropping the term “flying,” and renamed simply, the Ringgold Light Artillery.

And the battle in which Major Ringgold died? From Wikipedia:

The Battle of Palo Alto (Spanish: Batalla de Palo Alto) [presumably named after a palo alto ‘tall tree’ on the field of battle, a tree like the one for which my little city is named] was the first major battle of the Mexican–American War and was fought on May 8, 1846, on disputed ground five miles (8 km) from the modern-day city of Brownsville, Texas. A force of some 3,700 Mexican troops – most of the Army of The North – led by General Mariano Arista engaged a force of approximately 2,300 United States troops – the Army of Occupation led by General Zachary Taylor [and was repulsed by Taylor’s forces].

… The battlefield [near Brownsville TX] is now Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park and is maintained by the National Park Service.

It’s about 2000 miles from my Palo Alto, and close to the Gulf of Mexico rather than the San Francisco Bay. Also, thanks to the Intervención Estadounidense en México of 1846-48, now in the U.S. rather than Mexico.

One Response to “Sousa thump”

  1. Max Vasilatos Says:

    You’ve gone a different, more complex direction than my thoughts, but I’ve noted in the past some commonalities between your basic march and your basic rock ‘n roll. They’re easy to play, and catchy. Tend to be in 4/4 time, in the key of C, simplest music we have. Different audiences, with different ideas about what music ought to do, might object to my idea. The fundamental similarity is there.

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