An inventor, a soldier, a gifted musician – John Philip Sousa was all these things and more. His marches have become entwined with many citizens concept of what it means to be an ‘American’, even though they may be unaware of his name or history. With Memorial Day just around the corner, I felt it was important to take a moment to recognize a man who served the United States in a way few others have, who felt such a bond with the young men and women who serve in my country’s military that he couldn’t bear to stay away from them; a man who stood behind his patriotic principles, and when called on to serve, did so without hesitation.
Born in 1854 in Washington DC, Sousa was trained in music from a fairly early age, and his aptitude was quickly realized when his father encouraged him to join the United States Marine Band. Though he left to pursue other interests, he soon returned to the band and led it for the 12 years before forming his own marching band, which played for the better part of 40 years. Called “The American March King”, Sousa composed many landmark pieces for his band, pieces which have become both the National March of the United States, Stars and Stripes Forever, and the Official March of the United States Marine Corps, Semper Fidelis. He served as a Lieutenant Commander with the US Navy in the First World War, and was so proud of the service he had done that he wore his navy uniform during every performance of the Marine Corps Band which he conducted after the war’s end. In 1893, he invented the sousaphone, an instrument which was specially designed to be heard over all others.
Growing up near Washington DC, I had the privilege of attending many patriotic events in the heart of my nation’s capital. My father served with the US Navy at the time we lived in Maryland, but he had also done work with the US Air Force, and is currently working with the US Army. There was nothing quite like going onto the mall, standing beneath the shadow of the Washington Monument, and listening to the military bands playing Sousa’s work. I likewise had the honor of visiting Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day weekend, and it is a sight I will never forget. Clean, white gravestones, festooned with flags and flowers, family and friends surrounding plots, talking, laughing, and crying.
Regardless of your politics or philosophies, Memorial Day stands as a time to pay tribute to and remember those men and women across the decades who have paid the highest price of freedom. On this day we pause to remember the boys who never came home to their mothers, the children who have held flags beside a grave while their family wept, and the hero who sacrificed him or herself so their comrades could continue the fight and go home to a place they loved so much. On days like this, patriotism is not about claiming our nation is better than any others, but honoring the values for which men and women were asked to give their lives. It is this kind of patriotism that I believe is weaved into every one of Sousa’s pieces, a pride not in some abstract idea of nation, but in the everyday people who make up a country, and who try every day to make the world a better place.
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