John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, D.C., on November 6, 1854. His father, John Antonio Sousa, played trombone in the Marine Band and inspired his son at an early age to pursue music.
Young Sousa’s studies of music began when he was about six years old. He played most of the instruments in the orchestra, plus piano, but his favorite was the violin.
At the age of 13, Sousa considered joining a circus band in order to begin a musical career, but his father had other ideas. The elder Sousa enrolled his son in the Marine Band as an apprentice. John Philip Sousa remained in this position until the age of 20, meanwhile continuing his studies of music theory and composition.
After leaving the Marine Band, Sousa’s next move was to play violin in a theatrical orchestra, an opportunity which introduced him to conducting. Sousa discovered that he had a love for this aspect of music, and after practicing his new skill for two years he was appointed as Director of the Marine Band in 1880.
The Marine Band
It was Sousa’s new role as the 17th Director of the Marine Band that brought him to public prominence. This band was merely part of the President’s staff, performing on special occasions and otherwise going unnoticed. When Sousa took charge, however, the Marine Band became respected as a music group in its own right.
Sousa’s musical genius and attention to detail put him in good stead here. No sooner had he arrived on the scene than he began to transform the Marine Band, beginning by rewriting the arrangements. He expected more from the musicians than previous conductors had, as well; demanding rehearsals were a new institution under his watch.
As the Marine Band took shape and earned unprecedented respect, Sousa set to work to write new music for it to play. Inspiring marches were his hallmark. Although he had written some music in the past, the first piece to earn him acclaim was “The Gladiator,” published in 1886. Another favorite song from Sousa’s Marine Band days was “Semper Fidelis,” now the official march of the Marine Corps.
By this time, recording had become possible thanks to the phonograph, which then played music from a cylinder. The Columbia Phonograph Company was searching for talented groups to record, and the Marine Band caught their attention. Sousa personally hated records, calling them “canned music,” but the Marine Band nevertheless released 60 cylinders in 1890. Sousa’s marches received instant popularity, making the Marine Band one of the world’s first “recording stars.”
Because of the widespread acclaim these records won for the Marine Band, Sousa was able to get permission from President Benjamin Harrison to make an annual tour beginning in 1891. This and the 1892 tour were highly successful and led to a new opportunity for Sousa.
The Famous Sousa Band
In July 1892, Sousa retired from his position with the Marine Band and organized his own marching band. This group was originally called Sousa’s New Marine Band, but a protest from Washington quickly led to a name change: the Famous Sousa Band.
The Famous Sousa Band was a resounding success worldwide. It made semiannual tours from 1892 to 1931, covering well over a million miles. Sousa’s group represented America at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the 1900 Paris Exposition, and the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, and even performed for Queen Victoria by royal command.
It was while leading the Famous Sousa Band that Sousa wrote the song most frequently associated with his name. He once noted that he refused to write music without a real inspiration, saying, “I would rather be the composer of an inspired march than of a manufactured symphony.” While on board a ship heading back to American in 1896, a melody began to play itself in Sousa’s head. He wrote words for the tune, and the result was “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Sousa once declared, “When you hear of Sousa retiring, you will hear of Sousa dead.” True to his word, he continued to conduct throughout the rest of his life. In addition to his work with the Famous Sousa Band, he helped to develop the sousaphone, served as the musical director for the Sixth Army Corps during the Spanish-American War, and led the band at the Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, during World War I.
During his lifetime, Sousa wrote over 300 musical pieces. About a third of these were the marches that brought him renown as “The March King,” but he also wrote suites, dances, operettas, fantasies, and humoresques.
Sousa died on March 6, 1932, shortly after leading another band in a rehearsal. The last piece he conducted was “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
John Philip Sousa
Biography from the Library Congress for Kids.
John Philip Sousa, Composer
Biography for kids from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
John Philip Sousa Timeline
From the Library of Congress.
John Philip Sousa
His involvement in the United States Marine Band.
The Ringgold Band History
Timeline including Sousa’s involvement.
“Semper Fidelis March”
Performed by the United States Marine Band in 1909 and recorded on an Edison cylinder.
“The Stars and Stripes Forever”
Performed by John Phillip Sousa’s Band recorded in 1906 at Menlo Park.
“The Washington Post”
Performed by the Unites States Marine Band in 1890.
Quiz: Test Your John Philip Sousa Knowledge
Fun interactive quiz from Minnesota Public Radio that will test your knowledge of Sousa tunes.
John Philip Duck by Patricia Polacco
Cute tie-in from a favorite author/illustrator about a young man who takes in a wild duck and trains him to perform to John Philip Sousa’s marches at the hotel where he works during the Depression.
The Experiences of a Bandmaster by John Philip Sousa
Great public domain work written by Sousa himself recounting some of the interesting incidents that occurred serving presidents as conductor of the Marine Band. Not a biography, but a fast and fun read to be enjoyed by the entire family. Highly recommended!
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
John Philip Sousa: The Stars and Stripes Forever
Classics for Kids show on the composer with podcast, quiz, and analysis activity sheet.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
John Philip Sousa
Printable activity/coloring page from Crayola.
Composer Notebooking Pages
Free 18-page generic composer pages from HomeschoolNotebooking.com. Great set!
John Philip Sousa Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.