Celebrate Sousa’s Birthday

Between 1893 and 1932, John Philip Sousa spent twenty-three of his birthdays traveling with his civil band across the United States and England rather than spending his time with his family.  Travel by train and ship was always an exhausting affair for the March King and the members of his band.  One can imagine that Sousa might have wished to celebrate his birthdays with either family or at least finding time to enjoy a horseback ride across a quiet open field.  However, the call of each year’s performance tours was always foremost on Sousa’s mind.

Over these 39 years, Sousa’s civilian band traveled the world playing for large city audiences and small-town communities who were eager to hear his newest march melodies.  Sousa spent his first travelling birthday with his band in 1894 with a performance at Cleveland’s Lyceum Theatre.  The following year he celebrated his birthday in Mobile, Alabama.  In 1898 Sousa’s birthday was spent in both Clinton and Davenport, Iowa, and in later years his celebrations took place in twenty-five different cities and towns including  Hutchinson, Rock Springs, San Francisco, Bartlesville, Buffalo, Lock Haven, Missoula, Duluth, Morristown, Huntington, Madison, Peoria, Milwaukee, Palo Alto, and Greenville.

Some years’ celebrations on the road were minor affairs enjoyed briefly with close colleagues.  Other years were much grander events graciously greeted by the March King.  His seventy-second birthday in 1926 was spent in Milwaukee.  According to members of the band, as the train pulled into the station on November 6, the locomotives blew their whistles.  When Sousa inquired about the reason for such noise, the band responded, “Mr. Sousa, don’t you know it’s your birthday?”  The March King responded to their question, “I wish the railroad would save their coal and pay more dividends on their stock.”   At the afternoon’s matinee concert, seventy-two children walked onto the stage carrying a large cake with candles.  One boy remained on stage and earnestly looked at Sousa, which prevented the concert from continuing.  According to band members, after several minutes passed the honoree turned to the young boy and said, “Well, young man, I’m not going to eat it right now.”  After the concert the children had their fill of cake and the rest of it was donated to the city’s other charities.

While Mr. Sousa may not have greet each birthday’s celebration with grand anticipation throughout his life, let us take a moment to celebrate what would be his 168th birthday on this November 6th and listen to an early recording of the Sousa Band performing the Empire March that is part of the Center’s Jack Linker American Bands Sound Recording Collection. This is a great way to celebrate the March King’s birthday.

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