THE MARCH ACROSS: When Sousa Took The Band Overseas

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By Ken Zurski

SousaIn the spring of 1900, America’s foremost composer and conductor John Philip Sousa brought his large band to Europe. Sousa always dreamed of playing his patriotic marches overseas, but until the turn of the century no good opportunity presented itself. When the lavish Paris Exposition opened in 1889, Sousa was asked to attend. The following year on April 22,  a farewell concert took place at the New York Metropolitan Opera House. The next day, Sousa and his band, all sixty-three strong, set sail for France.

Sousa was already a celebrity, not just for his music but for his direction as well.  Born in 1854 in Washington D.C., of modest means, Sousa was the third of what would be ten siblings in all, although several died in infancy. Sousa’s father was a military man who played trombone in various bands. “I really believe he was the worst musician I knew,” Sousa playfully recalled, “and I’ve known many” The elder Sousa taught trombone and soon a young John shared his father’s love and natural talent for music.

By the age of thirteen, John was performing, mostly wind and string instruments. He knew some piano, but refused to master the keyboard because he thought it might “interfere with his composing.”  At 21, Sousa was conducting and composing. He wrote several operettas, but worked well with other more successful collaborators, like Gilbert and Sullivan, who praised him for his orchestration in a production of H.M.S Pinafore.

In 1880, a telegram changed Sousa’s life and career ambitions. It was an invitation to lead the U.S. Marine Band. Sousa had never conducted a military band before, but took the offer as a challenge. He changed the music library which was mostly “hackneyed” works and added more instrumentation.  The pay was low for the musicians, but Sousa urged them to keep practicing and rewards would follow. Soon the band was playing for the President and other important dignitaries. Sousa wrote a march for the Marines titled, Semper Fidelis, and one of his other marches written for a newspaper contest, The Washington Post, became a two-step dance craze.

Sousa was enjoying his newfound success, but wanted more room to expand. In 1891, after his father’s death, Sousa ended his military career and started a civilian band instead. In dramatic fashion, Sousa held his last Marine Band concert on the lawn of the White House in front of President Benjamin Harrison. And as the papers noted, quite symbolically, it rained.

The Sousa Band was a big hit. It was similar in style to the Marine Band which played his marches, but Sousa could now branch out into operas and suites too.  Sousa inspired by his new troupe, wrote several more pieces, including more operettas. When the Spanish-American War began and patriotism was at an all-time high, Sousa volunteered to serve in the Army. In his second tour, he got sick and nearly didn’t make it out of the hospital.  Sousa contributed a few marches as a member of the Army, but saw little action. After recovering, he dedicated his life to music.

By this time, the Sousa Band was internationally known and a European tour was inevitable. But there needed to be a good reason. That’s when the invitation came from the Paris Exposition committee. This was unprecedented.  Until then, no American band of this size had come to Europe and entertained big crowds, and certainly not one with the stature of Sousa’s ensemble.  Virtuoso pianists in Europe had been coming to America since the early 1800’s, but American musicians usually avoided the grueling trip overseas and condemnation at the hands of a prickly foreign press. Sousa knew he could change that.

The tour was a success, despite some grievances. In Paris, shadowed by the newly built Eiffel Tower, and ironically on the Fourth of July, Sousa and the band wooed French audiences. The newswires sent to America described it this way:

Sousa’s band is here. breeding homesickness in the colony and fascinating Parisians. There is nothing quite so good in Paris: Indeed there is nothing quite so good anywhere. And the march king’s music has gotten into the heads and hearts of the people.

German audiences were slower in praise, comparing Sousa’s band to their own accomplished military ensembles, but gradually, recognition became commonplace. Good musicianship and technical performances won over hardened critics. The band played 175 concerts in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and England.

After it was over, audiences demanded they return.

The next year, Sousa and his band came back to England. This time they would play for royalty. After a performance in front of King Edward VII, Sousa was presented with the Victorian Order, high praise for an American abroad. Sousa returned the favor by offering a march that he would personally compose and dedicate to his majesty.  Four months later, in Montreal, Sousa debuted the new march titled, “Imperial Edward,” and sent a detailed manuscript of the music to the King. In the middle of the expressive march, a trombone soloist plays, “God Save the King.”

Ultimately, the work was a dissatisfying one for Sousa, a rarity for him to admit.  Sousa explained it was mostly a lack of inspiration, direction and time. Basically, he rushed it.  “For a part of it I felt an inspiration,” he wrote. “For the rest, instead of digging down to the vein of gold, I struck a vein of ashes and used it.”

Hurrying a piece of music was not Sousa’s style. Usually a tune would come to him and he would play it over and over in his “brain band,” as he called it.  That’s exactly what happened in 1896, while on a personal vacation, his first trip overseas. Sousa was forced to cut the stay short after receiving news that his longtime manager had died. Pacing the deck of the steamer Teutonic, the bandleader heard a tune in his head. “Day after day,” he said,” as I walked, it persisted in crashing into my very soul.”

When Sousa returned to America he set it to paper.  “It was a genuine inspiration, irresistible, complete, and definite,” he remembered, “and I could not rest until I had finished the composition. “

The Stars and Stripes Forever quickly became Sousa’s most popular march in concert.

Four years later, he would bring it to Europe.


(Sources: The Works of John Philip Sousa by Paul E. Bierley; John Philip Sousa: An American Phenomenon by Paul E. Bierley; Perspectives of John Philip Sousa edited by Jon Newsom.)

Dr. Quiet

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STRAW HAT TO FREEDOM: The Daring Escape of Robert Smalls and the Commandeering of the CSS Planter

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By Ken Zurski

scThe guards on lookout at Fort Sumter had little to worry about on the morning of May 13, 1862. The sun was just coming up, and a ship moving through Charleston Harbor at that early hour, likely on orders, was not an unusual sight.  They knew the CSS Planter well. There was no alarm. But there was a protocol to follow. The soldiers waited. Then two loud steam blasts came from the ship’s whistle. A closer look at the pilothouse would confirm it.  The man at the wheel was a wearing a straw hat. The sentinel boys urged the steamer on by waving their hats in salute. “Blow them damn Yankees, to hell,” they shouted as the Planter continued out to sea.

Once safely out of view from the fort, the man in the straw hat ordered the crew to take the down the confederate flag.  In its stead, a white flag was raised, a signal of surrender. The ship reached the Union blockade just outside the harbor.  The crew aboard the blockade ship, Augusta, especially the commanding officer, was skeptical at first. A Rebel steamer heading towards them from enemy waters was suspicious. But the wayward ship offered no resistance. Once on board, they found eight black men on the deck and in the hold, five women and three children. The commanding officer demanded to know their intentions. The man in the straw hat stepped forward. He was also wearing a captain’s uniform.  His name was Robert Smalls. “I’m a slave,” he said, “and I want to be free to serve the United States Navy.”

Just days before in cramped room near the boat’s dock, the plot was hatched. One of the Planter’s slave workers mentioned how careless the rebel crew of the ship had become when going ashore on leave. At least one rebel soldier needed to stay behind and guard the ship, but oftentimes the whole lot would abandon the vessel, leaving it unattended, a clear violation of policy. Perhaps they were too trustworthy of their black counterparts. But, as one man suggested, perhaps their carelessness was an opportunity.

Robert Smalls was one of the enslaved workers, and the most skilled. He knew the waters around the harbor well and oftentimes piloted the boat. Plus it was suggested he looked a lot like the captain. That may have been in reference to his diminutive size – or in jest. Regardless, Smalls had a plan.

Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839. He was short and stout, perfect for working on the docks.  When the war began, Smalls was hired out by his master to work in the shipyards.  Smalls eventually studied maps and taught himself enough navigational skills to become a good pilot. He was sent to work on the Planter, a former cotton-bale boat now used to transport supplies to Rebel troops. Smalls would work and his master would get paid. In return, Smalls family could stay with him. But freedom is what Smalls wanted for his family, not a compromise.

When the slave crew members agreed the plan could work, it was just a matter of time. They tucked away provisions in the hold of the ship, alerted others to be ready when called, and waited. In three days an opportunity presented itself. That day was Tuesday, the thirteenth of May.

Most of the white crew on the Planter had gone ashore on leave and the ship was left docked, alone and unguarded. Before sunrise, and still under the cover of darkness, Smalls would gather the men.

Harper’s Weekly’s later described the story to an unknowing public:

At length, on Monday evening, the white officers of the vessel went on shore to spend the night, intending to start the following morning for Fort Ripley, and to be absent from the city for some days. The families of the contrabands were notified and came stealthily on board.

Smalls would pilot the ship. His figure would be seen first by the soldiers at the fort, so he put on the captain’s uniform and pulled the straw brimmed hat down over his face.

At about three o’clock the fires were lit under the boilers, and the vessel steamed quietly away down the harbor. The tide was against her, and Fort Sumter was not reached till broad daylight. However, the boat passed directly under its walls, giving the usual signal—two long pulls and a jerk at the whistle-cord—as she passed the sentinel.

Smalls kept his head low below the brim. The fort’s sentinel were familiar with the straw hat. The captain of the Planter always wore it with his uniform. The steamer’s whistle blew and the soldiers waved and cheered the ship onto battle. That was the last time they would see the Planter carrying the colors of the confederate flag.

Once out of range of the rebel guns the white flag was raised, and the Planter steamed directly for the blockading steamer Augusta. Captain Parrott, of the latter vessel, as you may imagine, received them cordially, heard their report, placed Acting-Master Watson, of his ship, in charge of the Planter.

Smalls, as a former slave and black man, could only serve as a volunteer in the Union Navy and eventually the Army, but he fought in 17 battles and continued to serve on the Planter, now a federal ship. Smalls never wavered from danger. In one incident, the Union commander had ordered the Planter beached when enemy fire was too strong. But Smalls knew they were doomed if they went ashore. He took the wheel and piloted the boat to safety. That earned him a captain’s distinction.

After the war, Smalls got into politics eventually serving as a U.S. Congressman from South Carolina. He is still celebrated in his hometown of Beaufort and recognized as a hero, just as he was after the daring escape.  Among his many admirers was Abraham Lincoln. Upon hearing of the Confederate ship’s confiscation and its contraband, the President sent a telegram to his subordinates in the field to immediately send Smalls to Washington.

At the White House, Lincoln personally thanked him for his bravery.