John Phillip Sousa’s Signature Sound

Air Date:
Heard On The Odyssey Series

In many circles, John Phillip Sousa (aka “The March King”), born November 6, 1854 in Washington, DC, was an important American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era.

Sousa is still celebrated today for his compositions that illumined American-textured military and patriotic marches. What is perhaps not as widely recalled, is his profound imprint on the development of the pre-jazz form called, ragtime.

The toe-tapping syncopated rhythm of ragtime, popularized roughly between 1895 to 1918 by such legends as Ernest Hogan and Scott Joplin, grew out of the earthly nightlife settings in parts of two African American neighborhoods in St. Louis and New Orleans.

And though Hogan and Joplin, both skillful innovators who helped pioneer and popularize the ragtime genre, it was Sousa’s early march madness that gave ragtime its initial compositional and structural underpinning.

Sousa’s signature marches as a musical form, whether slow or brisk, are infused with a dominant and consistent rhythm pattern common to military bands. His marches rooted in Eurocentric compositional style, gave a fresh spirit to the American musical landscape.

Ragtime as it came to light, would build upon that platform with the inclusion of additional polyrhythms, unique melodic lines, fresh harmonic progressions and metric patterns quite familiar in African music.

Sousa, who passed away in 1932, composed 136 marches, 15 operettas, 70 songs and more, is said to have loved boxing. He did in fact have quite the career as a theatre musician and as the conductor of the U.S. Marine band. Sousa, who toured extensively for 40 years with his own civilian band, was considered during the height of his career, the most famous musical act in the world.

This is another in a series exploring music the world over and its power to create greater understanding of those near and far.

Episode Credits

  • Dr. Jonathan Øverby Host
  • Dr. Jonathan Øverby Producer
  • Joe Hardtke Technical Director

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