Marching Bands and the Fourth of July

July 3, 2019

Image Credit: Mike Morbeck via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.


July 4th is upon us, and that means fireworks, cookouts, parades, and, of course, marching bands playing patriotic music.


July 4th is a celebration of America’s independence from England as a result of the American Revolution, and it was the continued influence of military that gave us the marching band as we know it today.


Arguably, there are two key factors that contributed to the proliferation of  high school and college marching band programs and marching bands as we know them today—World War I and composer John Philip Sousa, who served both in the Marine Corps and the Navy Reserve.


Prior to World War I, school marching bands were not nearly as widespread as they are today. The very fact that the Great War took place at all could well be the very reason that so many school marching band programs exist. 


World War I is responsible for the proliferation of school marching band programs in at least one significant way. The war provided an abundance of music teachers who had experience in military marching bands. 


According to  Stephen L. Rhodes in his article, “The American School Band Movement,” prior to the war, public schools did have band programs, and used those bands to provide music during sporting events. The problem was that most public school music educators weren’t formally trained in music education and only taught music part time. As a result “…school band instrumentation was inconsistent, and the quality of music was usually low.” But the end of World War I changed all of that.


Rhodes says that as the war ended, veterans who served in military bands began to take teaching positions. These veterans had real-world marching band experience, dramatically improving the quality of school marching bands. Instrumentation became more consistent and more professional, and the musical skill of the students began to improve. 


This alone wasn’t enough for marching bands to be successful. Musicians need music to play, and marching band music is a genre all its own. John Philip Sousa is probably the most prolific and famous composer of American marching band music. According to Wikipedia, Sousa served as the leader of the Marine Band in Washington D.C. from 1880-1892. His military service, no doubt, served to shape his music.


According to Wikipedia, Sousa spent his life as a composer and conductor, and after his service with the Marines Corps, he  organized his own civilian band and toured with them until his death in 1932, interrupted by the United State’s involvement in World War I, serving in the Naval Reserve Band of Illinois.  


Sousa composed more than 130 marches, and some of those marches are marching band staples even today. Ironically, it was prior to World War I that Sousa composed some of his most famous marches, including “The Liberty Bell” (1893) and “Semper Fidelis” (1888), which is the official march of the U.S. Marine Corps. 


Perhaps Sousa's most famous composition “Stars and Stripes Forever” was composed in 1896, and is routinely performed at July 4th celebrations. No July 4th parade or fireworks display would be complete without a performance of this piece of patriotic music. 


John Philip Sousa may have composed some of America’s most beloved marches, but it was the music educators that arose from the ashes of World War I that elevated the level of music education in American schools, thereby proliferating and formalizing marching band programs. Many marching bands heard at Fourth of July parades are high school, college, or civilian bands comprised of adults who took band at school and were involved in marching band programs as youngsters. 


Sousa may have composed the music of the Fourth of July, but it was the veteran military band musicians of World War I that made it possible to hear his music at todays’ Independence Day celebrations. 




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