The United States Marine Band was established by an Act of Congress signed by President John Adams on July 11, 1798, and is the oldest continuously active professional musical organization in our country. The Marine Band is the only musical organization whose primary mission is to provide music for the President of the United States. Explore the unique relationship between "The President's Own" and every U.S. President from John Adams to the present day in the Hall of Presidents.
When the nation’s capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington, the Marine Band came with the President and made camp "on a hill overlooking the Potomac" near the present site of the Lincoln Memorial. The Marine Band presented its first public concert in Washington on August 21, 1800.
White House Debut
Every President of the United States except George Washington has heard the music of the Marine Band. The Marine Band made its White House debut on New Year’s Day 1801 at a reception given by President and Mrs. John Adams. Since that time, the Marine Band has furnished music for every Chief Executive at official functions at the White House and for other State occasions.
On March 4, 1801, the Marine Band performed for Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural and has performed for every Presidential inaugural since that time. Jefferson has been referred to as the "godfather" of the Marine Band, and he is credited with giving the band the title "The President’s Own."
July 4, 1801, marked the first Independence Day celebration in the "President’s House." This was the first time a body of troops was reviewed by the Commander in Chief at his residence in Washington. Margaret Baynard Smith, wife of the publisher of the National Intelligencer, wrote in a letter to her sister, "Martial music soon announced the approach of the Marine Corps of Captain Burrows who saluted the President, accompanied by the President’s March played by an excellent band attached to the corps."
A visitor at one of Jefferson’s receptions remembered that "an exquisite band of music played at intervals martial, patriotic, and enlivening airs, which reverberated through the spacious dome." One of those "enlivening airs" was "To Anacreon in Heaven," first sung at the White House on July 4, 1806, by a "Mr. Cutting." Eight years later this well-known melody was given new words by Francis Scott Key and became very popular as "The Star-Spangled Banner."
First Inaugural Ball
In 1809, the Marine Band performed for the inaugural of James Madison and, that evening, its music opened the first Inaugural Ball. Music under the Madisons became a vital element of their hospitality. The Marine Band played frequently at various events as it did on New Year’s Day in 1811 described by Catherine Mitchell: "When we reach’d the grand entrance the sound of sweet music entered our ears...Upon entering the spacious hall we beheld on one side a number of musicians playing enlivening airs for the entertainment of the company."
On September 6, 1825, the Marine Band performed for a celebration honoring the birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette. President John Quincy Adams arose and proposed to him the first toast in the White House. President Adams was responsible for another major change in White House social customs when he brought dancing to the White House on December 15, 1828, to music by the Marine Band.
"Hail to the Chief"
"Hail to the Chief," with its preceding fanfare known as "Ruffles and Flourishes," is traditionally played to announce the arrival of the President at State functions. Possibly derived from an old Gaelic air, "Hail to the Chief" was written by James Sanderson as incidental music to a dramatic adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's epic poem, The Lady of the Lake. It appears in a gallant boating scene honoring the highland chieftain, Sir Roderick Dhu. The song was already very popular when the Marine Band played it at the laying of the cornerstone of the first lock of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1829 for President Andrew Jackson.
Scholars credit two First Ladies with introducing the use of "Hail to the Chief" as official music for the President. Julia Tyler, the young second wife of President John Tyler, was an amateur musician and composer. President Tyler, who served as president from 1841 to 1845, entertained frequently at the White House. It was at these parties and receptions that some scholars believe Julia Tyler asked the Marine Band to announce the president's arrival by performing "Hail to the Chief."
First Lady Sarah Polk is also credited with introducing the performance of "Hail to the Chief" to announce the president's arrival. James K. Polk, president from 1845 to 1849, was an unassuming man of slight stature and his arrival at large events frequently went unnoticed. To avoid his embarrassment, First Lady Sarah Polk reportedly asked the Marine Band to announce him.
The date of the earliest use of ruffles and flourishes as musical honors for the president of the United States is unknown. A Navy regulation of 1876 stipulated that a ruffle of drums would be used to signal the arrival of the president. In 1893 a regulation stated that the president would receive four ruffles and flourishes. The practice of preceding "Hail to Chief" with four ruffles and flourishes was certainly in place during the administration of William McKinley from 1897 to 1901. This was documented by the president's military aide, T.A. Bingham, who described the White House dinner honoring Commodore George Dewey, hero of the Spanish-American War. Bingham noted: "The Presidential party proceeded down the main staircase in the usual manner, the Marine Band playing the President’s call, followed by 'Hail to the Chief.' "
It was during the administration of either Martin Van Buren or John Tyler that weekly public concerts on the White House grounds were begun, a tradition that continued on Saturday evenings from spring to fall until the administration of Herbert Hoover. In 1854 President Franklin Pierce approved legislation allowing the band extra pay for playing "on the grounds of the President and the Capitol."
Lincoln and the Marine Band
Memories of the White House, by William H. Crook, describes the scene at the ball following Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. It mentions that the ball was held in a temporary wooden structure on Judiciary Square with music by the Marine Band. During the Civil War, the band continued its tradition of outdoor concerts on the South Lawn and in Lafayette Park. The Marine Band also accompanied Lincoln to Pennsylvania when he delivered his immortal Gettysburg Address.
As the nation rebuilt from the war years, White House receptions resumed. Marine Band leader Francis Scala noted in his memoirs that both President and Mrs. Andrew Johnson supported and helped the organization immeasurably. Scala said, "Every time the band played, Mrs. Johnson sent me a bouquet, and in return I dedicated a march to her." With an increase in the number of White House social events in the Ulysses S. Grant administration, the Marine Band’s mission to provide music for the president became more visible than ever before. It played for all the galas, receptions, banquets, and serenades, as well as the wedding of the Grants’ 18-year-old daughter, Nellie, on May 21, 1874. During the Grant administration the Marine Band also performed for the first official visit of a Head of State to our nation with the visit of King Kalakaua of Hawaii on December 12, 1874. During the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, the annual Easter Egg Roll moved to the White House grounds where it has remained ever since. As with all other official events, music was provided by the Marine Band.
John Philip Sousa
In 1880, the Marine Band’s most well-known leader, John Philip Sousa, took command of the band. Sousa himself stated, "The Marine Band is virtually the National Band and the band that should be as great among bands as America is among nations."
Under Sousa, the Marine Band’s fame increased, and the leader of the Marine Band began fulfilling an even more active role as White House Music Advisor. During Chester Arthur’s administration, Sousa was questioned by the President about the music that the Marine Band had played as he went into dinner. Sousa replied, " 'Hail to the Chief,' sir." (Sousa recorded later that "Hail to the Chief" had been performed at the White House "since time immemorial.") President Arthur continued, "Do you consider it suitable?" Sousa replied, "No, sir. It was chosen many years ago largely because of its name." President Arthur replied, "Then change it!" Sousa did so by composing "Presidential Polonaise" for indoor affairs and "Semper Fidelis" for outdoor affairs. Sousa’s Presidential Polonaise was used for a time but never fully replaced "Hail to the Chief" and was eventually dropped.
One of the most significant social events under Sousa was the wedding of Grover Cleveland to Frances Folsom on June 2, 1886. Cleveland was the only President ever to be married in the White House, and all of Washington thronged outside the mansion, craning their necks to see and hear.
First Marine Band Concert Tour
The growing fame of the Marine Band led John Philip Sousa to ask permission of President Benjamin Harrison to take the Marine Band on tour. When the President granted permission, Sousa and the Marine Band began the first concert tour in April 1891.
Marine Band concert tours have continued annually except for brief periods during time of war. In recognition of the Marine Band’s unique role as "The President’s Own," Marine Band concert tours required White House approval until 1986 when that authority was delegated to the Secretary of Defense and ultimately to the Secretary of the Navy.
Marine Band Plays Jazz for Alice Roosevelt
The Marine Band has always performed music to suit the tastes of each Chief Executive, their families, and guests. From the earliest days, the Marine Band’s repertoire has included popular and patriotic music as well as classical music and operatic selections. In many cases, the Marine Band was responsible for introducing music from the latest operas either before or very soon after their American premières. Music of Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, and others was performed by request at the White House long before it became well-known to concert audiences. In one case, Sousa performed selections from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the White House before the opera had received its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
This tradition was delightfully illustrated when President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice requested that the band perform Scott Joplin’s new "Maple Leaf Rag." This youthful request for "jazz music" seemed controversial in its day, but the members of the Marine Band gladly complied. In 1906 the Marine Band provided a very different kind of music for Miss Roosevelt when it performed for her wedding. This was the fourth White House wedding, all conducted to the accompaniment of the Marine Band. President Warren G. Harding brought to the White House a lifelong love of band music, having played in bands all his life. Harding told friends that he had, at one time or another, played every instrument in the band except the trombone and the E-flat cornet. He organized the "Citizen’s Cornet Band" of Marion, OH, which played for both Democratic and Republican campaign rallies. Harding’s biographer, Willis F. Johnson, recorded that Harding’s love of bands was such that he was known to have picked up an instrument occasionally and joined the Marine Band during its rehearsals at the White House. During the 1920s the garden parties, musicales, State Dinners, and other social functions at the White House which had been discontinued during World War I, were revived. The outdoor Marine Band concerts were also resumed at this time.
When President Calvin Coolidge was unable to attend a special Marine Band concert in 1924, the President sent flowers and a personal note that read in part:
The Marine Band has earned for itself a unique place in the affections of the American people, and of all branches of the national defense service. It has not only made a nationally important contribution by popularizing the best music but by generosity and apparently untiring devotion to its art has won for itself a particularly high place in public regard.
FDR and "The Ubiquitous Marine Band"
The Marine Band performed for all four inaugurations of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, 1937, 1941, and 1945. Due to the illness of the President, the 1945 ceremonies were held on the White House portico, and records show that the ceremony took only 14 minutes.
Elise Kirk, author of Music at the White House, notes, "Perhaps the real 'unsung hero' of the FDR White House was the ubiquitous Marine Band. It played for every important State Dinner, reception, birthday, debut, anniversary, and holiday celebration at the White House and for numerous ceremonies within the capital and beyond." The Marine Band performed a special concert on May 20, 1943 at the White House for President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who was in the capital for the war conference. Despite a pouring rain, FDR and Churchill sat through the concert, and Churchill sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" with the band.
President Harry Truman’s love of music and the piano are well known. He wrote in a letter, "Let me just say that the U.S. Marine Band is not only a most attractive ceremonial institution but musically eloquent and highly professional as well. Through the years it has been a source of comfort and pleasure to the occupant of the White House."
Recent Presidents and the Marine Band
President John F. Kennedy’s personal affection for the Marine Band was expressed when he remarked, "...the only forces that cannot be transferred from Washington, without my express permission, are members of the Marine Band. They are the only forces I have. But I want to announce that we propose to hold the White House against all odds." At Mrs. Kennedy’s request, the Marine Band led the President’s funeral procession as it had for other fallen leaders.
Under President Lyndon Johnson, the Marine Band often provided the accompaniment for White House shows and for famous entertainers. The Marine Band also played for Lynda Johnson’s marriage to Charles Robb at the White House on December 9, 1967. Reflecting on her years in the White House the former First Lady wrote, "The band of the Presidents was never less than totally professional, and always gave more than a full measure of time and talent to perfect their performances. Lyndon and I were deeply proud to present them as a national showcase to visitors from home and abroad." President Richard Nixon often featured the Marine Band at White House events and took Marine Band musicians with him for two important visits abroad. In 1970, President Nixon took the Marine Chamber Orchestra to Yugoslavia to provide music during a dinner and reception given for Yugoslavian President Tito.
And in 1974 a string ensemble from the Marine Band accompanied President Nixon to the Soviet Union to provide music for a dinner hosted by the President. He said of the Marine Band:
During my years of service as Vice President and President, I have never failed to be proud of this splendid musical organization. Foreign visitors have often remarked to me that they felt it was the finest organization of its kind in the world. Thomas Jefferson is remembered for the Declaration of Independence and his other contributions. One of his least known and most delightful legacies is the President’s Own Band.
During the Gerald Ford administration, the Marine Band performed for many White House events including the visit of Queen Elizabeth II of England during the nation’s Bicentennial celebration of 1976. President Ford recalled memories of the Marine Band during his 28 years of public service in Washington. He wrote, "the excellence of their performance makes them a welcome and important part of State functions. The Marine Band deserves every recognition and accolade they receive."
President Jimmy Carter had an avid interest in music and often took time from his busy schedule to listen to the Marine Band’s music. Marine Band musicians performed for a variety of events, ranging from an outdoor performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel to a South Lawn performance by composer Marvin Hamlisch. Following this performance, President Carter told the audience, "The only problem is that Mr. Hamlisch wants to take my Marine Band back with him. He can’t have them!"
"The American Sound"
During the Ronald Reagan administration, the Marine Band continued its vital role as "The President’s Own." President and Mrs. Reagan expressed great interest in the band and were guests of honor at the Marine Band’s 185th birthday concert at the Concert Hall of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Comments from both the President and the First Lady reflected their view of the Marine Band’s historical importance to the White House. To introduce the first PBS television program "In Performance at the White House," Mrs. Reagan commented, "Ever since this wonderful house was built, it’s been filled with music. Thomas Jefferson played his violin and Harry Truman played his piano in this room. The Marine Band has serenaded countless foreign dignitaries at State Dinners and some of the world’s most dazzling performers have appeared beneath these chandeliers."
In remarks recorded for a radio broadcast celebrating 185 years of White House musical support, President Reagan expressed the history and tradition of the Marine Band:
We can only imagine the scene in the White House 185 years ago today when Marine Band musicians gathered to serenade President John Adams and his guests. Our nation had not yet marked its 25th birthday, but already an American identity had begun to emerge–one founded and steeped in the ideals of our forefathers. And those ideals found voice in the stirring music of the Marine Band.
Thomas Jefferson gave the Marine Band the title "The President’s Own," but in a larger sense the Marine Band is the band of the American people. As our nation’s oldest, continuously active musical organization, the Marine Band has witnessed more of our American history than any other musical ensemble. Whether serenading Adams or Jefferson, accompanying Lincoln to Gettysburg, or performing here at the White House, the Marine Band has become a national institution and a national treasure.
One of my most vivid memories about the band is from my second inaugural ceremony. The bitterly cold weather forced us to move the ceremonies indoors to the Rotunda of the Capitol. Hearing the music of the Marine Band in that great symbol of our democracy gave new meaning to words I had chosen for my inaugural address. I closed my address by recalling echoes of our past – from winters at Valley Forge, through the struggles of the Civil War, the calls of fighters at the Alamo to the song of an American settler echoing into the distance as he pushed west to claim this new land. I called this the American sound, our heritage and our song. For 185 years the White House has been filled with our most American of sounds, the music of the United States Marine Band. Congratulations to you, I am proud to call you "The President’s Own."
During the George Bush administration the Marine Band led returning Marine Corps veterans of Operation Desert Storm as they passed in review for President Bush during the National Victory Parade in Washington in June 1991. The Marine Band joined President Bush at such noteworthy events as the ground breaking ceremony for the Korean War Memorial and the National Guadalcanal Commemoration Ceremony, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal.
President Bill Clinton’s association with the Marine Band began while he was governor of Arkansas. An avid saxophonist, he sat in for several numbers with the White House dance band at the 1991 Governor’s Dinner. For the band's 200th birthday on July 11, 1998, the President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted a command performance and reception at the White House and were guests of honor with daughter Chelsea at the band's gala Bicentennial concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. President Clinton has said, "When I have to leave this job, I'll miss a lot of things about Washington and the White House—a few things I won't. But I'll really miss the Marine Band. It's a great honor to be around them every day."
The Marine Band marked many important occasions throughout President George W. Bush's terms, including the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001. Baritone vocalist Gunnery Sergeant Kevin Bennear performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" to open a service at the Pentagon attended by President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Later that day, Colonel Timothy W. Foley led "The President's Own" in a performance at the former site of the World Trade Center towers while the President and First Lady met with and comforted the families of victims. President Bush has said, "This great Marine Band is ‘The President’s Own,’ but it’s also our nation’s treasure."
President Bush Conducts U.S. Marine Band
President Bush became the first President of the United States to conduct “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band on April 26, 2008, at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. He conducted a 41-piece band in a performance of John Philip Sousa’s march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
In his remarks, President Bush said, "And one thing we all share, whether we're native citizens or new citizens like Craig [Ferguson], is a tremendous appreciation for our people in uniform, an appreciation symbolized by the United States Marine Band, which is celebrating its 210th anniversary this year. I love the band, and so I'm going to say my farewell to you by doing something I've always wanted to do, and I do it in the spirit of our shared love for this country."
While no other commander in chief has taken the podium to lead the Marine Band, presidents have sat in and performed with the ensemble. President Warren G. Harding told friends that he had, at one time or another, played every band instrument except the trombone and the E-flat cornet and was known to occasionally join the Marine Band during its White House rehearsals.
The Marine Band Today
As President Barack H. Obama took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, to an estimated crowd of 1.8 million people on the National Mall, the Marine Band made its 53rd consecutive inaugural appearance, proudly continuing its mission of providing music for the President of the United States.
No other musical organization can claim the heritage or historic precedence of the United States Marine Band. Since the Marine Band made its White House debut in 1801, it has functioned as "The President’s Own" band. As such, the Marine Band is the band of the President and serves the office of the presidency in a non-partisan fashion. Since Sousa’s time, and probably before, the Director of the Marine Band has served as the Music Advisor to the White House for support of State and other official functions.