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Sousa Grave Ceremony Graphic 2021

Photo by Christian Thesken

Happy 167th Birthday Sousa!

2 Nov 2021 | Staff Sgt. Christian Thesken United States Marine Band

Nov. 6, 2021 marks the 167th birthday of the Marine Band's esteemed 17th director, John Philip Sousa, and the 55th year of the Marine Band's annual celebratory performance at Sousa's gravesite in honor of their former leader.

Join the Marine Band for this special performance at 11 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 6 in Congressional Cemetery near the chapel (1801 E St. SE, Washington, DC). This event is open to the public and tickets are not required. WATCH LIVESTREAM

‚ÄčThe 25-minute ceremony will kick off with the band marching into historic Congressional Cemetery led by the band's drum major, who will guide the musicians through the lot of headstones to Sousa's final resting place. As the band members take their places flanking Sousa's headstone, Assistant Director Maj. Ryan Nowlin will conduct them through several definitive Sousa marches including "Semper Fidelis” and America's national march: "The Stars and Stripes Forever." Following the series of spirited musical performances, Nowlin will briefly cover Sousa's musical history for those in attendance, describing moments of his life which inevitably solidified his legacy.

"During his lifetime and beyond, Sousa had an immense impact on America's artistic culture and its music," said Col. Jason K. Fettig, Director of the Marine Band. "But perhaps the greatest and most enduring influence and gift Sousa had was as an unabashed cheerleader of the American spirit.”

John Philip Sousa is known for bringing the Marine Band to its current unprecedented level of excellence through his high standards for musical performance and, most notably, for making the Marine Band a household name by taking the ensemble on tour. His intimate knowledge of music coupled with his signature style earned him the title, ”The March King."

The now-longtime tradition of honoring Sousa at his gravesite was first conceived on what would have been his 89th birthday in 1944. (Sousa died at age 78 in 1932). The Sousa Band Fraternal Society gathered for a celebratory dinner in which "there was a formal motion to the group stating that on each Nov. 6, the group would meet at Sousa's grave and play taps," said Scott Schwartz, Archivist for Music and Fine Arts and Director of the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music. "According to the next society newsletter, the group met at Sousa's grave on Nov. 6, 1945, to begin this celebration of his life. Both of his daughters were in attendance for this first grave side performance by the society." The tradition was eventually passed on to the Marine Band; however, no known records exist to explain exactly how this exchange transpired. In any case, there is no doubt that the transition of this responsibility to the Marine Band was an appropriate one. Though its famed leader is long gone, it allows the Marine Band to help his music live on.