Washington, DC --
Nov. 6, 2016 marks not only the 162nd birthday of John Philip Sousa, but also 50 years of the Marine Band honoring its legendary 17th Director with a graveside birthday celebration. On Nov. 6, 1966, then-Assistant Director Capt. Dale Harpham led the assemblage of a 49-piece band; the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Wallace M. Greene Jr., and his wife; Marine Barracks Washington’s commanding officer Col. Robert B. Carney; band conductors; and musical friends of Sousa to plot number 163-S in Congressional Cemetery in southeast Washington, D.C.—Sousa’s final resting place. The occasion was the 112th anniversary of Sousa’s birth and the unveiling of a new engraving on his tomb which read, “Leader, United States Marine Band, 1880-1892.” The engraving was made possible by the interest and influence of Gen. Greene and Col. Carney, Sousa’s daughter Helen Sousa Abert, the Marine Band’s historian-publicist Warrant Officer Joan Ambrose, and the financial support of the members of the Marine Band.
Capt. Harpham delivered a reverent address at the ceremony in which he answered the question: why commemorate John Philip Sousa’s birth in Congressional Cemetery? He said, “The answer, I believe, is quite simple. I have always thought of life as that wonderful interval between birth and death and death and birth, and so, at least for me, there is no incongruity between the reason for the commemoration and the site of the tribute. However, if this thought is unacceptable, then I am certain that we can all heartily agree in perfect consonance that the spirit of John Philip Sousa, since its manifestation on Nov. 6, 1854, has been and is mightily alive!”
The pride Harpham must have experienced in conducting such a tribute is evident in his remarks: “I believe it fair to state that John Philip Sousa would never have become the epitome of the best of bandmastery, nor been imbued with that ebullient spirit so wonderfully inculcated in his master marches, nor have become the amazing March King legend of America today without the early influence and readying years with the United States Marine Band.”
This was not the first musical homage to Sousa at his grave. A year earlier, in March 1965 a brass choir from “The President’s Own” performed as members of the American Bandmasters Association laid a wreath at the grave in an Act of Remembering Sousa and another musical legend buried nearby, cornetist Herbert L. Clarke.
The tradition began, however, two decades earlier as an idea hatched by members of the Sousa Band Fraternal Society. According to Scott Schwartz, Archivist for Music and Fine Arts and Director of the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, the society convened for the first time on Nov. 6, 1944. “During this dinner gathering 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,” Schwartz said. “There is no name given in the meeting minutes to say whose idea this was, but August Helmecke, Sousa’s longtime bass drummer, was the society’s president during this first meeting, so it would be reasonable to say that he was probably the one who helped move this effort forward at this first meeting. 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.”
Sousa had planned to be buried at Congressional Cemetery since he was a lifelong member of the Christ Church congregation. The cemetery dates back to 1807, and among the nearly 70,000 graves are veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, Mexican War, and Civil War, congressmen, native Americans, suffragettes, two vice presidents, journalists, and artists, as well as Sousa’s father Antonio and other former Marine Band Directors Venerando Pullizzi, John Cuvillier, Joseph Cuvillier, and Francis Scala. Although it is maintained by private funds, Congressional Cemetery served as America’s first national cemetery and fell into disrepair and ruin before the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery was founded in 1975. Through countless donations of time and funds, the Association has revived the cemetery into a must-see Washingtonian destination and in 2011 the cemetery was designated a National Historic Landmark.
No records exist to shed any light on how Sousa’s birthday graveside observance transitioned from the Sousa Band Fraternal Society to the Marine Band, but the tradition remains one of the most cherished and unique in the band’s history. Please join the Marine Band in honoring John Philip Sousa at 11 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 6 at Congressional Cemetery at 1801 E Street in southeast Washington, D.C.