Book Review: John Philip Sousa


The Incredible Band of John Phillip Sousa
Paul E. Bierley
437 pages
ISBN: 0 – 252 – 03147 - 4
University of Illinois Press

Towards the end of my PhD at the University of Sheffield I was asked by one of the book referees for the academic periodical World of Music to review the current offering from Paul E. Bierley on John Phillip Sousa and his amazing band. This is the second book promoted by the University of Illinois Press and the Music in American Life series and is a welcome addition to both the history of music in America and those who admire and appreciate the talents of Sousa.

The author, an acclaimed Sousa researcher since 1963, has previously released eight books on the subject, each offering something different to the existing literature. In his incarnation as a musician Bierley has played tuba with the Detroit Concert Band, Virginia Grand Military Band, Village Brass quintet and amongst other groups the Brass Band of Columbus. His research in recent years has resulted in many awards and honorary memberships from prestigious musical organisations as well as an honorary doctorate from the Ohio State University, his alma mater.

As previously stated Bierley has written several earlier books and articles on Sousa, however these have primarily introduced and in some instances discussed the man rather than the band. In his latest book the focus of the data is very much targeted towards the personalities, attitudes, activities and ultimately the lives of the performers, who themselves benefited greatly from their association with the Sousa band. The content of the book is divided into eight individual chapters and six appendices that collectively present both an amazing degree of research but a writing style that is clear and accessible even to those unfamiliar with bands.

The opening chapter of the book, “The Legacy”, as the title suggests discusses many of the aspects that created the legacy of the Sousa band that successfully continues today. Whilst the author could easily have descended into listing the achievements of the Sousa band in one endless stream of data he avoids this by cleverly transporting the reader back to a concert in 1898. His description of the scene, the location, the music, the historical context (a tense period of diplomacy between America and Spain) and specifically the behaviour of band and audience immediately constructs a real sense of intimacy between the author, his subject matter and consequently the reader.

In the remainder of the first chapter and indeed throughout the whole book the author manages to balance the introduction of data with his easy writing style and consequently the flow of the text is not disturbed. The addition of tables and pictures in collaborating statements in the text is also dealt with effectively. For example Table 1 on page six highlights the total amount of concerts performed by the Sousa band, an incredible 15,623 between 1892 and 1931, 124 of these performed within the month of July in 1924. Other details that are of particular interest in this opening section include the personal mottos used by Sousa, one of which being “punctuality is the politeness of kings” and the revelation that the Sousa band itself, often perceived as a marching band, only marched eight times in the forty years of its existence. The chapter successfully accomplishes its goal, that being the creation of the Sousa legacy to modern “banding” and American culture.

Chapter two primarily highlights the history of the Sousa band, from the initial influence of organiser David Blakely and his world tours, the legal battle that followed Blakely’s death (including the ownership of the Sousa band library) to the fact that Sousa had died following a band rehearsal at the age of seventy-seven. The general overview presented in chapter two is then developed in both chapters three and four where the exact details of how the band operated appear. For those wishing to understand the players and management of a professionally organised band, these chapters should be the main area of interest. The requirements and expectations that accompany the membership of the Sousa band are discussed in detail, in particular the notion that the best instrumentalist or vocalist would not necessarily have a guaranteed position within the band if they proved not to be a “regular fellow” or a “gentleman”. These observations on membership together with the narrative style of presentation successfully portray the close-knit atmosphere or “bonding”, players often remaining with the band well beyond any retirement age and some, like Sousa, passing away whilst still members. To understand the calibre, personality, loyalty and commitment required of the players then chapter four is essential reading. Many of those within banding traditions will be familiar with some of the people introduce. For example many of the solos played by modern cornet and trumpet soloists were composed by members of the Sousa Band, specifically those by Herman Bellstedt, Herbert L. Clarke, Arthur Pryor and Frank Simon.

During chapters five and six the author discusses how Sousa approached the use of modern recording technology, for both recording LPs and radio broadcasts. Whilst these chapters highlight Sousa’s initial distrust of modern technology and indeed raise doubts about the identity of some of the broadcasts, their content is somewhat lighter than those that open and close the book. In this regard I feel that their inclusion at this particular point in the book represents a break in the very successful presentation and discussion of data in chapters one through four and seven and eight.

Both chapters seven and eight see the author delivering more detailed data on the daily activities of the playing members of the Sousa band. Chapter seven in particular highlights the logistical nightmare and personal ordeals that were associated with the amount of travelling and differing accommodation experienced by the players on their world tour in 1911. This is achieved through the reproduction of a tour diary kept by Albert A. Knecht, a tenor saxophone player, with additional dates and information excluded from his diary supplemented by information from the diaries kept by other members. The daily rituals or routines experienced by the players, as the book earlier stated, would be intolerable to modern day professionals, but the loyalty to the Sousa Band “cause” meant that little criticism appeared in any of the diary extracts. By utilising the diary extracts as the whole seventh chapter Bierley successfully accomplishes three tasks, firstly there is a deeper or more intimate understanding of what life was like as an individual within the Sousa Band. Secondly the increase in intimacy with band members is a continuous thread throughout the whole book, from generality (mainly historic) of the opening chapters to the explicit individual action in chapter seven. Thirdly, the extract based chapter is useful in introducing the reader to some of the humorous moments that conclude the main body of text in chapter eight.

The appendices are substantial in length and add depth to the discussion encountered in the main text. Each individual appendix introduces a unique issue related to the band, specifically locations of concerts, membership, instrumentation, repertoire and recordings. These details are an impressive accumulation of forty years of work and for those who have a deep or passing interest in wind, brass or marching bands and American music, it provides an excellent source of information.

In sum, the book is a valuable resource for any band related course, whilst also being a welcome addition to the area of knowledge associated to both John Philip Sousa (and band) and ethnomusicology literature. This book is clearly a work of passion for its author and the intimacy he has with the information accumulated together with the narrative and easily accessible language makes this book a good purchase for a broad readership.

Richard Jones