John Philip Sousa and the State of America’s Rituals
Posted on July 3, 2017
John Philip Sousa lived about 2 blocks from where my family lives today, on G Street SE, not too far from the Marine Barracks.
Sousa, known as the March King, did more to create the music of America than perhaps any other American.
Sousa is a Portuguese name but his grandparents on his father’s side emigrated from Seville, Spain. His mother was of German Hessian stock. The Hessians, if you recall, fought on the British side during the Revolutionary War. They were the ones who got routed in the Battle of Trenton.
Sousa’s marches have a bit of Spanish flair but are dominated by German efficiency.
They are uniquely American.
Sousa was actually born in Washington D.C. back when nobody was born in Washington D.C. He became the most important figure in the history of American military music, and at every parade today and tomorrow, you will still hear his marches.
Sousa was also an innovator. He invented instruments to better play his music.
I was thinking of Sousa on this Fourth of July because America seems more divided than ever.
I say seems, because I don’t know if our country is actually that divided. Instead of divided into two camps, I think we are splintered into many factions, just all going our own way, not really unified with a common set of rituals and beliefs.
The two political parties are under internal assault. The Bernie wing of the Democrat party is every bit as angry as the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, but they are more angry at their establishment wings than they are at the other side.
The splintering of America is the result of a culture that values individualism over community, that values egoism over selflessness, that values show horses over workhorses.
The Me generation of the 1970’s has metastasized into something for more prevalent, the idea that every individual is far more important than society as a whole, that every dream is worth pursuing, that every idea has value, that you only have a short time on this planet and if you don’t live every day to pursue your own individual desires, you are a sucker.
That has made America a very vibrant place to live but it also has made it hard to manage. It’s hard to march in lockstep if everybody is marching to their own beat and going in their own direction.
Technology, of course, has made this splintering a lot easier. We live in an on-demand world, where folks can see whatever programs they want to see, tune into the media that they want to hear, link up with people with similar beliefs easily and without much hassle.
We live in a non-conformist world, where everybody is rebelling against the man.
I’m reminded of the Sprint commercial where an executive talks about getting the phone service and “sticking it to the man,” until he is reminded by one of his junior associates, “but sir, you are the man.”
The political establishments in both parties are kind of like that executive. They want to stick it to the man, but they are the man.
Donald Trump, of course, is sticking it to the man from his perch as President. He is the perfect embodiment of the narcissistic American, the man who pursues his own dreams, the showhorse, the vulgarian who tweets whatever comes across his mind. He is the sum result of the reality show that has become America.
And he sticks it to man every chance he gets. He is a rebel with a cause. And his cause is to make America great again.
Trump is finding out the hard way that getting the American people to fall in line with his vision about how to make America great again is not so easy.
Our system of government is built for frustration. Our people are opinionated and not the kind to fall into lock step with a guy like him. Our media is the opposite of deferential.
For all of our faults and our divisions, we are still the envy of the world. Our dynamism comes from our ability to march to the beat of our own drums. We may not be united in our dreams, but we are united in the pursuit of our own dreams.
And I guess that’s the best we can hope for.
I think of American rituals. I think of the marches of John Phillips Sousa, that reflect the cultures from whence his parents came, but also the music of Lee Greenwood, and Jimmy Hendrix and Eminem, and the blues of Muddy Waters and the beauty of Leonard Bernstein.
I think of the many different cultures that grill hot dogs, or bratwurst, or kielbasa, or ribs, or barbacao. This is what makes America great.
I think of baseball, where we keep individual statistics, but the only thing that really matters is who wins or loses.
I think of the Chevrolet, of course, but I also think of the Hyundai, that comes from Korea and gives American cars a run for the money.
We may need an update from the music of the past. But whatever we come up, it needs to pay homage to John Phillips Sousa. We don’t need to march in a straight line, but we need to march together, individually.
That’s what makes America America. Especially in this splintered world we live in.