Marching to Sousa's drum

Marching to Sousa's drum

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With his elaborate uniform and the words “The President’s Own” emblazoned across his chest, drum major Master Gunnery Sergeant William Browne embodies the rich tradition of the U.S. Marine Band in which he serves.

Over its more than 200-year history, the band has performed for successive U.S. Presidents. One of its most famous and influential members was John Philip Sousa, director from 1880 to 1892.

. WASHINGTON, United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Members of the U.S. Marine Band perform by John Philip Sousa’s grave on Washington’s Capitol Hill, to mark the anniversary of his birth on November 6.

The same tradition is observed every year to honour Sousa, who is credited with having transformed the U.S. Marine Band into an internationally famous institution. During his time as director, the band went on its first national tour and made its first recordings.

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Slideshow

The image of a lyre stands out on the famous band director’s grave.
. WASHINGTON, United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The image of a lyre stands out on the famous band director’s grave.

An honour guard unit marches before the Marine Band plays at Sousa’s grave.
. WASHINGTON, United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

An honour guard unit marches before the Marine Band plays at Sousa’s grave.

Director Colonel Michael J. Colburn conducts the band.
. WASHINGTON, United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Director Colonel Michael J. Colburn conducts the band.

The words “The President’s Own” stand out on Master Gunnery Sergeant William Browne’s sash.
. WASHINGTON, United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The words “The President’s Own” stand out on Master Gunnery Sergeant William Browne’s sash.

Ron Anzalone, an actor playing John Philip Sousa, stands with the audience to listen to the U.S. Marine Band play.
. WASHINGTON, United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Ron Anzalone, an actor playing John Philip Sousa, stands with the audience to listen to the U.S. Marine Band play.

Audience members stand among gravestones as they listen to the music.
. WASHINGTON, United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Audience members stand among gravestones as they listen to the music.

U.S. Marine Band members depart after playing at the grave of former director John Philip Sousa.
. WASHINGTON, United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Marine Band members depart after playing at the grave of former director John Philip Sousa.

"He’s a star in a constellation of noteworthy Americans."
Jonathan Ernst, Reuters Photographer

One of the great things about Washington is its historic Capitol Hill, where there’s a lot of life beyond the headlines and punchlines about the U.S. Congress. I like to describe it as a small town attached to the city. We know our neighbours. We walk our dogs.

Sure, our neighbours include senators and congressmen, and every once in a while at the grocery store you’ll find yourself in line behind a lady who happens to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services holding the bouquet of flowers she’s picked out, or a guy who happens to be the director of the CIA as he’s making a selection at the olive bar.

But at that moment, they’re just neighbours. They probably walk their dogs too, while a security detail in a large black SUV watches from a discreet distance.

Another great thing about Washington is the Marine Band, nicknamed the “President’s Own”. They happen to live on Capitol Hill too, in the oldest post in the Corps, known simply as the Marine Barracks Washington – or known even more simply to neighbours by it’s street corner: “8th and I.”

If you happen to be driving near 8th and I streets on your way home from the market, it’s not uncommon to see the band’s bus loading up for an event at the White House, a concert across town, or one of their tours around the country. The Marine Band does not mess around. They look great, they sound great, and they’re Marines. So when they walk their dogs around Capitol Hill, the other dogs make way.

There is no more important figure in the history of the Marine Band than John Philip Sousa – the March King. He was born in 1854 and his father John Antonio Sousa was a trombonist in the President’s Own, so John Philip grew up in a house steeped in music and the military. Music and patriotism would define his life.

After playing with the band, he led them from 1880 to 1892. His march compositions include the classic Stars and Stripes Forever, The Washington Post, El Capitan and The Gladiator.

According to the Marine Band, Sousa made their ensemble into one of the world’s first recording stars. More than 400 of their recordings were available on a new invention called the phonograph before the turn of the last century. Sousa accomplished all of this from his home base on Capitol Hill. Where, if he had a dog, he probably just let it run free, as I imagine the custom was back then.

When Sousa died in 1932 there was only one place for him to spend eternity. He was buried at Congressional Cemetery, about a mile from 8th and I, where he’s a star in a constellation of noteworthy Americans. Vice President Elbridge Gerry, native American chiefs, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, famed photographer Mathew Brady, U.S. Representative Tom Lantos – the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress. Explorers, architects, heroes, rogues.

Every year the Marine Band makes the trip across the Hill to the cemetery to play on Sousa’s birthday, November 6. They surround Sousa’s gravesite, a beautiful plot with a high-backed stone bench. It’s right by the pretty little chapel at the cemetery’s crossroads, and in the springtime it explodes with flowers. I know it pretty well. It’s where I like to walk the dog.