Marching to Sousa’s drum beat

December 6, 2013

Washington, D.C.

By Jonathan Ernst

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

Sure, our neighbors include senators and congressmen, and every once in a while at the grocery store you’ll find yourself in line behind a woman 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 neighbors. 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 neighbors 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 to the band at 636 G Street SE on Capitol Hill in 1854. 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 and in a town steeped in the excitement of the U.S. Civil War. Music and patriotism would define his life.

After playing with the band, he led them from 1880-1892. 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 the 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 is buried at Congressional Cemetery, about a mile from 8th and I, where he’s a star in a constellation of noteworthy Americans including 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.

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