If you are older, you may not have heard it for a while. If you are younger, you may never have heard it.
Either way, on July 4, find “The Stars & Stripes Forever” and listen (scroll down to listen now). You’ll want to conduct the band with abandon and smash the cymbals.
It’s a giant, jubilant march, with stirring lyrics which, for fun, you can also substitute for a duck song (Be kind to your web-footed friends…).
John Philip Sousa — Marine, musician and band leader — was returning to the United States from a vacation in Italy in 1896. It was Christmas Day and from the deck of an ocean liner, he heard the march in his head.
“Suddenly, I began to sense the rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain,” Sousa wrote in his autobiography Marching Along. “It kept on ceaselessly playing … the imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody.
“I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever changed,” he wrote.
The song repeats distinct melodies in sections, called strains, using different instruments to repeat and lead. So the song begins with a hearty introduction by the horns with great smashing beats on drums, followed by the melody. Woodwinds repeat, and later, the famous response of the piccolos. The trombones thunder in with a bold counter melody. Then, the entire band plays together — and, by then, we’re all marching.
While it is the official national march of the United States, the tune has also been adopted by soccer fans in the UK, sung as ‘Here We Go,’ once called a working class march. Cartoon character Popeye fought bad guys to the song. Comedians invented the duck lyrics. The Grateful Dead played it to retire.
One strange Stars & Stripes Forever fact: Circuses in the early 20th century loved to fire up the crowd with march music, but they never played The Stars & Stripes Forever. This tune was a secret signal, only played when a life-threatening disaster was imminent. When they heard it, emergency personnel would try to quietly disperse the crowd, not always successfully.