John Phillip Sousa – the March King – died 90 years ago Sunday March 6th in Reading Pennsylvania. He was 77.
His prodigious output – 134 marches, 690 total recordings in an era spanning a time when placing a needle on a wax cylinder was considered an advance (1) – included some songs about Michigan. “The Wolverine March”, written in 1881 and premiered that same year by the U. S. Marine Band at a reception given by the Michigan State Association in Washington DC, was dedicated to “His Excellency Hon. David H. Jerome, Governor of Michigan, and Staff” (2). In 1926, at the request of Detroit mayor John W. Smith, he wrote “The Pride of the Wolverines” (3). A year later, he penned a lovely waltz for U of M “The Coeds of Michigan” (4). He had other interactions with U of M and Ann Arbor. He was an inspiration to our own legendary bandleader William D. Revelli, who dedicated himself to becoming a conductor upon hearing Sousa’s band at the Illinois State Fair at age 10 (5). Both began their musical careers on violin.
While researching how these came to be, I came across an interesting story about our own Sousa-like fight song “The Victors” that Sousa himself called one of the four greatest fight songs he had ever conducted. Sousa conducted the first public band performance of the Victors right in Ann Arbor (6).
The story of how University of Michigan student Louis Elbel came to write The Victors is lovely, stirring, and true (7), but maybe just a bit controversial? (8). Thanksgiving Day 1898, he was in the visitors cheering section at Marshall Field (really, that’s who gave the money for it, and it later became Stagg Field and was the site of the first controlled nuclear reaction (9)), home of those fearsome Monsters of the Midway, Amos Alonzo Stagg’s University of Chicago Maroons, who had won the previous two contests. Fielding H. Yost was 4 years away, coaching Nebraska. Gustave Ferbert, in his second season, brought an undefeated team into the contest. The game on that cold blustery day was described as a literal slugfest and at the final whistle, the scoreboard found the Wolverines had one more point than the Maroons, 12-11. With the victory, they secured not only their first-ever conference title (then the Western Conference) but a share of their first National Championship as well. The Michigan faithful went understandably crazy. Once they tired of slapping backs and shaking hands in the stands, they formed a snake line to course through the Hyde Park campus of the University of Chicago, accompanied by the year-old Michigan Marching Band. On the mile and a half walk to his sister’s in Englewood after for Thanksgiving dinner, a song began to form in Elbel’s head. At his sister’s, he wrote a few things down. At home in South Bend at his piano the next day, he wrote the score, and on the train back to Ann Arbor finished the piece as a march to be played by 23 instruments. He also composed the lyrics. Everyone knows the chorus, but the first 2 verses are pretty complicated (6).
The Elbel family businesses included publishing, so he published The Victors as sheet music for a piano solo shortly after he returned to campus.
Elbel also took his march to E. R. Schremser, conductor of the City Band of Detroit, and paid him to orchestrate it for band. A U of M professor from the DuPont family helped finance the transaction.
The song was performed in parlors around campus and by spring was popular enough to go public. On April 5, 1899, Elbel conducted a 7-piece pit orchestra to play The Victors at the Athens Theater in downtown Ann Arbor as the curtain was being raised on the opening night performance of “A Night Off” by the University Comedy Club. John Phillip Sousa was in town as he and his band had been invited to perform at U of M’s University Hall in a benefit concert for the University Band (10). On April 8, shortly after Elbel had handed him copies of the sheet music for the march, Sousa conducted The Victors as part of that concert. So the first band to perform The Victors was John Phillip Sousa’s. How about that.
“The Victors” is known round-the-world. I sang it in Stockholm in ’96 along with fellow U of M alum Steve after a dinner for the faculty of an arthroscopy course held at the Karolinska. The only U of M alum President (so far), Gerald Ford (’35), often had the Naval Band play it in place of “Hail to the Chief” at state occasions and asked that it be played at his 2006 funeral. It was. His wasn’t and won’t be the only dead Wolverine’s funeral that includes a playing of “The Victors”.
Could it be possible that this hallowed and much-loved march is perhaps a little bit shrouded in controversy? I’ll leave the telling of the full tale to the links, but the crux of it is this: on April 11, 1898, Tin Pan Alley composer George Rosenberg (“Rosey”) applied for copyright on a “two-step march” the “Spirit of Liberty “
Everyone knows how “The Victors” goes. Few have heard the “Spirit of Liberty”. Now, you can join them. Here it is played by the US Naval Academic Band conducted by Lt. Commander Allen Beck (11).
There is no record of whether or not “The Spirit of Liberty” was played at the famous Thanksgiving Day ’98 game, but the U of C – having no band of its own – hired the Band of the First Regiment, also known as the Pullman Band, for the game. The Pullman Band had played the “Spirit of Liberty” at a free concert, less than a month previously, on October 27, the debut of that song in the Midwest. Might that tune have been in their repertoire at that game?
What to make of this? Even though my U has been quite generous of late doling out $$$ to the aggrieved, I don’t think much will come of this particular conflict. Fans of classical music know that the greats “borrowed” from each other all the time. And it’s hardly new news. The piece I came across is from 2008 and I subsequently found a piece from 10 years later (7). In the much more detailed newer one, the author mentions that legendary U of M band director William D. Revelli was well aware of the similarities between the two works and had the sheet music for “Spirit of Liberty” in his desk.
I don’t know much about “Rosey”. It would be great if he had been born sometime in the fall.* At halftime of one of the games in Michigan Stadium his name could be commemorated, and the Marching Band could play “Spirit of Liberty”. “Hail!”
If you’re up for a rousing chorus of The Victors, here’s those marching men and women of Michigan playing it as written (14)
And let’s close with the biggest hit from the rouser himself, played by the U of M Symphony Band, from the stage of Hill Auditorium (15)
*alas, born April 18, 1864 (16)
1. DAHR Directory of American Historical Recordings. UC Santa Barbara Library. John Phillip Sousa. https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/mastertalent/detail/102569/Sousa_John_Philip
2. Marines. The Wolverine March. https://www.marineband.marines.mil/Audio-Resources/The-Complete-Marches-of-John-Philip-Sousa/The-Wolverine-March/
4. United States Marine Band presents John Phillip Sousa, The Coeds of Michigan. YouTube 3/22/13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEg3Cql3m1g
5. Clarke K. Revelli: The Long Note. M Heritage Project. The University of Michigan. https://heritage.umich.edu/stories/revelli-the-long-note/
6. The Victors. MGoBlue. University of Michigan Athletics Official Site. 6/19/00. http://websites.umich.edu/~mgoblue/sounds/lyrics-victors.html
7. Dubois J. History of “The Victors”. Band Alumni Association. University of Michigan. M-Fanfare 70 (3), 2018. https://www.umbaa.org/members/m-fanfares/m-fanfare-volume-70-issue-3/history-of-the-victors
8. Leslie DL. Whose Victors? Did Louis Elbel copy part of another march? MLive.com/Ann Arbor News. 8/31/08. https://www.mlive.com/annarbornews_opinion/2008/08/whose_victors_did_louis_elbel.html
9. Stagg Field. Wikepedia. 10/12/21. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stagg_Field
10. Arwulf A. Sousa. A Living Portrait. Ann Arbor Observer. April, 2016. https://annarborobserver.com/articles/sousa.html
11. US Naval Academic Band conducted by Lt. Commander Allen Beck. Spirit of Liberty. YouTube. 3/5/14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQRJmsZ9Mnc
12. Beaumont-Thomas B. Plagiarism case over Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven finally ends. The Guardian. 10/6/20. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/oct/06/plagiarism-case-ends-led-zeppelin-stairway-to-heaven-taurus-spirit-us-supreme-court
13. Stairway to Heaven and Taurus Comparison. YouTube. 3/6/19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deVNnnuf24w
14. Michigan Marching Band plays The Victors as written. YouTube 9/6/16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFBh2dXykv0
15. UMich Symphony Band – John Phillip Sousa – The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896). YouTube 4/12/17. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK0OjVKyMZo
16. DAHR Directory of American Historical Recordings. UC Santa Barbara Library. George Rosey. https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/mastertalent/detail/106537/Rosey_George