Young Sousa And The Musician Shortage

John Philip Sousa rose to national prominence thanks to talent, support, ambition… and an era of incredible opportunity for musicians.

John Philip Sousa
"The March King at the age of 21"

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Reading John Philip Sousa’s autobiography, “Keeping Time,” which appeared in the Post in 1925, I was expecting a narrative of life in a long-ago America. After all, Sousa was born 156 years ago. Yet the boyhood he describes is not much different than what he might experience today.  He went to school unwillingly, played sports, disobeyed his parents, liked pastries more than vegetables, avoided his music lessons, and had trouble choosing a career.

There are differences, of course; America was a vastly different country in the late 1800s. But the one difference that stood out in Sousa’s articles was the opportunities for musicians. When all music was ‘live,’ there was a constant need for musicians in theaters, vaudeville houses, concert halls, ballrooms, banquet halls, and eventually movie theaters. Sousa seems to walk from one engagement into another with little unemployed time between.

He began his career while still a teenager. By age 26, he was conducting the Marine Corps band. By 46 he was conducting the band that represented America at the Paris World Exposition. Such opportunities weren’t open for just any musician. He entered the world with natural talent, perfect pitch, a musical family, and ambition. But he also happened to arrive when the country seemed to have a never-ending demand for musicians. If he didn’t think there was enough opportunity in one position, he could find another quickly enough — an enviable position for any musician today.

Consider this: in the census of 1910, just as the recording industry was beginning, 92 million people lived in America, and 139,000 made their living as “musicians and composers.” Today, the population is 308 million, but the number of employed musicians has barely changed. Assuming the percentage of aspiring musicians has remained constant, struggling performers/composers have a third of the opportunities today that they had a century ago.

Sousa benefited from working in a music market where demand exceeded supply. But as his autobiography shows, supply exceeded talent. There were more people calling themselves “musician” than could actually play. In this excerpt, for example, he leaves Washington after his girlfriend’s father rejects him as an unsuitable son-in-law. He travels to Illinois to join an old associate who managed a theater.

I reported to him and the first question he asked was, “Have you had any experi­ence in engaging musicians?”

“No,” I said, “except at home, a little dance orchestra or something like that.”

“You go down to the theater,” he said, “and find out who the leader of the or­chestra is, then go out and engage not over ten men at the best price you can, have a thorough rehearsal, because they’ll need it, and then report conditions to me.”

I found the local leader in a paint shop, and after ascertaining that he was the man with whom to do business, I told him that I was the leader of the traveling company, which was to perform that night and asked if he could supply ten men for the orchestra.

He took his cigar from his mouth and said, “Can supply you as many as you want.”

“How much,” I asked, “do you charge a man?”

“Two dollars a skull,” was his reply.

“Well,” I said, falling into his mode of expression, “I want ten skulls—one first skull, one second skull, viola, cello and bass skulls for the strings, and flute, clarinet, cornet and trombone skulls for the wind, and a drum skull besides.”

“Anything else you want?” he asked.

“Yes, I would like them at the theater for rehearsal at two o’clock sharp,” I said.

He looked at me with a half-sorry-for-you expression and said: “Stranger, there are just two things that you don’t want here. One is that you don’t want any first fid [fiddle], and you don’t want any viola or ‘celly’ and you don’t want no flute, ’cause we ain’t got them. The second thing you don’t want is a rehearsal at two o’clock or any other time.”

“But,” I said, “we must have a re­hearsal.”

“Rehearsal be blowed,” he said. “We never rehearse here.”

“But,” I persisted, “my music is diffi­cult and a rehearsal is absolutely neces­sary. Several numbers must be transposed. Can your orchestra transpose?”

With a wave of his hand, he disdainfully said, “Transpose? Don’t worry. We trans­pose anything.”

No argument could budge him; and he finally stopped any further discussion by saying that I could take his orchestra or leave it, just as I liked.

It was Hobson’s choice with me, so I said, ” Well, I’ll take your orchestra, and I do hope everything will go all right to­night.”

“Don’t you lose any sleep over us. We’re all right,” he called to me as I was leaving his store.

Opening Night

John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa in 1900.Photo by Elmer Chickering. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly after seven I went to the theater and found the orchestra in the music room under the stage. The leader said, “You might as well know the boys, and I’ll just introduce you. What is your name?”

“My name,” I answered, “is Sousa.”

“Well, Sousa,” this with an awkward bow, “allow me to introduce Professor Smith, our second fid; and, Sousa, this is Professor Brown, our clarinet player; and, Sousa, this is Professor Perkins, our bull fid; and this,” pointing to a cadaverous­-looking fellow, “is Professor Jones, who agitates the ivories on our pipe organ. Sousa, these are Professors Jim and Bill Simpson, solo and first cornet; this is Pro­fessor Reed, who whacks the bun drum, and yours truly, solo trombone. Now that all of us know each other, what is your overture? ”

I explained that the overture we used I had written myself and it had met with great favor.

“I ain’t sayin’ that’s so or not, but it won’t go here. Will it, boys?”

A unanimous “No” from the orchestra dispelled any doubt as to their feelings. I expostulated with warmth and injured pride, “But you have never heard my over­ture, you know nothing about it, and I can assure you it is all right.”

“It may be all right in Chicago or Boston, but I tell you it won’t go here. I got the overture that our people want and that’s the one we are going to play to­night.”

“But I think __ ”

“Don’t think”, said the leader, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Just make up your mind that you are going to play our overture. Do you read first fid at sight?”

I mildly admitted that I could do so. “Well, just take a look at this thing,” and he held up the first violin part of his “overture.”

“Now, I want to explain this piece to you. When we open up on her we go along quietly, not making any fuss, almost sneaking like,” and he pantomimed the tempo. “When you are playin’ that first strain you do it just as if you didn’t have no train to ketch but when we get here”, he pointed at the next strain marked allegro, “just go as fast as hell! You’ll have to chase your fingers all over the fiddle.”

I sighed and answered, “All right, I think I understand.”

After we were seated in the orchestra box I rapped for attention and we began the overture. I noticed immediately that all of them were wretched players, and when I started into the movement which the local man told me was to be taken “fast as hell,” they began playing the strain with a rapid­ity evidently unknown to the orchestra, and pandemonium reigned. But curiously enough each man felt that it was his duty to play the notes to the end regardless of what the rest did, and they finished one after the other, stretched out like a bunch of horses in a race. I had no time to express my disgust as the curtain was raised imme­diately and the first number was to be sung. It was “Come Back to Erin,” in E flat. When we began the introduction of the song, every member of the orchestra was blowing a note either in a different time or different key.

I shouted, “It’s in E flat.”

The louder I shouted, the louder they played. The singer sang on, trying to ap­pear oblivious to the cacophony that reigned. As soon as the song was finished, I turned to the leader, and said, “This is the rottenest orchestra I have ever heard. You do not know one note from another.”

He looked at me calmly, and said, “You are too particular. If you don’t like our style of playin’, pay us and we’ll go.”

“Pay you?” I cried. “You have not earned a cent.”

“Well, if you don’t like us, give us our money and we will go.”

I was very much excited, and I shouted, “Give you your money? Not under any circumstances. Pack up your instruments and get out of this theater.”

“We’ll go when we are paid, and not be­fore,” said the leader.

“I’ll see about that,” I said, jumping up and walking through the center aisle of the theater; and going to the box office, I ex­plained the situation to my manager. He called the manager of the theater over and told him, and he said, “All right, just call in the constable and put them out as usual.”

As the constable walked in to drive out the orchestra, I said to the local manager, “Just think, these men told me they could read anything, and when I wanted them to come to rehearsal they said they never re­hearsed in this town.”

“Yes,” said the local manager, “that is true; they never have a rehearsal because, if they did, they would be discharged before the performance.”

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  1. Back in the days when music made
    Was not recorded but done live,
    No talent sounders sang and played,
    Getting employed by talking jive.
    There were those times when music’s best
    Got talked into hiring the worst.
    At rehearsal one could have guessed,
    But some times show time was the first
    When all ears within hearing be
    Subjected to the worst in deed,
    The sounds of sheer cacophony,
    By ” musicians” no one should need.

    John Philip Sousa hired a band,
    That played like fish and then got canned.


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