The Toni Sousa Interview Remembering John Philip Sousa

He was known the world over as “The March King.”

It would be no exaggeration to say that in his day he was as popular as, say, Elvis or The Beatles.

His band was the first American musical organization to go on a world tour; the first musical act to travel more than a million miles and perform for more than a million people. His band was made up of members who were the best in the world on their instruments.

By now, you just have to know we’re talking about John Philip Sousa.

Sousa wrote 136 marches in his lifetime, but is best remembered for Semper Fe, El Capitan, and The Stars and Stripes Forever.

John Philip Sousa’s record of achievement is nothing short of amazing.

At age 62, he was the first musician ever to become a naval officer (in World War I) after joining the Naval Reserve with a rank of Lt.

On Washington’s 200th birthday, in 1932, he conducted the combined bands of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

Fourteen days later he died.

The last composition ever played under his baton was The Stars and Stripes Forever.

Of course the music of John Philip Sousa is still being played, and really comes to life each 4th of July.

Toni Sousa is a descendant of John Philip Sousa and spoke about her famous relative.

Q – Toni, I guess I should start off by asking how you’re related to John Philip Sousa.
A – I am a great granddaughter. My father, Tom Sousa, who passed away in 1994, was … John Philip Sousa, Jr., who was the son of John Philip Sousa, had five children. John Philip the third was one of them and my father was one of them. So, I am the daughter of Thomas Adams Sousa. That’s my dad’s full name. Then my brother is the other sibling. Neither of us has any children. The lineage is getting smaller and smaller.

Q – Do you do anything musical for a living?
A – No, I don’t. But I used to play piano. I like to sing. I like to dance. I’m really more into wild flower photography. So, I’m kind of an artist that way. Outdoor landscape. That type of thing. But, I do have rhythm. I can read music, but I’ve never composed.

Q – Did you ever want to compose?
A – I don’t know, maybe when I was younger. I was pretty good on the piano. I took a music appreciation class and tried writing something. Other than that it never really became a true passion. Now my cousin, Tom Abert, he does compose. He is a great grandson of Helen Sousa Abert.

Q – I should tell you, Toni that my grandmother used to watch John Philip Sousa perform in Fairmount Park, in Philadelphia, circa 1903, on a Sunday afternoon.
A – Yes. He made many trips. I drove to Florida a couple of years ago. I was in North Carolina at Battery Park. He played there also. They asked me when they saw my last name if I was related. They told me where the park was and to go down and look at it. So, that was kind of neat.

Q – Growing up, did your father or grandfather ever talk about John Philip Sousa – and what did they say?
A – Oh, yes, my father really gave us as much information as he had. And, when my brother and I both turned 21, he made us a notebook, kind of historical book about information he knew. It has notes all through it, and a lot of photos in it. When John Philip Sousa was nominated to the Music Hall of Fame, I think it was 1980, we went back for that event. It was at the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC. The Marine Band played. It was really, really great. So, my dad definitely filled us in. We went to New York a few times ’cause that’s where the Sousa’s were from originally. We got to meet, I think he was a Colonel who was head of the Marines. They have an office on the East side somewhere in Washington, DC. It’s hard to find – the Marine Band office. They have a lot of Sousa stuff. They have Sousa memorabilia.

Q – Like a museum.
A – Like a museum. Not a lot, but, they have some. They had a huge silver cup that I recall and some other awards. Then, they had some trunks with his name on it. I would’ve loved to have gotten in one of those trunks. So, they had a bunch of little silver cups. John Philip Sousa was a trap shooter. I didn’t want one with the gun on it. I got a plain one that just says John Philip Sousa. I don’t know how they ended up with that stuff, other than the feet that he was a Marine. The Sousa family must’ve obviously decided to give some of the stuff to the Marines, but, it’s kind of too bad, ’cause people don’t go there. None of the cousins have sort of taken it upon ourselves to now look back into it and see how we could get it moved to the Smithsonian.

Q – People should know about John Philip Sousa and not just once a year.
A – Yeah, on the 4 of July. I learned bits and pieces that way. There’s also a small museum in the University of Illinois in Champaign. I have never been to it.

Q – When you first heard the music of John Philip Sousa, did you realize just how special it was? Did you appreciate it?
A – Oh, I always appreciated it ’cause I really like music. I was kind of a different child in the sense that I used to listen to Lawrence Welk and all that kind of old time music. I was raised with musicals. I really appreciated it, but, I guess I never really realized how famous he was until much later when people in my workplace asked me if I was related. When I was younger I don’t think I ever thought of it as something unique in that way. It was just exciting to go and hear the music on the 4th of July. I wasn’t the type of person to say ‘Oh, yeah! My great grandfather wrote that.’ (Laughs) In fact my mother used to hate that, that type of situation. Somebody would say your daughter is related to John Philip Sousa. She sort of had a hang-up about that.

Q -I would think you would make a great guest of honor at a 4th of July Celebration. Something like a Boston Pops Concert where you would be in the audience and asked to stand when your affiliation with your great grandfather was made known.
A – Well, here’s the next part of your story. The first time I’ve ever done anything like that. My father knew a conductor by the name of Leonard Smith. He’s dead now, but he also was really into Sousa. He collected some Sousa memorabilia. He had an old uniform. I happened to meet him before he passed away. At one point a couple of years ago, I had misplaced his number, so, I looked online and came upon his website and it was connected with I think Great Lakes Music Dept. So, I called a man there, Dan Rager. He’s a composer, conductor. So, he and I kind of struck up a friendship. He is playing in Aberdeen, South Dakota, on the 4th of July and that’s where I’m going tomorrow!! (Laughs).

Q – Did you ever see the 1952 movie “Stars And Stripes Forever” about your great grandfather?
A – Oh, yes. Is that the one with Clifton Webb?

Q – It is.
A – I’ve seen it a couple of times. I haven’t seen it lately. I don’t remember how authentic it was. I think the one thing that struck us that we used to talk about, our family, is that there were a couple of women on the train, with him when they were traveling. He was very strict. They had no wives on the train when they were traveling as far as I know.

Q – I’ve read that members of the Sousa family criticized the film and were disappointed with it. Is that one of the reasons?
A -I think it’s more sort of Hollywoodish.

Q – When you were in school, did other kids or teachers ask if you were related to John Philip Sousa?
A – I was raised in Palo Alto, California, and most people knew. It was just a fact that was not brought up very much. See, I was never in band class or anything like that. I was in Senior Choir in high school, and I was in the Senior musical, actually in the Junior year I was in the musical. Again, it wasn’t emphasized that much. There was a family friend who whenever they would introduce us to their friends they’d say, oh, yeah, this is the Sousa’s and they, Tom Sousa, were related to John Philip. My mom used to say maybe that’s the only reason they liked us. You know that type of thing. It was just kind of known.

Q – The family still receives royalties on the music?
A – Yeah. Very small domestic royalties. And then we actually get a foreign royalty, that’s been larger and I don’t know if I need to say the amount.

Q – No, you don’t have to do that. Have you heard other musicians play your great grandfather’s music and do you have a favorite?
A – I have heard various recordings but, to be honest I haven’t paid much attention. But, now maybe I’ll start paying more attention.

Q – What have you been listening to?
A – Country (music) (Laughs). I do listen to classical, I like blues. I don’t like jazz. I haven’t really listened to march music.

Q – He was to marches what Beethoven was to symphonies, what Hank Williams was to country, what Elvis was to rock ‘n’ roll. He was the very best.
A – I guess to me, some of the marches after a while start to sound alike. Now, he did write operettas also. He wrote some other types of music which was kind of neat.

Q – Where do you figure the talent comes from to write a march like “The Stars and Stripes Forever”?
A – I don’t know where it comes from. I think music is pretty much genetic, in origin. His father, Anthony, was the one who got him to take violin lessons. And, I’m going blank as to whether either of his parents were musical. But, it was pretty neat that back then the parents were allowing him to do this. Back then most guys wanted you to work on the family farm. If you were an artist in some way, it wasn’t looked upon as much to continue your career. He obviously had a talent and pursued it. He was there at the right time too. I think it must’ve been somewhere in the family genes. Yet, I don’t think he was a child prodigy. He just kind of got into this march thing and was a very hard worker. That’s what I was always told. And people liked those things (the marches) back then too. We haven’t had a wave of marches come along like him.

Q – Maybe it’ll happen soon. Pop music is just too boring these days.
A – I know. I agree with that.

© Gary James All Rights Reserved

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