It happened in 1916. John Philip Sousa, the American March King who wrote “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and other marches, debuted his “Boy Scouts of America” march.
Sousa was born 161 years ago today — Nov. 6, 1854. So it seems like a fitting time to look back at when the march master wrote a special tune just for the Boy Scouts.
You’ll find the story in the March 1, 1917, edition of Scouting magazine. The piece was called “The March King writes march for Boy Scouts: John Philip Sousa Symbolizes in Music the Spirit of Youth — Words by Booth Tarkington.”
Sousa was never a Scout himself, of course. He turned 56 the year the BSA was formed.
But he considered the organization to be a “wonderful and powerful force toward the making of true Americanism and good citizens,” according to the Scouting magazine story. (Some things never change.)
Inspired by his memories of a boyhood meeting with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Sousa wanted a song with a “good marching swing, that would be within the range of the singing voice and that could have words written for it.” It also had to “symbolize the Spirit of Youth.”
And so was born the “Boy Scouts of America” march, written “expressly for and dedicated with admiration and affection to the Boy Scouts of America.”
The march had its first public hearing Oct. 22, 1916, “and was received with acclaim as one of the best he has ever written. The critics, his publishers and Mr. Sousa himself think it one of the two or three best he has ever written, and that it ranks with the ‘Washington Post’ and the ‘Stars and Stripes.'”
The Scouting magazine rave continued: “It has a splendid swing and makes those who hear it want to keep time with their feet. It is full of life and energy and is pervaded with a youthful joyousness that is wonderful.”
Scouting magazine wrote that Booth Tarkington, the American novelist who twice won the Pulitzer Prize, was to write lyrics for the march. After all, Tarkington was “an enthusiastic believer in the Scout movement, and furthers it in every way he can.”
But I haven’t been able to locate said lyrics. If you know where to find them, please share in the comments section below.
Meantime, let’s all enjoy the “Boy Scouts of America” march, as performed by the Marine Band in 1977 for the album The Heritage of John Philip Sousa.
The original Scouting story
Here’s the story as it appeared on page 5 of the March 1, 1917, edition of Scouting.
And here it is in text form:
THE MARCH KING WRITES MARCH FOR BOY SCOUTS
John Philip Sousa Symbolizes in Music the Spirit of Youth
JOHN PHILIP SOUSA first entertained the idea of writing a march for the Boy Scouts of America in the early part of September. He is much interested in the Boy Scouts of America and thinks it a wonderful and powerful force toward the making of true Americanism and good citizens. Mr. Sousa’s own boyhood was passed in Washington, D.C. — he having been born there in 1854 — and his early days were as he says, surrounded by military music and the tramp of marching feet. He believes that many of his best marches were inspired by this early impression — as related in his book Pipetown Sandy (which by the way should be in every boy’s library) which tells really the story of his own youthful days.
Sousa was taken by his father to see the review of the Union troops in Washington immediately after the close of the Civil War, and had curiously enough a chance to march alongside his father in one of the regiments known as Sherman’s Bummers. His feelings as a boy are vividly described in the story. When Mr. Sousa agreed to write a march, he said that he would not do it unless he could get the proper inspiration. It was suggested that he should try to feel again as he did when as a small boy of twelve years he was reviewed by General Grant and the President of the United States. I believe that this was his inspiration and he certainly has translated it into music. He wished to have a march that would have a good marching swing, that would be within the range of the singing voice, and that could have words written for it.
He also wished to have it symbolize the Spirit of Youth, especially the Youth of America — and he certainly has done it. It is a great success. The first rehearsal was held at the Metropolitan Opera House on October 20, 1916, and was a great success. The first public hearing was at the New National Theatre, Sunday, October 22, and was received with acclaim as one of the best he has ever written. The critics, his publishers, and Mr. Sousa himself think it one of the two or three best he has ever written, and that it ranks with the “Washington Post” and the “Stars and Stripes.” It has a splendid swing, and makes those who hear it want to keep time with their feet. It is full of life and energy and is pervaded with a youthful joyousness that is wonderful. Mr. Sousa is delighted with his success and is hopeful that the Scouts will like it too.
It is called the “Boy Scouts of America” march, composed expressly for and dedicated with admiration and affection to the Boy Scouts of America, by John Philip Sousa. On suggestion, approved by Mr. Sousa, the person selected to write the words was Mr. Booth Tarkington, the famous novelist — who upon being asked said that he would gladly try to write suitable words, as soon as he could hear the music. Mr. Tarkington is an enthusiastic believer in the Scout Movement, and furthers it in every way he can. The music will be published and will have on the cover page in addition to the title and dedication as given above — a picture of the Statuette of a Boy Scout as made for the Boy Scouts of Philadelphia, by Dr. R. Tait MacKenzie the artist — a member of the Philadelphia Council. Thus will be combined the famous names in music, art and literature and all because they approve of the Boy Scouts and think that they have and will make good. The march was first played at a public performance on October 30 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Philadelphia where Mr. Sousa was then engaged. So the Boy Scouts have now a march of their own — composed by the most famous march writer of the world. They should be very proud — and also grateful.
Hat tip: Thanks to volunteer Tom Petrik for the tip.