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The March King's Instrument

John Philip Sousa composed 136 marches, 15 operettas that include more than 200 songs, some 70 vocal works and countless other compositions and arrangements, so it should come as no surprise that he also invented a musical instrument. Collaborating with instrument maker J.W. Pepper, Sousa suggested the specifications for the first sousaphones, which were modeled on an instrument called a helicon, a tuba built in the 1890s that wrapped around the player and rested on the left shoulder. He wanted a tuba that would send sound upward and over the band with a full warm tone, an effect that could not be achieved with the narrower-belled (and thus highly directional) helicons. In 1893, Pepper built an instrument that allowed the bell to be pointed upward for the concert setting and forward for the march and called it a sousaphone in honor of the prolific conductor and composer.

Painting of Sousa during U.S. Marine Band era Tuba player in high school band, Butte, Mont. 1939

Contrary to popular belief, the sousaphone was not initially developed as a marching instrument, as the professional band Sousa started after leaving the Marine Corp (for which he wanted this new instrument) marched only once in its existence. Rather, Sousa wanted a concert instrument that would be easier to hold and play, while retaining a full, rich sound. The bell-up design, also known as a “raincatcher,” remained the standard for several decades, and a version with a forward-facing bell did not debut until the mid-1920s.

To commemorate the birthday of world-renowned bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa on Nov. 6, 1854, a new Web site dedicated to the composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is now available from the Library of Congress. This presentation provides access to many music manuscripts from the John Philip Sousa Collection, which is housed in the Library’s Music Division. Also online are more than 450 pieces of printed music and historic recordings of the Sousa Band, a selection of photographs and the manuscript of "Pipetown Sandy," Sousa’s semiautobiographical novel of a boy’s adventures in Civil War-era Washington, D.C. The Web site is part of the “Library of Congress Presents: Music, Theater and Dance” project, an initiative of the Music Division enabling visitors to experience the diversity of American performing arts through the Library's collections of scores, sheet music, audio recordings, films, photographs, maps and other materials.

American Memory also includes several items related to Sousa. A 1902 baseball poster highlighting the Sousa baseball team is part of “Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s-1960s” and a 1925 photograph of Sousa's band at Chautauqua is part of “Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991.”

A. Painting of Sousa during U.S. Marine Band era. Music Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.

B. Tuba player in high school band, Butte, Mont. 1939. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USF33-003099-M2 (b&w film nitrate neg.); Call No.: LC-USF33- 003099-M2 [P&P]