We can’t say anyone has ever come into the record shop specifically for an album of John Phillip Sousa’s marches, but he is undeniably a towering figure in the history of American music. Consider the hundreds of performances of “Stars and Stripes Forever” on Youtube. They range from amateurish to awesome, such as Chet Atkins’ incredible transcription of the song for guitar.
Sousa was born in Washington DC in 1854, and his life and career spanned some pretty incredible times in the history of American popular music. In 1906, Sousa published an essay titled “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” which began alarmingly enough:
Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.
The loathsome subject of Sousa’s alarm was the player piano, then a decade-old novelty which, briefly pre-dating the phonograph, provided the first widespread distribution of pre-produced music. Historian Craig Roell (in The Piano in America 1890-1940) describes the difference succinctly: “Music, like clothing, was ‘consumed,’ not ‘made.'”
Sousa warned the machines would result in a “marked deterioration in American music and musical taste,” but his essay (which coined the familiar phrase “canned music”) had its own underhand agenda. In Decomposition: A Music Manifesto, Andrew Durkin points out that Sousa was equally concerned with the fact that composers were not yet paid a royalty for such reproductions of their work, and already at this time he was a best-selling recording artist.
Durkin traces this particular strain of technophobia to mistrust of the piano itself, which one outspoken critic said threatened to reduce music “to a question of such dexterity as is shown by a first-class operator on Remington’s typewriter.”
The 1909 Copyright Act resolved many of the concerns composers had over the distribution of their music on piano rolls, and it remained in effect until it was superseded by a similar Copyright Act in 1976. This was, in effect, the beginning of the entertainment industry’s chronic panic attack over one technology or another: piano rolls, home taping, VCRs, Napster and a baby dancing to seconds of a Prince song on Youtube are all connected.
Also, this has got to be the best performance of “Stars and Stripes Forever” in the world.