Top of page

Sousa and the Talking Machine

Share this post:

This blog post was written by David Sager, research assistant at the Recorded Sound Research Center.

John Philip Sousa, ca. 1911. Prints and Photographs Division

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), the American composer and bandleader, who was known as “The March King,” was a profoundly talented and accomplished man. His musical compositions went beyond marches and included operettas, waltzes, and songs. He also wrote several novels. Additionally, from 1892 until his death in 1932, he maintained an extraordinarily busy schedule performing with his own touring band, known as Sousa’s Band.[i]

It is apparent that his genius and dedication caused him very little angst. By all accounts, unlike that of most brilliant artists, he was remarkably at peace with himself; a quietly humorous and thoughtful “gentle man.”[ii]  However, one of Sousa’s very few known conflicts was his approach-avoidance relationship with the young and bourgeoning recording industry.

On one hand, he publicly excoriated the industry, referring to sound recordings, piano rolls, and other mechanical musical media, as “canned music.” This blasting was famously published in an article titled “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” which he penned for Appleton’s Magazine, in 1906.[iii]

Conversely, his name was strongly associated with the phonograph from the very start of his band leading career, and as years progressed, demonstrated his deep respect for the industry.

In his essay for Appleton’s Magazine, Sousa drew some perceptive parallels, pointing out the ludicrous ways in which the phonograph was beginning to replace human contact. Sousa makes apparent that music itself, as an expression of the soul, is a mechanical representation of a composer or performer, bringing their “art near and nearer to the emotional life of man.”[i] The phonograph, therefore, is further removed from humanity, being a mechanical tool to reproduce the already mechanical expression of the soul.

Sousa’s compelling opening statement has become the popularly known theme of the Appleton’s piece.

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 the piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.[ii]

Most histories of the phonograph and recording industry note Sousa’s derision of the phonograph and player piano. We get a sense that Sousa’s contempt was entirely altruistic. [iii]

However, in the final third of the Appleton’s article, we finally see what was driving Sousa’s concern; the copyright laws of 1906 offered no protection to composers, whose works were mechanically “reproduced at will on wax cylinders, brass disk, or a strip of perforated paper.”[v]

In June of 1906, several months prior to the publication of the Appleton’s piece, Sousa was in attendance as a joint session of Congress introduced a bill that would essentially see to it that musical composers would have no rights under the Constitution.

[John Philip Sousa (right) and Victor Herbert,  between 1920 and 1924. Prints and Photographs Division.
Famously, Sousa and Victor Herbert persisted and lobbied aggressively for change. The new copyright bill of 1909 provided for composers a two-cent royalty for every copy made of their works on mechanical media, thus the birth of the term “mechanical rights.”

Whatever Sousa’s feelings regarding the phonograph and recordings, his name was inextricably associated with the industry, almost from the beginning. From 1894, up to the Copyright Act of 1909, his name had appeared on many hundreds of recordings and piano rolls. And in 1909, following the change in the copyright law, he expanded his relationship with the phonograph and recordings. In addition to remaining a prominent name for the Victor Talking Machine Company, he now signed a contract to make recordings for the Edison Company.

However, supporting the notion of Sousa’s complex outlook on recordings is the fact that during a 35 year recording career, he only served as conductor on five recording sessions, yielding eight issued performances. He preferred to let others deputize for him in the studio.

Here are two of the recordings, recorded on September 16, 1918, on which Sousa himself conducted.

Sabre and Spurs March

Solid Men to the Front

Further adding to the layers of complexities found in the Sousa/phonograph conflict was a deep respect for the industry. This is revealed, in part, through a collection of letters between Sousa and Calvin Child, head of Victor’s Recording Lab. This cache of letters, which were copied from originals held by the United States Marine Band Sousa Collections, and held in the Library of Congress’s Recorded Sound Research Center, reveal not only a warm relationship with Child, but a patient and caring outlook regarding Victor’s competitors.

For instance, a July 11, 1918 letter from William H. Penn, the recording manager of the Pathé Frères Phonograph Company, reads in part,

My Dear Mr. Sousa,

We are issuing certain of your late Marches (sic) on our records, and wish to reproduce a suitable photograph of yourself under half tone form in our monthly booklets…

Will you be so kind as to order one bust photo, also, if you have it, one full length in  uniform sent to me at our New York office…

It is a testament to Sousa’s patience and unselfishness that he not only took his precious time to reply (he was currently the commanding Lieutenant of the U. S. Naval Reserve Band) immediately via telegram –

Am under contract with Victor Company and cannot give authorization for my photo without their consent. Will write them and let you know the result.

The same day, Sousa wrote to Calvin Child, enclosing the letter from Penn and the telegram reply –

If you see fit to give the Pathe Company permission to use the photo, will you be so good and either let Mr. Penn or myself know of your decision. Of course, I do not feel that I have any right to give permission…without the consent of your company.

Onto a different subject, Sousa inquired about the status of his most recent recordings and suggesting possible future recorded repertoire.

Have you made the record yet of the “Wisconsin Forward”? And that, I should think,  should be exploited at Madison, as it is dedicated to the Wisconsin University at Madison.[viii]

Five days later, Sousa had his reply from Child and wrote back to Mr. Penn –

I received from the proper official of the Victor Talking Machine Co. a letter this morning, in which they take the very reasonable viewpoint – which no doubt you would take under similar conditions – that as I am under contract with the Victor people, it would be misleading if I allowed my photograph to be used by any other company.

John Philip Sousa, in Navy uniform, marching at the head of his “Jackie” band during World War I, (1917-1919) Prints and Photograph Division.

As busy as he was with his official naval duties and with keeping up his rigorous routine of composing new music, it is remarkable not only that Sousa replied, but meticulously settled what most would have considered a very trifling matter.

Among his prodigious output during this era, Sousa composed the march “Bullets and Bayonets,” which the Sousa Band recorded for factor in October 1919.

Another new patriotic contribution “Who’s who in Navy Blue,” was recorded by Victor in June 1920.

By late January 1919, Sousa was out of the Navy and regrouping his own civilian band. On January 15th, Calvin Child wrote to Sousa, suggesting they might wait to record again, until the new band finished an upcoming tour, citing that it was “almost impossible to get sufficient extra really good men to make up the size band we want for you – most of the better Philadelphia musicians being under contract with the Philadelphia Orchestra and only available at odd times.”

This raises the question, which has been asked many times by scholars of early sound recordings, “Was it really Sousa’s band on the recordings?” The answer is that quality musicians who were not currently contracted by Sousa were frequently employed to function as “Sousa’s Band.”

In fact, Sousa’s contractual agreement with Victor is explained in a letter from Calvin Child, dated July 19, 1919, just after Sousa resigned his commission.

In our agreement with you there is a provision which I think you will remember, that in case your Band (sic) is on tour or not actively at work, we may from time to time make records for the Victor Catalogue with our organization here which, of course, works as part of your Band when records of Sousa’s Band are made, and label them “Sousa’s Band.”

But it was not always “smooth sailing” between Sousa and Victor. A telegram sent on January 13, 1922, from Sousa’s agent Harry Askin, reveals a heated discord. Apparently, while in Havana, preparing for an upcoming Sousa tour, Askin became incensed at the lack of Sousa promotional materials in the stores of local Victor dealers, whereas large publicity shots of other Victor artists, such as John McCormack and Jascha Heifetz were prominently on display.

On January 13, 1922 Askin sent a telegram to the main Victor office that read threateningly,

Victor agents tell me here that you are not interested in Sousa. Brunswick is and will spend unlimited amount.[ix]  Sousa will do as I say. Declare your position most unfair to Sousa.

Sousa, winding up business in Texas, received this from Mr. Child, penned on January 14,

We have just received an extraordinary telegram from your agent, Mr. Harry Askin. I know that he works very hard in your interest and is very enthusiastic. But he loses sight of the fact that we are not in the concert business.

I think you know personally just how highly we regard you here, and how anxious we are at all times to do what we can for you. We have already sent dealers in Havana lists of   your records in the Spanish Catalogue, asking them to stock and make a feature of them while you are there, urging them to advertise the concerts, and we are taking steps, through our Foreign Department, to have advertisements appear. Mr. Askin should know all this because it has been told him; such communications as he has sent in do not make just the right kind of impression here.

Indeed! One did not threaten the Victor Talking Machine Company with abandonment to Brunswick, and Child immediately sent a telegram to Askin, calling his perfunctory remarks “uncalled for,” stating that Victor was working hard on Sousa’s behalf in Havana.

Apparently something went wrong; Mr. Askin responded in great detail, citing a very real lack of Sousa promo materials in the Havana stores.

Historians have consistently either portrayed John Philip Sousa as an opponent of the young talking machine trade, or, if taking into account his concern about royalties, somewhat two-faced. Furthermore, he usually is credited with eventually developing a much more reasonable view of sound recordings. However, the truth seems more complex than that. Sousa’s feelings about the industry seem to have been consistent all along; what were, by all appearances, contradictory attitudes, were really all part of a whole, not mutually exclusive. When getting below the surface of his story, we see a man with complexities, not conflict.

Over 200 early recordings of Sousa’s music are available through the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox.  Additional Sousa materials, including manuscripts, published scores, and recordings can be found at the Library’s website, The March King: John Philip Sousa.

Interested in the recorded sound collection at the Library?  Don’t hesitate to contact the staff at the Recorded Sound Research Center.  And if you can’t get enough, listen to other recorded sound online presentations




[i] Except from 1917 until 1919, when Sousa abandoned his band in order to conduct a Naval Reserve band.

[ii] Roland Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph. (New York : Collier Macmillan,1977), 146-148.

[ii] Paul E. Bierly, John Philip Sousa : American Phenomenon, Revised Edition, (Miami: Warner Bros Publications, 2001), 99-118.

[iii] John Philip Sousa, “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Appleton’s Magazine, vol. 8, September 1906, pp. 278-284.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Roland Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph. (New York : Collier Macmillan,1977), 146-148.

[vii] Sousa, John Philip. In addition to “wax cylinders,” Sousa is referring to metallic music box discs and piano rolls.

[viii] Recordings of “Wisconsin Forward” had already been made, back in January and February, for the Edison and Columbia labels. Sousa seems to have been aware of this, wondering why Victor was not keeping up. As it turned out, Victor never did record “Wisconsin Forward.”

[ix] Brunswick records, were a chief competitor to Victor, having by then snagged Sousa’s former 1st chair cornetist Walter B. Rogers, as house conductor.

Comments (10)

  1. It seems clear from this piece that Sousa evinced little interest – at least by the 1920s – as to _who_ conducted his band on record, as long as it wasn’t him. Prior to WWI most of the Sousa Band conductors on record were either current or former members of the band, such as Arthur Pryor, Henry Higgins, Herbert L. Clarke and his brother Edwin, and Walter B. Rogers; after the war, though, many records were led by Victor’s staff conductors Josef Pasternack, Rosario Bourdon, and Nat Shilkret, none of whom had had any previous ties to the ensemble. (Pasternack and Bourdon weren’t even wind players.) And to threaten with Brunswick!! Brunswick was seen as an upstart company to Victor (especially to Calvin Child, who had been with them for over 15 years), with an erratic list of artists and erratic recording techniques. (The latter I can certainly attest to!) There may have been some other resentments there as well, as Victor’s former chief conductor Walter B. Rogers, who had left Victor’s employ in 1916 under cloudy circumstances undoubtedly involving Child, was now in that position at Brunswick and rapidly building up the label’s classical repertoire. That may have irked Child subliminally, if not actually

    Thinking about it, the Brunswick proposition might have come from through Walter Rogers himself, who had been a prominent cornet soloist with Sousa before he left to assume his position at Victor. His good friend Herbert L. Clarke, who was the cornet soloist most identified with Sousa and was Sousa’s assistant conductor for many years, came out of retirement in 1922 at Rogers’ behest to make his last two sides for Brunswick, “Carnival of Venice” and Clarke’s own “Stars in a Velvety Sky”, which show he hadn’t lost a whit of his technique or style. The two of them might have gone to Sousa with the idea, not realizing the havoc it might cause.

  2. One last thing: the 1909 Copyright Act was one of the very last things Theodore Roosevelt did as President, as he signed it into law on the morning of March 4th 1909 just prior to going to William Howard Taft’s Inauguration. Plus the reason Sousa could have “exclusive” contracts with both Victor and Edison is that his Victor contract was for disc recordings and his Edison contract was for cylinder recordings. Previously, Sousa had contracted with Columbia for cylinder recordings _only_ at various times, the last being in 1905-06.

  3. It should be also mentioned in connection with the July 19, 1919 cited that almost all of the wind players in Victor’s house ensembles had indeed played with Sousa in the past, as noted in the Victor Orchestra personnel list enumerated by Frank R. Seltzer on page 4 of the September 1918 “Jacobs Orchestra Monthly” (volume 9 no. 9); these included Seltzer himself (cornet), Theodore and Abraham Levy (clarinet), Emil Keneke (cornet), Anton and Joseph Horner (French horns – unnamed here, but in Victor logbooks), and Herman Conrad (tuba, the first player of the Sousaphone). It had been the same even earlier, with flutist Darius Lyons, cornetist Walter Pryor, and trombonist Edward Wardwell added to the list. Victor’s house players and Sousa’s Band were never mutually exclusive, as Sousa Band work was seasonal while recording at Victor went on all year.

  4. Nice piece. We also have to thank Mr.Sousa for mentoring James Reese Europe. His support benefited us all.

  5. This article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to bookmark

  6. Thankyou for providing such great content
    sml isuzu bus price

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *