Answer Man: The Melodious Newspaper
By John Kelly
Monday, July 26, 2004; Page C11
The master of
ceremonies at the Capitol Fourth of July celebration said that John
Philip Sousa's "The Washington Post March" was composed to honor your
paper. I doubt that because The Post wasn't much of a paper in those
days. I believe the use of the name "Washington post" referred to a
military installation. Fort Myer, maybe?
G. Galt Bready, Falls Church
Not much of a paper? Ouch. That smarts. But then, the truth hurts.
There were no fewer than four daily papers in
Washington in 1889, and honestly, The Post wasn't the top dog. Two
things happened that year that raised the profile of the rag that would
-- exactly 100 years later -- see fit to hire Answer Man. In January, Beriah Wilkins and Frank Hatton bought the paper from founding editor Stilson Hutchins. And in April, Frank Hatton started something called The Washington Post Amateur Authors' Association.
It was a club that was open to District schoolchildren,
a way, Hatton said, for them to improve their writing and see their
work in print. It was also a brilliant publicity stunt. In just a few
months' time, 22,000 children had sent in application forms, giving The
Post access to thousands of households.
The biggest coup was yet to come. One day, Hatton ran
into an acquaintance of his on the street, someone he knew from the
Gridiron Club. That friend was John Philip Sousa, a native Washingtonian who had risen to lead the hottest musical ensemble in town, the United States Marine Band.
Hatton explained that the Amateur Authors' Association
was sponsoring an essay contest. Winners would be announced at a gala
festival near the Smithsonian that summer. Could Sousa whip up a little
ditty to be played that day? Sousa said yes.
"He was extremely wise politically, and he knew which kinds of requests to accept and which kind to ignore," said Master Gunnery Sgt. Mike Ressler, chief librarian of the Marine Band. "One from the owners of the paper is one he wanted to honor."
While the composer composed, the contest judges judged.
There were close to 1,500 entries, in 11 categories, one for each grade
Each grade had its own theme. First-graders were to
provide "a description of a picture or tableau," fourth-graders "a
description or narration of some process in physics, as, for example,
the formation of rain, or of dew, or of fog."
Frederick Douglass was among the 23 judges, a group
that included former congressmen, clergymen, generals and college
professors. Any youngster curious about the prizes could press his or
her nose to the display window at the Galt jewelry store, where 11
solid gold medals were on view, resting in custom-made leather boxes.
The day of the great prize-giving -- June 15, 1889 --
was by all accounts picture-perfect. The Post estimated the crowd at
25,000. "They were in all manner of dresses," a Post reporter wrote of
the gathered children, "rich, poor and indifferent, but were truly
democratic, and one made as much noise and demanded as much room as
Sitting on a platform, along with the judges and other
VIPs, were the winners. They ranged from 11th-grader Mary C. Priest ("a
pretty, well-built brunette, with large, bright brown eyes," The Post
noted) to little Annie Roach, a first-grader.
The festivities kicked off at 4 p.m. Sousa led the
Marine Band through "a light and melodious composition." It was "The
Washington Post March." The crowd "heartily applauded."
Sousa composed hundreds of pieces of music. Why did this one so catch the public's fancy?
"It's the 6/8 rhythm that gives it its bounce," said Paul Bierley,
author of seven books on the composer, including "John Philip Sousa:
American Phenomenon." "It just sort of makes you want to dance."
In other words: a nice beat and you could dance to it.
Sousa's tune came along at just the instant that the waltz was being
eclipsed by a new craze called the two-step. Dance instructors across
the country, then the world, recommended "The Washington Post March" as
the perfect accompaniment to this hot new dance.
It's impossible to say exactly what the march did for
this newspaper. The Post wouldn't really come into its own until the
mid-20th century, but there's no doubt, said Paul Bierley, that Sousa's
creation "raised the profile of the paper all around the world. . . .
When two-steps were danced in Europe, they were called 'Washington
It remains, along with "The Stars and Stripes Forever,"
one of Sousa's most popular marches. (It was presumably not a favorite
of Richard Nixon, who had to listen to it during a 1974 trip to
Jordan when the band there launched into it, unaware the tune was named
after the newspaper that was relentlessly nipping at his heels.)
There's no record that The Washington Post paid Sousa for his
composition. Sousa sold the publishing rights for $35 but later said,
"as it has given much joy to many, I feel that is some pay for my
All Together Now
sure you've heard "The Washington Post March"? Trust me, you have. But
if you'd like to refresh your memory, we've put it online. Just go to www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly/. To find out when the Marine Band is appearing next, go to www.marineband.usmc.mil.
The site also lists which selections the band will play. Sadly, it
looks as if "The Washington Post March" isn't scheduled any time soon.
Go on, ask me a question. Send it to email@example.com, or write John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
_____By John Kelly_____
Pieces in the Puzzle of Giving (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
A Long Way to Go to Camp (The Washington Post, Jul 22, 2004)
The Road Worth Taking to Camp (The Washington Post, Jul 21, 2004)
Camping It Up at Moss Hollow (The Washington Post, Jul 20, 2004)
John Kelly's Washington Live (Live Online, Jul 16, 2004)
John Kelly's Washington Live (Live Online, Jul 9, 2004)
John Kelly's Washington Live (Live Online, Jun 11, 2004)
_____Send a Kid to Camp_____ John Kelly is an enthusiastic supporter of Send a Kid to Camp,
which supports Family and Child Services of Washington, D.C., Inc. That
agency operates Camp Moss Hollow, which welcomes nearly 1,000
children--many of them from Washington's foster care system--to its
367-acre site in the Shenandoah Valley each year.
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