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Why John Philip Sousa and Ol’ Dirty Bastard will forever be linked in my mind. For Randy Dague.
From JPS to ODB
“All these people mourning over the death of some rapper – what’s his name, the Old Bastard? I don’t understand why people care. The sad thing is, I bet people who care about his death haven’t even heard of John Philip Sousa.”
So said the father of the girl I was dating when Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s heart exploded in 2004. I was guilty as charged – I loved Wu Tang but only had a faint idea of who Sousa even was – so I duly nodded as he quickly changed the subject. Sure, it’s funny to think that there could be any dots to connect between the American March King and Big Baby Jesus, but such creative comparisons are what made talking to him enjoyable (and still does).
For those who don’t know, and I won’t judge you or anything, Sousa composed hundreds of marches around the turn of the 20th century (most notably “Stars and Stripes Forever”). The genre is pretty limited, each march essentially sounding the same if you don’t know what you’re listening for, but his important place in Americana is unquestioned.
Sabre and Spurs – John Philip Sousa
originally released as sheet music in 1918
The track was actually one of his most famous. Released it in 1918, it was written as a dedication the popular heroes of the 311th Cavalry in World War I. After a bouncy, patriotic opening there’s a hushed breakdown in the middle. The sound of hoof beats and mounted horsemen adds picturesque urgency. After the break it gets almost psychedelic, with the a section of horns sticking to the solid melody while the woodwinds go crazy with seemingly free-form melodies on top of it. A necessary big finish wraps it up.
The marches of John Philip Sousa bring the World War I era alive in the same way that jazz of the 1920s evokes the party atmosphere of its time. They get a bit monotonous if you listen to several back-to-back, but you can always take a break to listen to some Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He was also Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.