Durova, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
“The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa is a patriotic classic, conjuring up images of bunting-draped Fourth of July concerts with the very first note.
Sousa composed the song while traveling from Europe back to the U.S. in 1896. He had just received word of his manager’s unexpected death, and was pacing the deck to gather his thoughts when the music came to him. “I began to sense a rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distant melody. I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore, I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever changed."
When Sousa debuted the song in concert in May 1897, newspapers immediately proclaimed it a hit, giving effusive compliments such as, “it is of a martial nature throughout and stirring enough to rouse the American eagle from his crag and set him to shriek exultantly while he hurls his arrows at the aurora borealis.”
You’ve heard “The Stars and Stripes Forever” countless times—and if you were in high school band, you’ve probably butchered it a time or two yourself. But do you know the lyrics? (No, they’re not “Be kind to your web-footed friends.”) If not, you’re in good company: Sousa’s words have long played second fiddle to the bombastic march itself, perhaps because the instrumental version is so strong that it needs nothing else. If you really want to impress people at patriotic gatherings this Memorial Day and Fourth of July, though, bust out these lyrics to our national march:
Let martial note in triumph float And liberty extend its mighty hand A flag appears 'mid thunderous cheers, The banner of the Western land. The emblem of the brave and true Its folds protect no tyrant crew; The red and white and starry blue Is freedom's shield and hope. Other nations may deem their flags the best And cheer them with fervid elation But the flag of the North and South and West Is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom's nation. Hurrah for the flag of the free! May it wave as our standard forever, The gem of the land and the sea, The banner of the right. Let despots remember the day When our fathers with mighty endeavor Proclaimed as they marched to the fray That by their might and by their right It waves forever. Let eagle shriek from lofty peak The never-ending watchword of our land; Let summer breeze waft through the trees The echo of the chorus grand. Sing out for liberty and light, Sing out for freedom and the right. Sing out for Union and its might, O patriotic sons. Other nations may deem their flags the best And cheer them with fervid elation, But the flag of the North and South and West Is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom's nation. Hurrah for the flag of the free. May it wave as our standard forever The gem of the land and the sea, The banner of the right. Let despots remember the day When our fathers with might endeavor Proclaimed as they marched to the fray, That by their might and by their right It waves forever.