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 back then.
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 another."
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 Posts.' "
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 efforts."
All Together Now
Not 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or write John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.