John Philip Sousa vs. "Canned Music"

by Elijah Wald

When they first appeared, audio recordings were faint and scratchy novelties, and no one could have imagined a time when amateur performers would be complimented by being told that they sound "just like a record." Only the most pessimistic were more prescient, and the most famous of these was John Philip Sousa, who coined the term "canned music" and summed up his feelings in a 1906 diatribe, "The Menace of Mechanical Music." By that time the phonograph had become a fairly common object in homes and entertainment arcades, with Sousa's popularity accounting for some of its greatest successes. The first Columbia Records catalog, published in 1890, included 50 cylinders by the U.S. Marine Band, then under his direction, and over the next decade his marches were among the most frequently recorded and best-selling tunes.

From the beginning, though, Sousa was ambivalent about the new technology. The Marine Band that recorded for Columbia was just an eight-man subgroup, as the acoustic recording process could not accommodate a full brass ensemble, and Sousa himself never set foot in the Columbia studio. After he broke off to form his own group in 1892, Sousa's band would be credited with some 1,770 recordings, but only eight of those were made under his personal supervision. He preferred to leave recordings to his assistants while concentrating his own efforts on composing and, more important, bringing "good music" to a mass public.

Sousa considered himself first of all a classical musician, and his concerts, which routinely drew crowds numbering in the thousands, mixed his famous marches with a broad selection of European concert works. He would also include a small sample of light, hummable pop tunes, but to his way of thinking these were there as sweetener for the more serious material. A ragtime march like Kerry Mills's "At a Georgia Camp Meeting" or a sentimental parlor ballad like Charles K. Harris's "After the Ball" would act as a bridge to Wagner and Beethoven. That said, Sousa was acutely conscious and respectful of popular tastes. He noted with pride that the snootier classical orchestras could not match his concert receipts and ascribed this not only to the expertise of his musicians but also to the democratic spirit of his repertory.

From a modern perspective, it can be hard to understand the breadth of music Sousa popularized. Now that brass bands are heard only in parades and at sporting events, we tend to think of them as rousing, blaring calls to action. But brass band concerts included waltzes and ballads as well as marches. "After the Ball," for example, was a sentimental waltz:

After the ball is over, after the break of morn;
After the dancers' leaving, after the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished after the ball.

This song was the biggest sheet music seller of the 1890s, and it remained phenomenally popular well into the twentieth century. In a large part this was due to how easily it could be sung around the parlor piano or used as a tearjerker by professional balladeers, but when Harris looked back on the song's early life, he credited its overwhelming success to Sousa. The 1893 Chicago World's Fair was the first such event to draw visitors from all over the country, and Sousa was its musical superstar:  "There were thousands of visitors to the World's Fair who heard Sousa's band play the song as only he could render it," Harris later wrote. "They would then invariably buy copies in Chicago's music stores to take back home with them, to show the home folks the reigning song success of the World's Fair. That was one of the reasons why the song spread throughout the world as no ballad of its kind had ever done before."

The idea that people would hear his band play music and be inspired to go home and perform it themselves was integral to Sousa's mission. It is a bit of a stretch to compare him to Pete Seeger, but like Seeger a half century later he dreamed of a country full of amateurs making music for one another. It was part of the democratic American dream:  The aristocratic arts of Europe would be made common property, rubbing shoulders with the rough songs of the pioneers and the latest dances of the vibrant new cities. Sousa differed from Seeger in that he not only wanted everyone to play, but also hoped they would play the works of the great European composers, but for both men, the most important thing was getting instruments into everyone's hands and encouraging them to make music. (And, although Seeger is best known for championing the songs of non-professional folk artists, he also recorded banjo transcriptions of Back, Beethoven, and Stravinsky and wrote a book on sight-reading.)

Sousa's objections to "canned music" were not purely aesthetic. He was a businessman as well as an artist, and until 1913 recordings were not subject to copyright and paid no composer's royalties, so his marches were selling millions of cylinders and discs for which he received not a penny. But he also had more altruistic reasons to dislike the new technology, and although he granted that his polemic might be read as both alarmist and partisan, to a modern reader it seems prophetic — as well as being a reminder of a lost world of popular music making.

Sousa started by celebrating America's success in democratizing musical performance:  "There are more pianos, violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos among the working classes of America than in all the rest of the world," he wrote, "and the presence of these instruments in the homes has given employment to enormous numbers of teachers who have patiently taught the children and inculcated a love for music throughout the various communities."

Right here is the menace of machine-made music! The first rift in the lute has appeared. The cheaper of these instruments of the home are no longer being purchased as formerly, and all because the automatic music devices are usurping their places.

And what is the result? The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technic, … the tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant….

When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?

Children are naturally imitative, and if, in their infancy, they hear only phonographs, will they not sing, if they sing at all, in imitation and finally become simply human phonographs — without soul or expression? Congregational singing will suffer also, which, though crude at times, at least improves the respiration of many a weary sinner and soften the voices of those who live amid tumult and noise….

The country band with its energetic renditions, its loyal supports by local merchants, its benefit concerts, band wagon, gay uniforms, state tournaments, and the attendant pride and gayety, is apparently doomed to vanish in the general assault on personality in music….

The country dance orchestra of violin, guitar and melodeon had to rest at times, and the resultant interruption afforded the opportunity for general sociability and rest among the entire company. Now a tireless mechanism can keep everlastingly at it, and much of what made the dance a wholesome recreation is eliminated….

We have long lived in the world Sousa dreaded. Only a small minority of Americans still bother to master a musical instrument, and many readers will be puzzled by his reference to the country with its bandwagon and gay uniforms, never having seen such an amateur group leading a local parade or giving a concert in a park. Virtually all dancing is now commonly done to recordings, played without pause, whether at clubs or at private parties. And although some mothers (and fathers) still hum lullabies and most religious congregations still sing together, it is becoming increasingly common for recorded music to be used even in these situations.

Reprinted from How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll by Elijah Wald published by Oxford University Press, Inc. © 2009 by Elijah Wald.



Elijah Wald is a musician and writer whose books include Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues; Narcocorrido, about the Mexican ballads of drug trafficking and social issues; The Major of MacDougal Street (with Dave Van Ronk); and Global Minstrels: Vocals of World Music. He has been teaching at UCLA and is a frequent contributor to various newspapers and magazines. For more information, visit

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Articles in this Issue

Introduction, from the Editors
Summer 1963, by Sam Stephenson
Jukeboxes, Beer Joints, and the First Willie Nelson Songbook, by Joe Nick Patoski
The Death of a Temptation, by Alix Strauss
Paradise by the Dashboard Light, by Arthur Jones
I Don't Want to Hurt That Man, I Just Want to Kill Him Dead, by Peter Patnaik
John Philip Sousa vs. "Canned Music", by Elijah Wald
Library Privileges, by Andrew Phillips
Lost In Sound, by the Editors