It’s fine to buy hot dogs and bug spray and cute little flags to wave, but if you really want to get ready for the 4th of July, read this guest blog by my friend Clark Baxter (and play the YouTube video). Instead of just clapping along to The Stars and Stripes Forever, you’ll appreciate it in an entirely new way. THIS is what Independence Day is really about.
The Stars and Stripes Forever is the song without which the 4th of July cannot be. If America has a National Song, this is it. Have you ever considered why?
Well of course it’s lively and fun and it barrels along briskly. But so do lots of songs. It’s loud and there are lots of trumpets and cymbals and tubas–like every other Sousa march. They always play it on Independence Day. Like The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Hmmm. Let’s dig a little deeper.
To be French you’re parents really need to be French themselves, and their parents before them. Citizens of Japan are, you know, Japanese. But to be an American you only have to show up, take a test, and buy into a central idea. To make it even easier, Thomas Jefferson wrote this idea down: All of us “are created Equal.” That’s it. Buy into that and you’re an American.
But what does “equal” mean? I’m taller than my wife, who is more persistent than I am. And our daughter is smarter than either of us. The three of us couldn’t be less equal.
Jefferson anticipated that. What he meant is that we are all equal in two basic ways:
1. We all have (or are supposed to have) an equal chance to choose the kind of life we want: i.e., our own “pursuit” of happiness.”
2. In return for this chance to pursue our own version of happiness, our own American dream, we have an equal responsibility be good citizens, to help make our community and our country work so that others can continue to pursue their happiness. Of the people: sure. For the people: you bet. But also by the people.
So what does that have to do with The Stars and Stripes Forever?
Let’s find out.
Listen–and watch–as the Marine Corp Band, for whom John Phillips Sousa wrote this piece, performs it.
After a brief introduction, at 0:27 (on the YouTube player) the brass and percussion snap us to attention with a rousing introduction.
At 0:31 the full band plays the opening theme, making as confident a sound as a band can make. This is music to psych you up before that big presentation. The trumpets take the melody (what else is new?). But the trombones, fully psyched, barge in at 0:41/42 and again at 0:56/57. If you have a pulse and a US passport you’re at least tapping your toe by now. Politicians, cable TV pundits and other assertive, extroverted Americans take their place on stage here.
At 1:29 the clarinets lead the woodwinds into the quieter “B” theme (which at camp we sang as “Be Kind to your Web-footed Friends”). This is gentler, introverted music, music to ice skate to. All librarians and tech support personnel take stage–while the trumpets are muted. The drums weigh an idea for a poem, or maybe they’re texting the cymbal players. Whatever they’re doing, no one moves an unmusical muscle. And every uniformed band member behaves uniformly.
At 2:00 the trumpets, drums, and other extroverts can’t stand the calm and play a 20-second interlude. And as they play something really striking happens: a single band member breaks ranks, makes his way to the front holding what looks like a pea shooter. It looks incapable of making enough sound to reach the audience.
It’s called a piccolo. And when it plays (at 2:22) you can not only hear it, the song it makes is a wild, ecstatic variation of the melody we just heard. And it’s the climax of the entire piece. If you aren’t dancing by now, consider flying home to France.
The piccolo, while comically unequal in size, plays a better-than-equal role–visually as well as musically–in our annual celebration of America’s National Holiday.
But note one final thing: the piccolo on its own does not generate as many decibels as a trumpet or a drum. The climactic moment it provides in our 4th of July celebration is possible only when the trumpets and drums (and trombones and other extroverts) pipe down, listen, and allow this tiny voice to be heard. Without it, The Stars and Forever is background music and July 4 is just another shopping day. But on Independence Day, the piccolo reminds us that all of us—trumpets and piccolos, shouters and whisperers—are created equal.
Dig deep. Work hard. Play harder. Pursue your happiness. But when the new kid in the woodwind section a few chairs down from you stands up to pursue her happiness, pay attention.
PS–The Stars and Stripes is an orchestral staple piece as well, of course. Here’s a rousing “cover” by the NY Philharmonic.
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