Sousa, Fiedler, and the Fourth

America has always been blessed with music. From Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, to Hank Williams "Your Cheatin' Heart" and Louis Armstrong's, "West End Blues," we are nothing if not a musical people. It's become one of most enduring exports. On July 4, between watching episodes of the fabulous min-series John Adams, which is by far the best thing that HBO has ever done and Paul Giamatti has ever acted in, I play my greatest hits of the USA.

First up, of course, and played again at selected intervals throughout the day as the ultimate palette cleanser, is the work of one John Philip Sousa. A bracing and yes, corny between-tracks mood changer, Sousa is also instructive for testing speakers with the sonorities of brass instruments, particularly the aptly named Sousaphone.

Fortunately, the March King lived during the recording era and so both acoustic and electrical recordings of his work, for Columbia and Victor exist and have been digitally transferred. In these recordings, many of which interestingly, are taken a slower tempo than is usual with most modern interpreters, he's conducting either the Marine Band (wax cylinders), which he led twice, or his own Sousa Band (78rpm discs). On Pearl Records' Under The Double Eagle which was released on CD in 1996, you can hear the man himself conduct his band on an electrical recording of his fantastically named, "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine."

The series of recordings on Naxos of Sousa impersonator Keith Brion are all wonderful, though perhaps more Sousa than all but the most dedicated fan would want. For a lighter touch with Sousa, The California Wind Orchestra's A Slice of America adds new feels and textures. And finally, for a snappy, well-recorded, middle-of-the- road, all brass version of Sousa's best known works, the 1997 CD-only collection Whad'ya Know About . . . Sousa on Nimbus Records by The Wallace Collection led by John Wallace (and which was part of comedian Michael Feldman's Whad'ya Know About" series) fits the bill.

If it's schmaltz you seek on July 4 then DG, a German label, owned by Universal Music, a French conglomerate, has made it easy. Stars and Stripes—An American Concert a CD (also MP3 and streaming) which is part of the The Arthur Fiedler Legacy series contains his always-rousing, large orchestral forces version of "Stars and Stripes Forever" as well as compositions by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, and others. As far as I can tell from the liner notes, these are recordings made after Fiedler's famous Stars and Stripes Living Stereo release.

Two seminal American composers or songwriters if you prefer, that I tend to gravitate towards on July 4 are Stephen Foster and Scott Joplin. As for the first, a fellow Pittsburgher, his once wildly popular music progressively faded from view until the 2004 CD only release on Thirty Tigers of Beautiful Dreamer, The Songs of Stephen Foster, a collection of his best-known tunes sung and played by the likes of Roger McGuinn, Mavis Staples, John Prine, and Raul Malo of The Mavericks, whose version of "Beautiful Dreamer" is out of this world.

Scott Joplin's rags are one of the chief influences on that great America art form known as jazz. Although he died mad and penniless, Joplin who was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976, was also a serious composer and his opera Treemonisha, which had an excellent new CD-only recording on New World Records in 2011, has belatedly become something of a triumph. Though there are many recordings of Joplin piano rolls, as well as Marvin Hamlisch's 1973 score to the film The Sting, which made a pop hit out of Joplin's hooky rag "The Entertainer," I prefer a more recent Universal Classics CD compilation, Joplin, Rags & Ragtime (out of print) which contains solo piano versions by Joplin specialist Morten Gunnar Larsen, brass band versions by The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, and full-on orchestral versions by the aforementioned Mr. Fiedler. As a bonus there are six selections from Treemonisha played by the Houston Grand Opera, conducted by Gunther Schuller.

Lastly, one other indelibly American composer often drifts onto the July 4 playlist: Woody Guthrie. This year a special mention needs to be made of Woody and the late and very great Sharon Jones, who died in November 2016 in Cooperstown, NY at age 60. On the Rhino Records soundtrack for the 2009 film Up in the Air (CD, Vinyl, MP3, Streaming), Sharon and her super-tight band, the Gabe Roth-led Dap-Kings, work out one of their inimitable grooves on Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." It's Guthrie and Jones, as you've never heard him before; American music at its very best.

jhwalker's picture

Might want to correct that - you refer to him throughout as "Fielder" (feel-der), but his name was "Fiedler" (feed-ler) ;)

John Atkinson's picture
Fixed. Thanks. Prepared and posted this piece this morning before I had my first cup of coffee. :-(

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

The recording "Solid Brass, Gershwin to Sousa" is a goodie, an audiophile recording made by Joe Grado I believe.

Bkhuna's picture

I tend to gravitate towards The Marine Corps Band!