Earl K. Dille, 33
S.G.I.G. in Missouri
Grand Prior, The Supreme Council
St. Louis, Missouri
As we celebrate the centennial of Sousa’s “The Stars
and Stripes Forever,” let’s devote ourselves anew to the standards of America’s
“Patriotic Century,” 1850 to 1950.
Those were the days! You who have seen Meredith Willson’s famous musical comedy, The Music Man, will know what I mean. Smalltown America used to have a flavor which we have lost in large part. Life was characterized by an active town band with frequent concerts from the bandstand or bandwagon, an unalloyed love for country, public schools which taught right from wrong (straight from the McGuffey Readers), and busy fraternal lodges of many types, most prominently Masonic, in almost every community.
A look at the growth rates of many of these community activities shows a strong correlation. They peaked around 1900, the turn of the century. They all started to grow “big time” around 1850, and they were well on the way to slacking off by 1950. We can call that 100 years of American life the “Patriotic Century.”
The composition and performance of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” took place just as events leading to the Spanish-American War of 1898 were heating up, and this period marked almost the exact middle and height of the Patriotic Century. At the same time, Sousa’s band was starting a period of unprecedented popularity, and the fraternal phenomenon was seen everywhere, not only with the Freemasons and the Knights of Columbus, but also such organizations as the Woodmen of the World, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Moose, Elk, and many others.
During this patriotic period, the U.S. Government would not have thought of sending American boys off to a foreign war without absolute determination to win that war. Those of us who have served in the Korean and Vietnamese Wars know that something has definitely changed.
Now that electronic media and various forms of “rock” and “hip hop” have taken over much of the community musical activity, what patriotism we see is almost apologetic, and the public schools don’t dare teach anything much in the way of morals. That would be too “judgmental”! The growth in membership of Masonic Lodges and all other fraternal orders has not only dropped off considerably; it has almost disappeared.
Meredith Willson had been a member of Sousa’s band, so he captured the flavor of the early part of the 20th Century very well. Those who have read Willson’s autobiography, And There I Stood With My Piccolo, know the story that starts the book.
Willson played the flute and piccolo for Sousa, and according to his story, in some previous life he played in a band which belonged to a great king. The king enjoyed the band’s music so much that one day he called the musicians together and told them that, because of the great happiness they had given him, he would fill their instruments with gold coins. So the golden treasure was poured into the big brass instruments, the trombones, and the tubas. Willson then said, “And there I stood with my piccolo.”
Let’s hope that we Freemasons are not missing out on all the golden benefits of our Fraternity by settling for a piccolo when we could be holding the double-bass tuba of increased Masonic activity!
Sousa was a Mason, as was his father. Through the years, there was turnover in the members of his various bands, but Brother Paul Bierley, author of the definitive Sousa biography, John Philip Sousa, American Phenomenon, tells us that one-third to a half of all the musicians who played for the “March King” belonged to the Masonic Fraternity. (See Bierley article) Brother Bierley had also written a fine biography of Henry Fillmore, another great American composer and band leader, who was an active Mason and Shriner as well. That book’s title is Hallelujah Trombone!
Have we really lost the grand sense of community and morality
and patriotism that we had in those years gone by? Not as long as good
men stay active in the Masonic Order, truly a bastion of all these wonderful
attributes. During our celebration of the centenary of our national march,
“The Stars and Stripes Forever,” let’s devote ourselves anew to the standards
of those good old days!