Everyone Knows This Tune, But No One Knows Its Name
We exaggerated a little with the title of this article. Some people reading this (maybe you!) know the title of this tune. But many people don’t, even though every single person recognizes the music. In fact, we’d wager that more people can name the composer, John Philip Sousa, than can name the title—which is something you can say about the works of only a handful of composers in history.
The tune is called “The Washington Post.” You also might see it referred to as “The Washington Post March,” to clarify people are talking about a song and not the newspaper. If you thought it was called “The Washington Post March,” you’re better informed than most people, but we’ll actually slip you into the category of people who didn’t know the true name, on a technicality.
Like the name suggests, the march originated with the paper The Washington Post. Sousa did not compose it for the military or some grand patriotic function like a presidential inauguration. The Post commissioned him to write it so they could play it at an 1889 assembly where they announced the results of a kids’ essay contest they hosted.
The younger kids wrote about stuff like flowers and animals. The winning essay in the high school category is available on the Post’s site to read today. Mary Priest wrote about the pressures on girls to sacrifice their own desires in the name of duty, which might sound like a modern topic, but the essay takes a twist into 19th-century moralizing. It talks about a friend of Mary’s who became a nurse and died treating yellow fever. It concludes that maybe “Saint Helen” should have just stayed home—not for her own sake but because that was the responsibility she owed her father and brother.
The contest aimed to attract newspaper subscriptions, so you might say the march was written to sell papers. If you’re a fan of the Post, it’s a shame that the tune sort of shed its title as it became more and more well known and public domain over the years. That needn’t have happened. Times Square is still known as “Times Square,” even though the New York Times had its headquarters there for just one decade, over a century ago.
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