In his autobiography, Marching Along, Sousa wrote that he composed the march on Christmas Day, 1896. He was on an ocean liner on his way home from a vacation with his wife in Europe and had just learned of the recent death of David Blakely, the manager of the Sousa Band. He composed the march in his head and committed the notes to paper on arrival in the United States. It was first performed at Willow Grove Park, just outside Philadelphia, on May 14, 1897, and was immediately greeted with enthusiasm.
"The Stars and Stripes Forever" follows the standard American military march form. The march begins with a four-bar introduction, which is followed by a dotted, playful melody. Its trio is the most famous part of the march. Piccoloplayers play the famous obbligato in the first repeat of the trio (the one after the breakstrain). In the final repeat of the trio (grandioso), the low brass joins the piccolo players with a prominent countermelody.
Sousa wrote lyrics to the piece, although they are not as familiar as the music itself. The typical pairing of Sousa's lyrics with the various sections of the march is noted in the square brackets.
[First Strain] Let martial note in triumph float And liberty extend its mighty hand A flag appears 'mid thunderous, The banner of the Western land. The emblem of the brave and true Its folds protect no tyrant crew; The red and white and starry blue Is freedom's shield and hope. [
Second Strain] Other nations may deem their flags the best And cheer them with fervid elation But the flag of the North and South and West Is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom's nation. (repeats) Other nations may deem their flags the best And cheer them with fervid elation, But the flag of the North and South and West Is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom's nation. [Trio] Hurrah for the flag of the free! May it wave as our standard forever, The gem of the land and the sea, The banner of the right. Let despots remember the day When our fathers with mighty endeavor Proclaimed as they marched to the fray That by their might and by their right It waves forever. [
Repeat of the First Strain] Let eagle shriek from lofty peak The never-ending watchword of our land; Let summer breeze waft through the trees The echo of the chorus grand. Sing out for liberty and light, Sing out for freedom and the right. Sing out for Union and its might, O patriotic sons. [
Grandioso] Hurrah for the flag of the free. May it wave as our standard forever The gem of the land and the sea, The banner of the right. Let despots remember the day When our fathers with mighty endeavor Proclaimed as they marched to the fray, That by their might and by their right It waves forever.
In 1942 the John Church Company published a four-part choral version of the march with a piano arrangement by Elmer Arthur Tidmarsh. This arrangement has additional lyrics written by Tidmarsh for the Breakstrain section of the march.
Many other sets of lyrics, patriotic and otherwise, have been written for the last strain (trio/grandioso). Two of the most widely known such sets begin with the words "Three cheers for the red, white and blue" and "Be kind to your web-footed friends". The "web-footed friends" parody, was sung at the end of every episode of the popular 1960s TV series Sing Along with Mitch. It was recorded by Homer and Jethro in 1955 as "Crazy Mixed Up Song". It was also heard in the Tiny Toon Adventuresepisode "Hollywood Plucky", and an episode of Sesame Street; these parody lyrics themselves are well-known enough to have spawned many other parodies of their own.
"The Stars and Stripes Forever" is featured in many U.S. musical performances:
There are several orchestral transcriptions of "The Stars and Stripes Forever", including one by ConductorLeopold Stokowski and one by Keith Brion and Loras Schissel. There was also an orchestral arrangement of the march by Carl Davis and David Cullen for the album Carl Conducts...Classical Festival Favourites.
The tune is widely used by soccer fans, with the chorus sung with the words "Here We Go". The supporters of Spanish side Valencia CF used to sing it with the words "Xe que bó!" which means something like "Oh! How good" in Catalan, and those words have become a symbol for the team.
In the classic 1933 film Duck Soup, Harpo Marx, playing Pinky, a spy infiltrating a house in the middle of the night, attempts to open what he believes to be a safe, but turns out to be a large radio, which loudly begins playing "Stars & Stripes Forever" when he turns the knob. Pinky spends the next several moments futilely (and loudly) trying to quell the noise before throwing the radio out a nearby window.
Classic Popeye the Sailor cartoons by Fleischer Studios make frequent use of music score accompanying the climactic fight between Popeye and the villain starting with the moment Popeye gets a spinach power boost.
In show business, particularly theater and the circus, this piece is called "the Disaster March". It is a traditional code signaling a life-threatening emergency. This helps theater personnel to handle events and organize the audience's exit without panic. Circus bands never play it under any other circumstances. One memorable example of its use was at the Hartford Circus Fire in July 1944.
The student band Strindens Promenade Orchester in Trondheim, Norway, has the world record in "speed playing" of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (absolutely all notes must be played). The band calls their speedy rendering of the march "Stars and Stribes", and performs the march at all Saturday parties at the Trondheim Student Society. Set during the fall term of 1999, the record time is 50.9 seconds (nominal time is 3 minutes 50 seconds). For this, the band is noted in the Norwegian edition of the Guinness Book of Records.
The Russian born pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who lived most his life in the United States, wrote a famous transcription of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" for solopiano to celebrate his becoming an American citizen. In an interview, Horowitz opined that the march, being a military march, is meant to be played at a walking tempo. He complained that many conductors played the piece too fast, resulting in music that is "hackneyed."
In "Evolution", the first episode of the third season of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, a malfunction in the ship's systems causes the main computer to play Sousa's march on all channels throughout the ship. The episode was first aired on September 25, 1989.
It was played during the January 5, 2015, episode of WWE Raw when Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, known as The Authority, organized "John Cena Appreciation Night", only to slander Cena and (kayfabe) fire Dolph Ziggler, Ryback and Erick Rowan at the end of the night. Ziggler, Ryback and Rowan (along with Big Showbefore he turned his back on his team) were Cena's teammates in a match at the past Survivor Series that ultimately led to The Authority being stripped of their power, until Cena brought them back on the final Raw of 2014.
In Argentina, a sensationalist news channel Crónica TV always uses part of this march as a background music on reporting a breaking news.