Photo: John Philip Sousa (left) and State Fair head William Sanger. All photographs courtesy of University Archives
By Tim Brady

A Note About the Lyrics
July-August 2007
The news that the famous bandleader John Philip Sousa had agreed to write a march for the University of Minnesota merited front page attention from The Minnesota Daily on October 19, 1926. The man crowned “The March King” by the American public had said yes to a contingent of University representatives: He would write a rouser for the Gopher faithful. Few Minnesota fans doubted that this would be a song for the ages.

Sousa was in the waning years of one of the most remarkable musical careers in United States history, but his name remained as familiar to the people of the nation as Babe Ruth’s. Beyond the fact that he had composed a long string of familiar march tunes, including “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “The Washington Post March,” Sousa epitomized the image of a bandleader in an era in which virtually every small town in the country had a gazebo for summer concerts and a town band of its own.

Sousa’s career began in the 1880s as conductor of the U.S. Marine Band in Washington, D.C. While in that position, he wrote such well-known marches as “The Picador” and “El Capitan,” as well as “Semper Fidelis” for the Marine Corps. In 1892, Sousa formed his own band and added to his growing reputation as a composer of popular music by writing more than 100 more marches, including “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in 1896. By the time his life intersected with the University of Minnesota, Sousa had toured the nation and Europe several times over and had done a world tour with his band in 1910.

According to most accounts, John Philip Sousa was as good-natured as his music. He was a man of big appetites and wide-ranging interests. He wrote novels and operas and was a U.S. champion trap shooter. He was also an unabashed patriot whose work became synonymous with national festivities on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Homecoming parades and football games were likewise a part of this burgeoning pageantry in the early years of the 20th century, and universities across the country were searching for tunes to inspire their gridiron heroes. Sousa, however, had been sparing in his willingness to write college marches.

This made his agreement to compose for the University of Minnesota quite a coup for E.B. Pierce. Pierce, the executive director of the General Alumni Association, assembled a committee of faculty to call on the bandleader at the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis in October 1926. Just how the ball got rolling on their mission remains unclear. Years later, a U of M band member from the era recalled that, “The need for a more adequate marching song had long been felt at Minnesota. . . . Yet nothing was really done about it until University band director Michael Jalma conceived the idea that John Philip Sousa might be persuaded to provide the music.”

Jalma apparently asked Gopher football coach Clarence Spears to float a trial balloon in the newspapers in the weeks before Sousa’s band was scheduled to appear in Minneapolis. Spears is quoted in an article on the eve of that visit as saying that Sousa ought to be asked to write a march. Sousa himself apparently had wind of the committee before it arrived at his hotel room. He had a quick response when Pierce and company made their official request. Not only would he be pleased to compose for the University of Minnesota, but he’d already been pondering themes for the piece; according to The Minnesota Daily, he told the committee that “the beautiful Indian legendry which forms the background of Minnesota” would supply a nice flavor for his work.

It is difficult to know why Sousa agreed to write the song. Given the embarrassing circumstances that were to come, he no doubt had second thoughts. But Sousa hadn’t become the most famous musician in the country by talent alone. He was a great promoter of his band, himself, and his music, both through relentless touring and by sales of his enormously popular sheet music. Perhaps late in his career, with his concert band facing competition from the emergence of radio concerts and the growing recording industry, he saw new markets in composing for colleges and universities.

Whatever inspired him, Sousa left Minneapolis having pledged to compose a song for the U, without compensation, except for the copyright to the music. He proceeded to compose away, and in January 1927 word came to Pierce of the alumni association that the bandleader was nearing completion of the work, though Sousa apologized for the fact that “you will not find [as] much of an Indian tone in it as I had hoped to make.” Nonetheless, Sousa wrote in his letter, the song “seems to have a rollicking character.” He had just one request of Pierce: Did the alumni director have a suggestion for a title to the march?
Photo: A telegram from Sousa to alumni association executive director E.B. Pierce

Pierce passed the question on to friends of the University, and a number of ideas soon arrived in Sousa’s office in New York. After sorting through the possibilities, Sousa settled upon the hardly surprising title of “The Minnesota March.”

An announcement was made in March 1927 that Sousa had completed the piece and that he and his band would debut it at a late spring convocation on campus. Scheduling problems, however, prevented Sousa and the band from coming to Minnesota so soon. Instead, it was agreed that an already planned band performance at the Minnesota State Fair in September would serve as the premiere for “The Minnesota March.” Sousa and company would headline the fair and begin their opening day concert by presenting to Lotus Coffman, president of the University of Minnesota, the newly composed song, which everyone assumed would be the standard school “rouser” for years to come.

Sousa’s appearance was trumpeted for weeks in advance of the event. To add to the promotion and whet appetites for the concert, a few bars of the sheet music for “The Minnesota March” were published in local papers.

Sousa arrived in the Twin Cities on the day before the fair was to open. After tucking his band in at the Dyckman Hotel in Minneapolis, Sousa headed over the river to his own rooms at the Saint Paul Hotel, explaining to an accompanying contingent of the press that a man of his age, 73, needed a lot of sleep, “and you know how it is, if some of my trombone players want to practice.”

The sense of excitement surrounding the fair and Sousa’s appearance was general in the Twin Cities that weekend, with one notable exception: the man who was supposed to humbly receive the score for “The Minnesota March” from the great John Philip Sousa. Apparently someone forgot to alert Lotus Coffman to the importance of this composition to the University of Minnesota.

Late on Friday, September 2, about the time Sousa and company were checking into their hotels, Coffman sent notice to the local press that he would not be attending the State Fair the next day, nor would he be accepting Sousa’s new composition on behalf of the University. The problem, according to Coffman, was his belief that a University of Minnesota march, dedicated to its students and alumni, ought to be first performed on the campus and before the students to which it was being dedicated.

Furthermore, Coffman felt that Sousa and his band were taking advantage of the circumstances to commercialize and promote the music and subsequent sales of its sheet music, the copyright of which did not belong to the University. “I do not think it would be proper for representatives of the University to go to the State Fair to accept the march,” Coffman said.

Hinting at a little displeasure toward E.B. Pierce as well, Coffman wrote that “[Pierce] has handled all correspondence concerning the new march, and he naturally represents the students and alumni in this matter. He will not return to Minneapolis until next week.” Meaning, presumably, that the alumni director would not be on hand to smooth matters over either.

It is safe to say that quite a few jaws dropped in Minnesota the next day when Coffman’s announcement hit the newsstands. With Sousa still scheduled to open the fair and his band still planning to play “The Minnesota March,” the State Fair board was left scrambling to give the man and his music their due. William Sanger, president of the Minnesota State Agricultural Society and head of the State Fair board, stepped to the fore, and at a grandstand ceremony the next day, Saturday, September 3, he accepted the handwritten score from Sousa prior to the first playing of “The Minnesota March.”

Sanger made no long speech at the presentation but later issued his own statement to the press which he laced with vinegar toward Coffman and the U. “I understand it is contended that Sousa will benefit greatly by the sale of sheet music stimulated by the playing of the march at the fair,” Sanger said. “It seems to me the University should have taken that into consideration when the invitation was tendered.”
Photo: The signed score of “The Minnesota March.” From "Hats Off to Thee," the band’s history

As for Sousa, he was remarkably gracious about the whole business, getting in just one swipe at the University. “It is almost providential that the march is called ‘Minnesota’ and not ‘University of Minnesota,’?” he told Sanger.

Nearly 17,000 people had gathered in the grandstands at the fair for the dedication of the march and to happily and enthusiastically listen to the new tune. Even so, a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune was a little stingy in his praise, saying that the song “has not the vigor of some of [Sousa’s] former compositions” yet “is a stirring march which is intended to go far on the football field.” The audience is said to have simply cheered loud and long for the music, demanding an encore.

After the initial concert, the great bandleader proceeded to conduct two more concerts at the fair and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the grounds and the occasion. He visited the barns and was photographed milking a cow. He toured the Midway attractions and novelties, where he shook hands with the leader of “The Midget Band.” The somewhat rotund Sousa was made an honorary Blackfeet Indian chief and was said to have ordered “hamburgers by the dozen.” Before he left the cities, he got in a round of golf with the State Fair board, which, by comparison to the University, scored major public relations points.

As for Coffman, if he thought he might win kudos for his stance, he was mistaken. “An Ungracious Act” is how it was characterized in an editorial in the Minneapolis Tribune two days later. It suggested Coffman and the U were acting a little big for their britches. “In view of the fact that the state fair is as much a state institution as is the university,” the paper stated, “and also that it is scarcely within the power of President Coffman to do anything that could be construed as advertising the renowned bandmaster, Coffman’s refusal, in the absence of any explanation, was an ungracious act.”

Just why alumni association director E.B. Pierce, so closely associated with the initial request of Sousa, was not at the fair remains another unanswered question in the story. He was back in the picture in October 1927, when University band director Michael Jalma led his group through the first-ever playing of “The Minnesota March” on campus.

The gathering was held at the Armory and 2,500 students showed up to hear a collection of University songs, highlighted by Sousa’s “Minnesota March.” Though many campus leaders were in attendance and introduced for the occasion, President Coffman was again absent from the affair. Sousa’s song, meanwhile, was a huge hit, “greeted with such applause that the band was forced to play an encore of the number.”

The Minnesota Daily made a point of reporting that Jalma had to purchase copies of the sheet music to the march. The University of Minnesota would receive no freebie scores of “The Minnesota March” from John Philip Sousa.

One footnote to the story: The kerfuffle at the 1927 State Fair was not the last conflict over “The Minnesota March.” The leather-bound, hand-written manuscript of the march that John Philip Sousa presented to State Fair Association president William Sanger in September 1927 was subsequently given by the State Fair board as a gift to Sanger in 1928. It stayed in his family for the next three generations, until a descendant loaned the score back to the State Fair in the early 1970s for display in the fair museum. Two decades later, the manuscript became the subject of a lawsuit, when Sanger descendants asked for its return. The state fair claimed that Sousa’s penciled manuscript rightfully belonged to the people of Minnesota and ought to stay at the fairgrounds. Their argument was not sustained. The Sanger family won the suit and promptly donated the score to the Minnesota State Historical Society, which is where it resides today.

Tim Brady is a frequent contributor to Minnesota.
A Note About the Lyrics
In the fall of 1927, University band director Michael Jalma wrote the lyrics that accompany “The Minnesota March” (see below). The familiar opening words, “March on, march on to victory,” appear to have been sung at home football games but not at that first recital on campus. To hear "The Minnesota March," click the link below the lyrics.

The Minnesota March
Rah! Rah! Ski-U-Mah!
Rah! Rah! Rah!
March on, march on to victory,
Loyal sons of the varsity.
Fight on, fight on for Minnesota—
For the glory of the old maroon and gold.

March on, march on to win the game,
Down the field fighting every play—
We’re with you, team, fighting team.
Hear our song, we cheer along
To help you win a victory!

Hear John Phillips Souza's "Minnesota March"(MP3 format)


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