Harmon’s Histories: A century later, John Philip Sousa returns to Missoula

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

It’s called “Sousa in Missoula” and it’s billed as “a centennial celebration commemorating Lt. John Philip Sousa’s historic visit to Missoula in 1919.”

The performance by the Missoula Community Concert Band is scheduled for Monday, November 4, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. at MCT.

It comes nearly a century to the day after the well-received November 5, 1919 concert held at Missoula’s Liberty theater.

Ticket prices back then ranged from 25 cents to $1, depending on seat locations. 

The evening concert was followed by a free address by Congressman Dill of Washington on the “Plumb Railroad Plan.” The political talk had been booked for the space earlier by local railroad workers.

Ticket prices this year will be $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and children, with (presumably) no added political address.

Let’s hope the crowds are as big as those a century ago.

It was standing-room-only for both the matinee and evening performances in 1919. The audience “loudly cheered” the band and the soloists after every song, even the lesser-known pieces of the day.

The most popular songs, of course, were Sousa’s “El Capitan,” “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “The U. S. Field Artillery.”

The local Missoulian newspaper, while delivering a positive review, noted “Sousa himself is not the Sousa of old in appearance or bearing. … Those who heard him some 15 or 20 years ago and have not heard him since, however, miss the black Van Dyke, the erect military carriage and the striking manner which always characterized the Sousa of those days.

“Time has had its effect upon him and now one cannot help but note … his beard is gone and he is quite gray.”

Folks from Ronan, St. Ignatius and all over western Montana came to see the performance. Mr. and Mrs. O. E. Peppard of Missoula had a special reason to attend. Mrs. Peppard’s cousin, H. Renee Henton, was a saxophone soloist traveling with the Sousa band. They had hosted Henton at a dinner party the night before.

The matinee performance was also attended by “scores of Missoula’s school youngsters, for it was a festival day for them, no school being held so that all might hear the band. And this program none of them will forget.”

Two years later, Sousa’s band returned to the Garden City (December 1921) to an equally enthusiastic reception.

The local paper reported, “We do not believe Missoula has enjoyed a musical event so thoroughly as yesterday’s coming of Sousa’s band since – well, since the last time Sousa’a band was here.”

The reporter called Sousa’s music “the real American music … the real American spirit … the American swing, the American dash, the American pulse-beat.”

Old-timers remembered John Philip Sousa’s first Missoula visit, 20-some years earlier. 

Dr. Morton John Elrod was a newly hired professor of physics and biology at the fledgling university back in 1897. He had arrived in Missoula, accompanied by his wife and daughter, on the afternoon of February 5th that year.

Elrod, who would make his mark on Missoula and U-M (read George Dennison’s book “Montana’s Pioneer Naturalist”) in the coming decades, recalled, “We had been here a month when we experienced our first blizzard. Sousa’s band was performing in the old Bennet opera house…on the fourth of March (1897).”

It was actually the sixth, not the fourth, of March according to a newspaper of the day, but no matter. The paper reported, “Most every one went to hear Sousa’s band today, not often having the opportunity to hear such exquisite music.”

Well, perhaps not everyone. Professor Elrod recalled, “The snow and blow made small attendance.”

Nonetheless it was apparently well received. The newspaper account called it “a treat to the music loving people of Missoula.”

The 1897 concert was, however, “much too short” having been performed at noon, rather than in the evening, because of poor train connections. The band had to leave early to make their next scheduled performance on the tour.

So there you have it – you’re well-equipped with a bit of background in advance of attending the November 4th Community Concert Band performance at MCT in Missoula.

Enjoy!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.