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Sousa-phobia

By Laurie Reaume

I WAS AMBUSHED TODAY by the strains of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" on the radio. It burst from the stereo speakers, assaulting my ears and activating my subliminal replay command center. Performed on cello and strings only, the march was strange to hear without the trilling piccolo, crashing cymbals, and blaring brass. But it doesn't matter what instruments play it. The trouble with that tune is it sticks in my head, like burs to a blanket.

All marches have an authoritarian tempo, demanding the listener stand at attention. Salute! Lift those knees higher to the bass drumbeat. But "Stars and Stripes" is particularly persistent. If I hear any snippet, the whole tune tromps through my head, leaving a trail of echoing notes. It's a run-on music box.

The melody is all in a string, like a reel-to-reel tape. When the chorus is done, another verse jumps in and keeps advancing. Then that tenacious culprit chorus plays again and again in my head, a strangulating strand.

It's especially pervasive around the Fourth of July. Annually, I'm pummeled by the relentless marchy melody. Just once is too often. Whatever you call it--an aversion, allergy, or outright phobia--I am under siege! I need refuge.

Is there an Institute for the Musically Plagued?

Some people are beleaguered by Christmas carols. From mid-October through year's end, the music is inescapable. We're held captive at department stores, on hold during a business call, or by a holiday display zipping through "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," à la Alvin and the Chipmunks.

But that Sousa march can strike without warning any time of the year. The brass attacks, piccolos pounce, marching bands boom the blasted tune everywhere: in a movie's patriotic parade scene; in ads shouting huge clearance "celebrations" on used cars; in nearly all circus acts. There is no off-season safety from its intruding fanfare.

And the militant insistency of "Stars and Stripes" has made it a favorite for parodies. I cringe when hearing, "Be kind to your web-footed friends" sung around the campfire or played on buzzing kazoos. I live in trepidation that the ice cream truck will switch from "Home on the Range" to you-know-what. I'd be tormented by its repeating amplified melody before the driver had circled one suburban block.

"Stars and Stripes Forever," indeed.


Laurie Reaume teaches piano and resides in Santa Rosa. She writes as the muse or music moves her.

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From the June 28-July 4, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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