The Minnesota March was composed expressly for the University of Minnesota by John Philip Sousa. Its stirring strains have become familiar to the many thousands who have watched the ceremonial entrance of the University Band into the stadium before each football game. Some of them, at least, may have wondered why and how the "March King" singled out Minnesota's university for this distinction—for it is, indeed, a distinction.
Beginning with The Review in 1873 and ending with Century of Progress in 1931, Sousa published more than 150 marches (though it is interesting to note that his autobiography, published four years before his death, lists only 105). Only four have appear to have been written expressly for universities: Marquette (1924), Minnesota (1927), Nebraska (1928), and Illinois (1929). To these might be added Who's Who in Navy Blue, a march song dedicated to the United States Naval Academy Class of 1921. Pride of the Wolverines, used as a march by the University of Michigan, was adapted from a vocal duet composed in honor of the City of Detroit. (Interestingly, Sousa wrote a waltz called Coeds of Michigan in 1925.)
Thus, while Sousa may have exaggerated a bit when he said that Minnesota was the only composition he had ever written in response to a request, and that he "had always refused to do such a thing," it is a fact that very few universities were so honored.
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. He apparently confided this idea to football coach Clarence Spears, for the Minneapolis Tribune credited Spears for informally making such a request to the famous bandleader. In October 1926, Sousa played an engagement at the old Lyceum Theatre in Minneapolis, and a committee of University officials was formed to wait upon him. It consisted of, in addition to Jalma, E.B. Pierce, Secretary of the General Alumni Association; Carlyle Scott, Professor of Music; and Otto S. Zellner, Associate Professor of Surveying; and a member of the University band's faculty advisory committee.
The committee was cordially received by Sousa on October 16 in his suite at the Radisson Hotel, and he readily agreed to the request, though he said he would have to "wait for inspiration" before he could promise a delivery date. He said that the beautiful Indian legendry that formed the background of Minnesota greatly appealed to him and that he was impressed by the very names with which the state abounded, such as Minnehaha, Chippewa, and Minnesota. He hoped to reflect some of this heritage in his composition.
In March 1927, Sousa wrote to E.B. Pierce that the march was almost finished. He expressed regret that it did not contain as much of the Indian or "Ski-U-Mah" theme as he had wished, but that his friends who had heard it "were fond of it" and that it had a rollicking character that should go well in a college composition. He said that about fifty students and alumni had written him with suggestions for a title and that he had chosen Minnesota as the most suitable name.
Upon receipt of this news, the University Band got busy planning for the march's introduction to the student body. A special spring convocation was envisioned, but the premier performance was not to be, for by the time Sousa completed the band orchestration, he had made his own plans for the composition's first public performance.
In September 1927, Sousa and his band returned to Minnesota to fulfill an engagement at the State Fair, at which they were the featured attraction. In fact, the expression "Sousa's Fair" was frequently heard. The band's manager, on an advance visit, had told fair officials that Sousa wished to introduce his new march at the fair and that he planned at the same time to present the original manuscript, with his autograph, to the University.
When University President Dr. Lotus D. Coffman was requested (apparently at the last moment) to take part in the ceremonies, he objected on the grounds that the march had been expressly written for the University and that the only proper place for its introduction was the campus, with the student body present. With E.B. Pierce out of town and not available to advise him as to any previous discussions of agreements on this matter, Coffman said he believed that Sousa planned to "commercialize" the march, and he announced that he could not take part.
State Fair officials, asserting that the fair was "an innocent third party," said that their only interest was to carry out the personal wishes of Sousa, whose motives they defended. The upshot was that on Saturday, September 3, before an appreciative crowd of 12,000 that packed the grandstand, the manuscript was accepted "on behalf of the State" by the President of the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, William F. Sanger, The march, which Sousa said he considered "the best piece I have ever written," then received its first public performance. According to Harry J. Frost's official history of the State Fair (1964), Sousa was "taken aback by the rebuff" but "the good-natured bandmaster was not offended. He called it a mistake and presented the manuscript to the president of the Fair with the remark, 'It is almost providential that the march is Minnesota and not University of Minnesota.'"
It is clear that the incident did not affect Sousa's original intention; however, the manuscript was inscribed "To the Faculty and Students of the University of Minnesota—John Philip Sousa." Nor did it influence his appreciation of Minnesota musicianship, for it was not much later that two members of the University Band left to join the Sousa organization: Edward Bearman on bass and Ralph Wige on baritone.
Professor James Davies, music critic of the Minneapolis Tribune, attended the fair, particularly to hear the new march. Calling it "vital" and "fine," he found the composition to contain "the splendid old rhythmic power" and also "something that reflected more than a passing glimpse of academic life." Perhaps unconsciously echoing Sousa, who regarded the piece as suitable for a vocal refrain, he concluded his review with this plea: "Where is the verse make whom it will inspire to doughty poetic deeds?"
The Minnesota March had its campus premiere on October 26, 1927 at a song fest in the Armory. A crowd of 2,500 students and faculty in attendance greet the march with such applause that 100-piece University Band was obliged to repeat it. According to the Minnesota Daily,
"Minnesota fighting spirit, characterized in music by a swinging rhythm and rousing melody of the piece, was greeted with greater applause than any number on the program."
When Davies asked that words be put to the music, he did not know that Jalma had anticipated him and that the now-familiar words beginning, "March on, march on to victory" were to be sung at the football games that fall. While Jalma was responsible for many innovations and pioneered the trend that has put the leading university bands on a par with professional symphonic organizations, his most lasting monument may well be the phrase, "Words by Michael Jalma," as the refrain is sung by uncounted generations yet to come.