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July 8, 1998

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First Lady
July 8, 1998

I can still remember the words of the Marines' Hymn, which I learned as a little girl: "From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli, we fight our country's battles in the air, on land and sea ... "

Imagine, all these years later, what a treat it is to hear the Marine Band play the Marines' Hymn. Actually, it's a treat to hear the Marine Band play anything.

On July 11, 1798, President John Adams signed an Act of Congress establishing the United States Marine Band. It was Thomas Jefferson, a violinist himself, who dubbed the band -- now the nation's oldest professional musical organization and the Marine Corps' oldest continuously active unit -- "The President's Own."

In the White House, no occasion goes unmarked without the help of the Marine Band. Since its inception, the band has performed for the most somber and celebratory events in our country's history -- from the first Independence Day in the White House to the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

If you were to visit the White House for the arrival of a foreign head of state -- such as the unforgettable day in September 1993 when Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat shook hands on the South Lawn -- you would hear the band and appreciate the dignity it lends to such occasions. Whenever foreign heads of state visit, the band goes to extra lengths to make them feel welcome. Recently, it learned a traditional Korean folk song called "Magnolia" for South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung.

"The President's Own" plays "Hail to the Chief," with its preceding fanfare "Ruffles and Flourishes," to announce the arrival of the President at state functions. The band also accompanies famous entertainers performing at the White House, such as Beverly Sills, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Johnny Cash, Ethel Merman and Leonard Bernstein. And members play at traditional events, including the annual Easter Egg Roll, where they accompany the delighted squeals of children racing over the South Lawn with their Easter eggs.

In all, the band performs over 700 times annually, more than 200 at the White House. The band also has talented singers, solo pianists and harpists, and can form a number of ensembles, including concert and marching bands, a chamber orchestra, string ensembles, a dance band and a Dixieland band.

For my birthday last October, I was treated to several renditions from the country ensemble, which brought the house down with Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Down at the Twist and Shout" and that old bluegrass favorite "Rocky Top."

This week, we're turning the spotlight on the band as we celebrate its 200th birthday. We've planned a grand lawn party to which all 153 members and their families are invited, along with retired band members, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and Members of Congress.

At their birthday party, the band will perform "'S Wonderful" by George Gershwin, "Unforgettable" by Irving Gordon, "Semper Fidelis" and "The Stars and Stripes Forever" by John Philip Sousa and of course the Marines' Hymn.

No tribute to the band is complete without selections from Sousa, the band's most famous director, who held the baton from 1880 until 1892. It was under Sousa's direction that the band made its first concert tour and became one of the first musical ensembles to record cylinders for Thomas Edison's amazing new invention, the phonograph.

On June 2, 1886, Sousa and the band played for the only Presidential wedding in White House history, when President Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom. It's truly remarkable to think about the history this group has witnessed -- every Presidential Inauguration since Thomas Jefferson's, the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, the Gettysburg address, the wedding of Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice, and a rain-soaked concert during Franklin Roosevelt's administration when Winston Churchill sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

My husband, who's a great music lover, is one of the Marine Band's greatest fans and has been invited, on occasion, to sit in with the band. Sometimes, during a State Dinner or some other performance, I'll catch him tapping his toes to the beat, and I know he's dying to trade places with one of the saxophonists.

"The President's Own" United States Marine Band serves not only to entertain but also to represent the President and the country here in the White House, around the nation and around the world. It is with great pride that we honor and acknowledge its achievements this week.


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