‘To keep their son away from further amateur beekeeping endeavors, Bourgeois’ parents steered him towards music’ 

If it had not been for a hive of honeybees, John R.Bourgeois may never have become the director of the “President’s Own” Marine Band. In his new book, “Play On!: A Marine’s Musical Journey from the Bayou to the White House,” Bourgeois tells the story of how he came to lead the oldest continuously active professional music organization.

As a third grader at Gibson Elementary in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, Bourgeois hatched a plan to capture some bees in a coffee can and bring them to school with him. When he arrived in his classroom he took his seat behind Phyllis, a girl “whose pigtails I had dipped into the inkwell the year before.”

“I don’t know how it happened,” Bourgeois writes, “but somehow or other — perhaps it was a retaliatory move by Phyllis — my coffee can beehive was kicked over! Havoc broke out amid screams, overturned desks with papers flying. The angry bees made their escape — not only into that classroom but out the hall into other classrooms — and finally swarmed out of the open windows. School was let out early that day.”

To keep their son away from further amateur beekeeping endeavors, Bourgeois’ parents steered him towards music — first the clarinet, and then the cornet. And the first tune the young musician played that was recognizable to his parents, Bourgeois writes, was The Marines’ Hymn.

Bourgeois would go on to serve as the musical advisor to the White House and hold the record for the second longest tenure as director of the Marine Band since its establishment in 1798.

Part autobiography, part history, part archive, and part meditation on the future of band music, Play On! chronicles the Marine Band in vivid color. “The general American public’s perception of the Marine Band is  that of its being a military marching band. … But the Marine Band has been fundamentally a concert band, even prior to the days of John Philip Sousa,” Bourgeois writes.

The Band did indeed “play on” no matter what — it performed throughout the Civil War and both world wars, and even through the fateful events of Christmas Eve of 1929, when the executive office of the White House caught fire and drew 130 firemen to the scene.

Bourgeois traveled the world with the band and played for the world’s most powerful and celebrated people — including the likes of Nikhita Khrushchev and Princess Diana. 

In 1985, the princess visited President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C. As Bourgeois tells it, “The evening state dinner at the White House became one of the most famous photo opportunities for Diana. After she danced with President Reagan, the Marine dance orchestra struck up ‘Staying Alive’ and she replicated the music’s famous dance movements with Hollywood actor John Travolta.”

In July of 1983 Bourgeois bought a property in Rappahannock County, one which he describes as being “totally overgrown with a jungle of bramble, briars, trash trees, barbed wire, and the carcasses of automobiles, washing machines, and the remnants of every possible discard. Also, it was absent one necessary feature: indoor plumbing. What did exist was an outdoor facility, which had been overturned and had tumbled down the hill into the back of the woods.”

With determination, Bourgeois fixed up his home in the county. In the acknowledgements, Bourgeois writes, “For the past thirty-four years, my Rappahannock family has sustained me with their friendship and stimulating company. It is a rich and varied assortment of Washington, D.C. expats, artists, farmers, writers, world travelers, businessmen and local natives, all nestled in one of the most beautiful counties in the Blue Ridge.”

Find a copy of Play On! at R.H. Ballard Shop & Gallery in Washington. $29.85.

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