Sousa and his wife were enjoying a European vacation in 1896, when they saw a startling newspaper article. Sousa's band manager, David Blakely, had died a few days earlier. Soon Sousa and his wife were on a ship heading home to New York. On the journey home, Sousa started hearing "the rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain. It kept on ceaselessly, playing, playing, playing. Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody." When he got home he wrote down the music for what would become "The Stars and Stripes Forever." Sousa said the song was about the feeling of coming home to America and how "in a foreign country the sight of the Stars and Stripes seems the most glorious in the world."
"The Stars and Stripes Forever" was an immediate hit. From 1897 until the band stopped touring, whenever they performed, the audience would expect to hear "The Stars and Stripes Forever." When it was played, the audience would stand up as though it were the national anthem. At first it was not unusual for the band to play it two or three times in a performance, each time receiving louder applause than before. Sousa played it for the last time on the day he died, March 6, 1932.