Karl King – In His Own Words

(Posted with Permission)

By Karl L. King (Extracted from a December 19, 1966 Interview with Karl King by Dr. Karl M. Holvik)

Full interview posted in the June & October 1982 Circus Fanfares, available to Members at MYWJU.ORG

This article published in the July-August 2020 Circus Fanfare

Early Years

I think I first became interested in band music when I was a boy in Canton, Ohio, President McKinley’s home.  This was about the turn of the century — about the time of the Spanish-American War.  There were quite a lot of parades and celebrations around there with a lot of marching bands.   I was rather taken in by all these parades and military extravaganzas. 

The only way a young fellow could get into a band in those days was to take lessons from some private teacher and try to work his way into an adult organization such as the town band of that period.  It wasn’t easy because you would go among those older players and they would ignore you or push you around a bit before you could “cut the giblets”.

I bought my first cornet when I was selling papers on the street.  It took all the money I made selling papers to make the payments on the cornet, and I had to take private lessons and dig up the money for those, too.  I was eleven or twelve years old.  The local bandmaster was Mr. Foster of the Thayer Band.  I was taking lessons from him, and he thought I’d do a little better on the baritone;  this was a smart idea, because it was a better instrument for me. 

My first playing was as a baritone player with the Thayer Band at Canton.  They had two bands there, the Thayer Band and the Grand Army Band,  No school bands at all.  If you wanted to play, you had to get into an older band.   I had to buy my own instrument.  I had to pay for my own private lessons and take my own chances.  I was working in the printing office there at the time, and I was trying to write music without knowing how or why — just interested in band music and determined to do something with it.

I went down to Columbus and played with Fred Nettermeyer’s Band.  I remember I played the Ohio State Fair job with them.  That was probably my first professional playing.   

Circus Time

I was sort of undecided about whether to keep on following that printing career or become a professional musician.  I had a chance to join the Robinson Circus as a baritone player, so that ended my career as a printer.

 I was about 18 years old when I joined the Robinson Circus Band.  I didn’t finish high school — I didn’t even go to high school.  I’m probably the most uneducated member of the American Bandmasters Association. 

I went on to the Yankee-Robinson Circus the next year, playing baritone.  Then on Sells-Floto; then on Barnum and Bailey in 1913.

Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite (1913)

I was going on the Barnum and Bailey Circus to play baritone for Ned Brill, and he asked me to write a special march for them — which I did, and which I dedicated to him.  It was just one of those things. 

I’ve always loved the baritone.  I always thought it was not only the cello of the band but the soul of the band, too.  I liked to hear the baritone romping around there, and I’ve always tried to write good parts for that instrument.  I just loved the instrument. 

In 1914 I became the conductor of my own band; that was the combined Sells-Floto and Buffalo Bill’s Circus Band. 

World War 1 started in ‘14, but we didn’t get involved in it until ‘17.  At that time I was directing the Barnum and Bailey Band and, somehow or other, I managed to escape the draft during the 1917-18 season. 

But, at the close of the ‘18 season, I was all ready to go into the Army.   After taking two physical exams I was inducted; in fact, I had my orders to leave for Camp Grant, Rockford, Illinois.  I was to direct the band at an officer training school there.  Just as I was ready to leave, the war ended.  So I never really got a chance to get into the Service.

Life after the Circus

I didn’t go back (to the circus) after 1918.  I wanted to get into something where I would have a little more time to study and write.  So I stayed in Canton, Ohio and conducted the Grand Army Band.  Then this job in Fort Dodge, Iowa opened up.  They were looking for a director in 1920.  I came out not intending, particularly, to stay (for now 46 years!) 

I’ve been working on that first one-year contract all this time.  Somebody forgot to fire me, I guess. 

(As to writing my first march), I don’t even remember for sure what the first ones were.  I know the first several things I wrote were rejected by most of the publishers, and it’s a good thing, probably, because I don’t have them around here to haunt me now.  But I had some music published back in 1909 by Seitz in Glenrock, Pennsylvania; then by the Barnhouse people in Oskaloosa, Iowa.   I wrote experimentally.  I had no formal training in harmony or counterpoint.  I studied a few books in that line, but progress was slow.  To my way of thinking, it was easier for me just to sit down and write the thing and try it over on the piano to see if it sounded right than it was to fool around with all those rules and exceptions.

I must have just written by instinct and, of course, I did study the scores and the writing of all the good band writers that I could come across.   I learned my instrumentation that way — by seeing how the other men wrote for these various instruments, and I knew, of course, the range and possibilities and limitations of the instruments through a fair amount of experimentation and by playing them somewhat. 

I have learned in composition or conducting mostly by imitation, by experimentation, and by listening to good men and watching good men.  I think that’s one of the best ways of getting an education. 

On the circus I got a lot of inspiration.  I did a lot of writing and arranging for different acts.  They wanted a certain type of music; that’s where a lot of these things came from.  An act would come on and need something special, like a Spanish number or a Chinese number or something else.  Naturally, I’d write something for them, and then in the following year I’d put a title on it and get it printed in order to get a few dollars out of it.  About half of the things I wrote in those first years were written directly for the circus — certain acts, certain situations or performers.

Karl King Music House

I started that in Canton, Ohio, publishing a few marches and things.  I had a few things published in my own catalog before I moved (to Fort Dodge, IA).   It’s a wonderful place to have been these years.  There’s one thing I still believe:  Iowa’s the greatest band state in the Union.  The support they’ve given our municipal bands by means of the Iowa Band Law — through all of those years!  Iowa was probably the only place I could have conducted this type of band and kept it in continued existence.  The public has been so nice and so receptive to the band and its work.  They’ve been so gracious to me that I wouldn’t have wanted to move from here — Fort Dodge in particular and Iowa in general.  It has been a very fine state, and with a good attitude toward bands and band music.  People out here love bands.  And because they love band music, I love them too.  We’ve had sort of a romance between the public and the bands.   There is a Sousa bridge in Washington (DC) and I don’t imagine he’d resent the fact that I have one in Fort Dodge. 

John Philip Sousa

To me the Sousa Band was always the greatest.  Of course, it’s so long ago that it’s hard to make comparisons, but I haven’t heard any band since that I thought sounded any finer than his band when it was at its best.

The Sousa Band went out all over the land and played good music for people who had very little chance to hear it elsewhere, before the days of radio or TV or anything of that kind.  Even the record industry wasn’t greatly developed at that time, and for a lot of people, the only good music they ever heard was when the Sousa Band came through on tour.

It was an institution and, of course, there’ll never be anything like it again.  It would be impossible, economically, to take a band of that size and quality on the road anymore.  The expense would be so terrific, and there are so many things to conflict.  No man could do what he did:  take that band on three or four world tours; support them entirely without any sponsorship or financial aid from anyone else.  Money had to come into the ticket office, or he couldn’t have done it.   It was due entirely to his showmanship and his personal ability — a great man.

I was always a great hero-worshipper.  Sousa was one of my heroes; so was Herbert Clarke, who I think was the greatest cornet soloist who ever lived;  Arthur Pryor, the greatest trombonist;  Simon Mantia on baritone.   Incidentally, at one time they were all soloists with the Sousa Band; they were the outstanding bandmen of that era and I always looked up to them and still do.  They were pioneers in this game. 

Many of us — Henry Fillmore and Herman Bellstedt, who did so much arranging for Sousa, and others — had to write things, and we had to write them in a hurry, especially when we were with a show.  We’d write a lead sheet, a solo cornet part, and take off from that.  You’d just write the parts without writing the score.  Oh, we’d have something of a mental score.  You knew what chord you were going to use, and you knew about what you were going to do with this instrument or that one.  But we’d just start with the lead part and write from that.   An embarrassing thing:  In the last thiry or forty years I’ve had to go back and write conductor’s parts for marches I wrote fifty years ago without a score and do the whole thing in reverse — write a score from the parts, rather than the other way. 

Herman Bellstedt, (who) used to write those novelty things for Sousa, would write a cornet part and stick it up on the mantle, and then write a clarinet part and stick it up beside it, and go around the room until he had them all written.  The next day he would have the arrangement done; if he’d had to score it all, he’d have had to write it all twice — the score and the parts.  It was a case of getting it done quickly.  I don’t recommend this to anyone today.  They’d just get confused and all the professors would throw up their hands in horror.

School Band Movement

The school band movement was almost full-grown before I became conscious of it.  I remember my first contact with it came in the days of the national contests.  I judged some of those; I judged at one of the first ones … I think that was at Tulsa.  Mr. Sousa was one of the judges there; and Goldman.   The movement has done some tremendous things, and there are some very outstanding school bands.  The university bands are getting better all the time. 

Things have happened so fast I can hardly keep track of them.  I know a few years ago, when I was very active in conducting massed bands they got to be so tremendous I could hardly conceive of them.  In 1960 I went to Houston to do one with 7,500 players; then I went to Purdue and had 10,000; then to Ann Arbor with Revelli, and he trotted out 13,000. 

Modern Music

There’s a lot of the more modern, contemporary music.  I’m not quite as sold on it as some other folks, but that’s probably due to the fact I belong about three generations back.  There are a lot of things being featured and promoted today in the way of contemporary music that would not be suitable for my programs for the simple reason the public out there in the park wouldn’t react too well to them; they just wouldn’t appreciate them.   I play the traditional things like marches and musical show tunes. 

I think the (current) bands are missing quite a bit by turning their backs completely on the old repertoire, the traditional type of band music.  I don’t think they ought to lose sight of the real reason for bands.  The very first bands that were ever organized were small, military-type organizations, and their original purpose was morale-raising; that’s why they were created; probably to raise the morale of the marching men, the soldiers.  But in this troubled period we’re in today, everybody, not just the military, needs his morale lifted a bit.  (It’s a) crazy world we’re living in now.

You can’t listen to a really fine band playing the Stars and Stripes Forever and still have your chin down.  I think we should take up again that activity of trying to raise the morale of people by playing inspiring, uplifting , and cheerful music.   After all, I don’t see anything wrong with pretty music.  And if there is anything lacking in some of our latter-day things, it’s a lack of melodic content and a lack of emotional content.  I think that music should say something.  I have always thought that it should sing out a bit.  I don’t think a man should sit down to write unless he’s got a song in his heart. 

Now, I sang my song.  It was a rather simple one; it wasn’t too involved; I’m happy about it.   In the last couple of years people have asked me why I’m not writing anymore, and my simple answer is that I ran out of tunes.  When I ran out of tunes, I believed it was time to quit, and I’d like to recommend that as a matter of policy to all other composers.

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