Reflecting on the music of Karl King

Gene Milford

I first became acquainted with the music of Karl L. King as a high school student in Canton, Ohio. My freshman year Mr. King was the conductor of the massed county high school bands for a Washington’s Birthday celebration.

As a public school band director, I frequently used King marches. As an adjudicator of bands in Ohio, I can attest to the popularity of his music as the great majority of the marches performed by high school and middle school bands at contest are King marches.

A few years ago, while researching information on King’s years in his “old hometown” of Canton, I came across a music manuscript in the archives in the McKinley Presidential Library, entitled the 135th Field Artillery March.

The composer was Warrant Officer William E. Strassner. However, scanning the individual instrumental parts I quickly recognized the writing was like that I have seen by King.

Sending copies to Loras John Schissel, band historian and musicologist at the Library of Congress, he confirmed my observation. While the melodies were composed by Strassner, the band arrangement was by King. Loras suggested that I edit the music and he would perform it with the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Band, which he was to guest conduct.

William E. “Bill” Strassner is credited as King’s first music teacher, first on the cornet and then at Strassner’s urging, switching to baritone horn.

King later remarked it was a good suggestion, as he was better suited to that instrument. Strassner was at that time director of the Thayer Military Band in Canton and it was in this ensemble that King had his first playing experience in an adult band. Strassner was a founding member of the band, playing baritone horn under H. Clark Thayer.

In Canton, the home of the late President William McKinley, there was an unusual amount of music-making for a city of its size. The Thayer Band along with the Grand Army of the Republic Band, known as “McKinley’s Own,” performed concerts, parades and at many other civic events in the time before recorded music. The earliest King compositions were written for the Thayer Band and one of the first, March “Greater Canton”published in 1909, was dedicated to Strassner.

An active musician and educator, Strassner was also a popular baritone vocal soloist and directed church choirs for 40 years. Additionally, he served as the director of the glee club and orchestra for Canton McKinley High School where he formed the school’s first band in 1919. Strassner also taught vocal music and directed the band at The University of Akron for a brief time.

The Thayer Band served as the official band for several different Ohio National Guard units over the years. At the time King was in the band it was known as the Thayer Military 5th Regiment, ONG Band. As a teenager King traveled with the band on its annual summer postings at Fort William Henry Harrison near Indianapolis. The experience resulted in several military style marches by King including Salute to Camp Harrison, Sons of Veterans and Military Life.

From 1930 to 1937 the band served the 135th Field Artillery unit of the National Guard. It was at this time that Strassner composed and King arranged the135th Field Artillery March for band. Strassner continued to teach privately and conduct the Thayer Band until two years before his death in 1958. Karl and Ruth King remained friends with the Strassner’s and visited them in Canton.

Gene Milford is a senior lecturer in music education at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio.