Friday, May 11, 2018

The Bill Knutz Orchestra and the Barn Dances of the 1930s

In the 1930s and 1940s, with dust in the fields, worries galore, rebuilding what was lost, and war, It was a time to put your worries aside.  It was a time to socialize with your neighbors, tip a few, kick up your heels.  There was no shortage of these dances on the prairie, and on any given weekend one could have their pick of where to go and what band to enjoy.  Ladies often were admitted free, while the gentlemen might have to pay 25 to 30 cents to get in.

Among the popular local bands in and around Huron, South Dakota were such groups as the Golden Pheasants; White’s Red Jackets; the Rhythm Ramblers; Doyle and His Old-Timers; the Sod Busters, and the Bill Knutz Orchestra, in whom I have a vested interest.   While these bands did sometimes play in larger venues, such as the Band Box east of Huron, they frequently booked their jobs in the barns of their neighbors.  Henry Meyer, who lived north of Wessington, Ed Langbehn, near Wolsey, Bill Schwartz, west of Huron, and Albert Baum, southeast of Huron, were frequent hosts of these weekend escapes. 

I’m not sure when my grandfather, Bill Knutz (pictured at left), first became interested in being a musician.  As a young man, he farmed himself out (pun intended) as a hired man, and did some traveling around the midwest during harvest time.  He lived frugally, and when the season was over, he treated himself to a saxophone he’d found in a pawn shop in Nebraska, as well as a ring for his favorite girl.  Both the saxophone and the girl ended up being “keepers.”  He was a self-taught sax player, and eventually formed his first band, “Bill Knutz and His Harmonians”, including his future brothers-in-law Ray Christensen playing the fiddle and trumpet; Clarence Christensen playing the clarinet and Bill’s brothers Howard playing the bass fiddle, and Richard on the drums. Bill’s mother, Virta, kept track of their bookings.

The Harmonians were rearranged to form the Bill Knutz Orchestra, when the band leader discovered his girlfriend was also a mean piano player, and a good-looking girl in the band never hurt business…  Unfortunately, it was not so easy where the drummer was concerned, and he had to settle for a fellow without much rhythm, who liked to keep a bottle by his drums for an occasional “swig”.  When the drummer would speed up or lag behind with the tempo, fortunately all Bill had to do was wander back to the drum set and blow the sax into the poor man’s ear until he was back on pace.  Realistically, none of these people were professional musicians, just working folks with a day job, most of them dirt-poor farmers looking to make a few extra bucks for groceries and have a little fun in the process.

Both my mother and my mother-in-law grew up on South Dakota barn dances, and described similar situations throughout the 1930s and 1940s.  Large crowds, comprised of whole families, would attend these outings, and often it was here that youngsters learned to dance.   Sonny Baum taught both his daughter and my mother a three-person dance called the Butterfly Dance; similarly, my mother-in-law, a lifelong dance fanatic, would dance with her father, Casper Kluthe, when he wasn't busy on stage with his accordion.  The smell of hay, the noise, the applause, the rowdy activity, with the younger children curled up and sleeping blissfully in any available corner, all while the band rocked out “Swingtime In The Rockies” and oldies like “Little Brown Jug.”  “I’ll never forget those dances in our barn,” my mother-in-law said.

The Bill Knutz Orchestra, after a nearly 20-year run, eventually dwindled to just the two main members, Bill and his favorite pianist, and an occasional granddaughter (moi) warming the piano bench next to her grandmother, learning the chords to such favorites as “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” while the the more talented of the duo played the melody.   The leader of the band always tooted along on his sax.  I was blessed to be a late part (although a very small and unofficial part) of their orchestra.  I’d love to have seen them in their heyday, and experienced the excitement of one of their dustbowl-era barn dances.

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