A Short History Of The Circus Band

compiled by John Robinson


In the days before recordings, before radio, and before orchestras were established in all but the largest cities, it was the concert band that introduced classical (mostly meaning "romantic") European music and contemporary American Broadway music to the populace of the smaller cities, towns, and rural areas of America. It is safe to assert that the great majority of Americans heard music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Offenbach, Victor Herbert, and even George M. Cohan first in band transcription. Nearly every town in America boasted a town band in the late 1800's. The vast majority of these bands were ensembles of fewer than 15 players and featured mostly brass and percussion instruments. If a woodwind was present it was likely a piccolo or a clarinet. While these groups were fine for the addition of some martial music to a civic event or ceremony, they were generally not capable of the performance of art music at a significant level.


Touring concert bands of John Philip Sousa, Arthur Pryor, Bohumir Kryl, Giuseppe Creatore and others played an important role in the introduction of European and contemporary American music, and thus, in the acculturization of America. Bands that accompanied touring theatrical companies and chautauquas also participated in this phenomenon. Largely overlooked until recently has been the role of the circus bands in bringing this music to the people.


Today's circus bands serve the important purpose of providing background music for the acts by adding to the spectacle of sights and sounds that is the circus. While circus bands have performed this role for more than 150 years, the bands of yesterday's circuses served other functions as well. Perhaps the most grueling duty for the musicians was the circus parade that advertised the arrival of the show to town. Often lasting up to two hours, and covering gravel roads, cobblestone streets, or cow paths, this part of the job challenged the mental and physical endurance of every bandsman. From a cultural and societal standpoint, the older circus bands' center ring concerts had the most impact on the audiences.


From the early 1890s until the late 1930s, nearly every traveling circus included a band. Barnum & Bailey, Ringling Brothers, John Robinson, Sells-Floto, and the Great Wallace Show were some of the biggest of the touring circuses. These shows carried bands of more than thirty pieces on many occasions. In the forty-five minutes before the beginning of each circus performance (two shows daily - six days a week), the band played its center ring concert. This was an important part of the overall presentation, and was often a feature of the print advertising of the circus. The repertoire featured classical music with a heavy dose of selections and overtures from operas and Broadway shows. These bands were rather on the artistic cutting edge - for example, Puccini's Madams Butterfly was premiered in 1904; highlights had been transcribed for band and published in 1905; and circus bands were playing it by 1908, and perhaps earlier. Another example, quoting a lecture by band historian Steve Charpie, is the fact that John Philip Sousa's touring concert band played selections from Wagner's last opera Parsifal on a tour to the western United States a decade before the first performance of Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera. Popular music and Broadway.


Circus marches are called screamers because they are traditionally so high, loud and fast!! Circus band members are often called windjammers because they jam so much wind into their instruments in the process of playing these screamers. Playing the circus requires incredible endurance and skills on your instrument. The windjammers play almost nonstop and much of the music is really difficult!


The greatest circus bands were about 100 years ago in the heyday of the circus. At that time the big top band could have 25 or so, plus there were often sideshow musicians as well. Cowboy bands, women's bands and bands of Blacks were often part of the sideshows.


Contemporary circuses are much smaller all the way around, and some don't use live musicians at all, just "canned" music (recordings). Others carry 3 musicians, a drummer, a trumpet player and a keyboard (synthesizer) player. There are a few, like the Big Apple Circus that still have bands. The Big Apple Circus has 8 musicians on its band stand: a conductor/trumpet, a person who plays alto sax and clarinet, one who plays tenor sax and flute, a violin, a trombone, a bass player, a keyboard player and a drummer.


In the "old days," being a circus musician was one of the most strenuous jobs a musician could have. In the days before musicians' unions, the windjammer would be expected to play for the circus parade, play a pre-show free concert for the townspeople, ballyhoo around the grounds before the big top show, play the show itself (nonstop for two or three hours!), play post show concerts on the grounds or play sideshows. Then after everyone left, they helped take down the tents or did other chores around the grounds. It was a busy day and the pay was not very good, but it was an exciting life with lots of great music, and many musicians loved it!


Circus Band Superstitions:


Most performing entities have some superstitions. One of the superstitions in circus bands is that you can not play Suppe's Light Cavalry March. Quoting from Mr. Beal's Book:


"To play it on the circus lot means disaster and sudden death.


"You may not believe this but most circus folks do, at least those who know the facts. Played once in Oklahoma, a train wreck followed and sixteen were killed. Played again, this time while [Merle] Evans was on tour with Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West, a blowdown followed and 38 fatalities resulted. [A blow down is a wind that destroys all or part of the tents.]


"And the last time Merle played it a cornet player died immediately after the performance. That was enough for Evans. He collected the parts, tied them up in a neat bundle, and dropped them over the nearest bridge...


"From that day to this the music of Suppe's Light Cavalry march is taboo. Even its presence in the music trunk would be considered a serious menace to the life and safety of the circus musicians."


A second superstition about the music played, is that the only time you can play Home Sweet Home is during the very last performance of the season, the very last song. Otherwise it could mean the immediate closing of the show.


Here are some definitions and explanations of some circus bands terms.


Screamers - Circus marches are called screamers because they are so loud, fast and often very high!


Windjammers - Circus musicians are often called windjammers because they jam so much wind into their instruments in the process of playing these screamers.


Ballyhooing - The dictionary defines the verb "ballyhoo" as a vigorous attempt to win customers. When not playing, the musicians went around the grounds and the town shouting about the circus and tried to get people to come see it. Ex: "Come to the circus tonight! See flying trapeze artists and the ...."


Hippodrome - The hippodrome is the track around the inside of the ring where the horses were run.


Trombone Smears - Smear refers both to a trombone technique and to a type of music. The technique (officially called a glissando) where the trombonist pulls the slide in or out without tonguing and you get a smearing sound as the notes move up or down, rather than a distinct set of individual notes. Smear also refers a type of music that includes and features these smear techniques. These pieces are often used as clown music. Henry Fillmore wrote many trombone smears and they had an African-American minstrel sound to them.


Information compiled from:


The Importance of Touring Circus Bands in the Introduction of Classical Music to America by Charles P. Conrad  from an article in the Podium Notes Volume 24 No. 3 Summer 2002


WMG Music Tidbit Circus Bands


Beal, George Brinton. Through the Back Door of the Circus with George Brinton Beal.Springfield, Massachusetts: McLoughlin Bros., Inc., 1938. p. 1-20.


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