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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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
"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."
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.
- Circus marches are called screamers because they are so loud,
fast and often very high!
- Circus musicians are often called windjammers because they jam
so much wind into their instruments in the process of playing
- 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 ...."
- The hippodrome is the track around the inside of the ring where
the horses were run.
- 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
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
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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