Traditional Circus Music


Merle Evans defined it only as music written by circus musicians that is "brighter" than other music. The most often-played circus music is the march, but there are plenty of opportunities for waltzes, rags, serenades, intermezzos, Latin rhythms, smears and galops. Different styles of music characterize each act. Wild animals may be accompanied by fierce marches with a driving beat like "Bravura," or "Burma Patrol." Waltzes like "Over the Waves" and "Wedding of the Winds" might lull us through graceful trapeze performances. The pacing for a big slapstick clown act might be set by a galop like "Prestissimo," or "The Homestretch." Galop, incidentally, is the French spelling for the horse's gallop, which suggests both the source and the exhausting two-beat pace of the music.


There is no room any more for string instruments in "traditional" circus bands— that is to say in brass bands beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Since the advent of the three-ring circus, the emphasis has been on drums and brass: the far-reaching clear tones of cornets, trumpets, trombones, French horns, baritones and tubas.


Saxophones and the other reed instruments are debatable, but they have seen frequent use in the circus. Although their music is all original, the "traditional" Circus Flora Band includes a mean cajun fiddle and a full range of reeds. They harken back to an earlier era when such instruments were the only ones acceptable and available at any public concerts, and when they provided adequate volume under a single-ring tent.


Most "original circus music" was written in the twentieth century. Before that, circus musicians were too busy conducting to take time to write their own. In the early 1830s they played narrative songs, like "Yankee Doodle," "Billy Barlow," and "Jim Crow." N The first full band probably went out around 1830 with the Purdy & Welch Circus. But the first circus brass band didn't appear until Ned Kendall took his new trend-setting Boston musicians out with the New England Caravan in 1832, and they became an all-brass group at Allan Dodsworth's insistence in 1834. Independent brass bands were the rule in circuses by 1837, often riding in the splendid new music carriages made for them. In the 1850s, the cornet began to replace the keyed "Kent" bugle, and Kendall was joined by Tom Canham, Patrick Gilmore and David W. Reeves, all among the major bandmasters of the country. Gilmore was responsible for setting a trend away from brass and towards a balance with reed instruments, and for introducing the big touring band era. As leader of Providence's American Band, Reeves also became a prominent composer. But for all intents and purposes, there were few circus bands as separate entities until the turn of the century.


Circus musicians are traditionally called "windjammers" because they "jam wind into cornets, clarinets, trombones, baritones, etc. for six to seven hours a day," according to Merle Evans, the most famous windjammer of all. Contemporary windjammers formed themselves into an official organization of circus music lovers in 1971. Membership in Windjammers Unlimited, Inc. approached six hundred in 2010, many of whom are non-playing lovers of circus music. The traditional circus musicians themselves are getting older and scarcer. Still, at their annual convention in 2010, a 140-piece band assembled to record a concert of music written for circus in years past, one of the Windjammers' stated goals. The purpose of the organization is simply to keep traditional circus music and circus concert music alive. They publish a bimonthly magazine called Circus Fanfare, and they have established a Windjammer's Hall of Fame.


Merle Evans was the band director for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for a half-century beginning in 1919. When he put down his cornet for the last time with the Ringling show on December 4, 1969, this "Toscanini of the Big Top" had played an incredible 18,250 performances without missing a day, even for one severe bout of ptomaine poisoning. His largest all-brass band consisted of thirty-six instruments. Merle used to be able to blow a clear high-C note on his legendary cornet even while munching popcorn, his favorite food. Humble, gentle, and always smiling, he was remarkably popular among all circus people, and widely respected for his talent. He took almost everything in his stride, and rarely complained about anything, including his salary: He made $60 a week when he first started with Ringling, and $800 when he left. After his retirement from the Ringling show, Merle never went back to visit; he and other traditional windjammers were short on patience with the lack of cornets and the new rock-and-roll music that pervades the modern circus. He never could completely retire, however; he remained an active teacher and concert band conductor until

his death at ninety-six, on December 31, 1987.


While his least favorite circus music was undoubtedly the "Elephant Polka," some of Merle's favorite circus pieces were the "Battle of Shiloh March," by C. L. Barnhouse; Frederick Alton Jewell's "Quality Plus" and "High and Mighty"; and "Barnum & Bailey's Favorite," by Karl L. King. All three composers were outstanding circus musicians.


Barnhouse became the foremost publisher of circus music, and Jewell wrote over two hundred compositions while working for Gentry, Sells-Floto, Barnum & Bailey, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and various Shrine circuses.


The prolific Karl King was Evans' predecessor at the Ringling show. Before his death in 1971, he had written 282 different band compositions.


Other great circus musicians included Charles E. Duble; Walter P. English; A. W. Hughes; Keith Killinger; the "Paul Whiteman of Spangleland," Henry Kyes; the galop king Joseph John Richards; and Everett James. James was the band director and his wife Mabel was a trapezist for the Mighty Haag Circus when their son Harry was born in 1916. That future great jazz trumpeter would grow up as a circus drummer and contortionist.


At least one other musical great barely missed becoming perhaps the greatest circus musician of all time: The "March King" himself, John Philip Sousa, was fully prepared to run away and join the circus in 1867, at the age of thirteen. However, his anxious father prevented it by enlisting him as an apprentice in the U. S. Marine Band.

© 2017 by Windjammers Unlimited, Inc.. Proudly created with

  • Wix Facebook page
  • Twitter Classic
  • Google Classic