Who doesn’t like circus music? It brings memories of simpler days, when we were young and less jaded, a time before we were drowning in all the entertainment choices now available to everybody. If you didn’t live in a big city, which most Americans didn’t, the arrival of a traveling circus in your area was such a spectacular event that you’d still remember it many years later.
The small city I grew up in was probably not big enough to draw the huge outfits like Ringling Brothers, but by that time the circus business was in turmoil anyway. Increased competition from movies and TV, along with rising costs, had forced the giant outfits into cut-backs or worse. There were still touring groups around though, and they were the real thing. They had it all — acrobats, trained animals, the big tent, and of course the music. Below is a video of one of those outfits setting up, and I’m pretty sure this is the one I remember visiting our town.
Although the traveling shows that predated circuses started centuries ago and often had musical performers, what we now consider circus music began appearing in the 19th century. Eventually giant outfits like Barnum & Bailey, in their never-ending battle to be the biggest and best, added full bands to entertain the fans in the big top. They were also a part of the huge circus parade that took place every time the show visited town.
Circus bands played a lot of different marches and other lively music, but some songs became standards. Although their names might not be familiar, the music itself certainly is. For example, “Entry of the Gladiators” by Julius Fucik, who was known as the ” Bohemian Sousa”.
Other songs commonly used included Henry Fillmore’s “The Circus Bee” and “Rolling Thunder”, along with Karl King’s “Barnum & Bailey’s Favorite”. Interestingly enough, circus bands seldom played Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” because traditionally it was saved to be used as a sort of signal to staff that something unplanned was happening — loose animals, trapeze problems, etc.