(This article about legendary Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®
musical director Merle Evans was published in 1962 in the Ringling
Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine & Program celebrating
the 92nd Edition of The Greatest Show On Earth®.)
During the 19th century, when Mendelssohn and Schumann and
Franz Liszt cracked the ice off music and gave it warmth and color and
emotion in what is referred to now as the romantic period, and then when
Wagner came along and made it louder and more emotional, the pattern
was set for Circus music.
It has reached its zenith under the baton of Merle Evans, who has directed music for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for almost 40 years.
Evans has been called the “Toscanini of the Circus,” and
James Francis Cook, editor of “Etude,” calls this homespun character
“Will Rogers with a horn.” But the world knows him simply as the
greatest exponent of solid Circus music in the whole spangle-studded
history of this form of entertainment.
Throughout the country, in coliseums, auditoriums, and
sports arenas, the new temples of the Circus, Merle Evans’ Circus
windjammers calmly prepare to play two three-hour sessions (sometimes
three), within the span of 13 hours. Before each show, Merle gives his
musicians his standard pep talk in gallop-time:
Well-here-we-go-boys-hit-it-hard! ‘Ringling Bros. Triumphal’!”
Musicians consider Merle Evans a remarkable guy. He was
born in Columbus, Kansas, and ran away from home to lead a carnival band
when he was only 16. After some years with shows of various kinds, he
graduated to the baton of The Greatest Show On Earth.
Merle’s leading the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
band for so many years is quite an achievement, but the Circus
Toscanini never blows his own horn. Modest to a fault, he prefers to let
his record and the music speak for itself – which it does – amidst a
cascade of marches, gallops, schottisches, tangos, rhumbas, fox trots,
waltzes, polkas, one-steps and cakewalks that do the occasion like
sequins in a giant animated mural. The music of the big show is the loom
upon which the thrill-studded tapestry of the performance is threaded.
Evans’ lads can meander right sweetly in the lacy dells of
dulcet melodies, but the kind of music in which they really excel is
fast and forte, with the brass section wide open and blowing its brains
out and the snare-drummer’s wrists moving like a crazy trip-hammer.
The notes pour out like beads strung on a spangled thread.
The band starts to “straighten it out” (the Circus equivalent for
swingdom’s “getting in the groove”), and if you were brought up like
most Americans and cut your amusement molars on a Circus teething ring,
you can just close your eyes and see the big cats snarling, elephants
doing their tricks, the faces of laughing clowns, and the beautiful
precision of aerialists doing their stuff in the lofty reaches of the
For good Circus music can be felt as well as heard. From
the pens of its composers flow the excitement and daredeviltry of the
Circus. The glory of open brass is there – loud enough to stir the
ghosts of the departed Ringlings, Phineas T. Barnum, and James A.
Bailey. And also, there, riding the bright crest of the music, is the
courage and tenacity of the troupers and the warmth engendered in the
hearts of clowns who work to the added obbligato of children’s laughter.
It’s all there – in the tunes played by Circus windjammers.
Circus bands are taken for granted, like peanuts and pink
lemonade, but the 12 labors of Hercules are a picnic compared to the
Circus windjammer’s daily stint. Merle Evans’ band plays upwards of 190
cues each performance and the Circus season generally lasts from
late-January until the middle of December.
But have you ever heard a movie with the soundtrack
missing? Well, then, you have an idea of what the Circus would be like
without music. For music is the very pulse beat of The Greatest Show On Earth