Merle Evans

(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:
“It’s-going-to-be-a-tough-day-on-the-lips-boys,” he races. “Gotta-sound-good-tonight-too-for-the-house-is-full-of-Circus-folks-and-their-kids. 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 arena domes.

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.
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