Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Noir Carnival: Circus Music

Charlie was the first one of us as got taken. Not that anyone really noticed at first. It wasn’t easy to tell with Charlie, given that he was bone idle at the best of times. So he if downed tools, there was nothing in it. After a day or so, people started to talk. But it was Charlie, so nothing came of it.

When Len didn’t show to open up shop, people made more of it. There was something as wasn’t right in that. Charlie’s one thing, but Len hasn’t missed a day since his place opened. That should be ‘hadn’t’. Len hadn’t missed a day since his place opened. Save Sundays, of course, but that’s to be expected.

So it shocked us all, truth be told, when we saw that he hadn’t opened up one Monday. When there was no sign of Len in his shop, and he didn’t answer the bell when we rang. After a couple of hours, people started to get a bit worried. Even I did, if I’m honest, though I was never a regular customer of his. Someone suggested going to his house, in case he’d had a fall or some other accident. Someone else tried to get in a look in at the window of the shop’s backroom. ‘Maybe someone’s done for him,’ they said. (I can’t remember who it was.) ‘Maybe he was counting out his money and someone just burst in on him.’

(from my story ‘Idle Hands’ in Noir Carnival, edited by K.A. Laity)

When I first saw the call for submissions for Fox Spirit’s Noir Carnival anthology, I was intrigued. I was fairly certain that it was going to be the sort of book I’d want to read – who can resist the dark attraction of the carnival? – and I had a suspicion it was also the sort of book I wanted to write for. Unfortunately, that suspicion didn’t immediately manifest itself in the form of a brilliant (or original) idea for a story.

But serendipity is a wonderful thing. In March, in a completely unrelated capacity, I attended a conference on ‘Evil and Human Wickedness’ in Lisbon. I was chairing the first panel, and the first paper in that session was presented by a PhD student and musician from the University of Huddersfield, Eleri Ann Evans. In the middle of this paper, Ann discussed some aspects of early twentieth-century circus music, particularly the career of The Brown Brothers. This was my story’s lightbulb moment – though I’m not going to say exactly why, as I don’t want to give away too much of the story!

If you were to think of a circus right now, there are a few images that might pop into your head. I have no doubt you’d imagine a clown – white faced (or, perhaps, black-faced, in ‘burnt cork) and grinning. You might picture a ringmaster – sinister or otherwise – in a red coat and top hat. Maybe you’d picture the tents, the acrobats, the animals. Maybe you’d picture the train filled with performers pulling into a town (or the horse-drawn decorated carts of the ‘mud shows’ that couldn’t afford their own trains). Or perhaps you’d see the sideshows that set up around the big top.

But whatever picture you see when you think of the circus, I bet I have a good chance of guessing what you can hear when you see it.

Admit it. That’s what you could hear.

Everyone knows ‘Entry of the Gladiators’ as the circus song. It’s pervasive and persistent association with the big top is a hint at the important role music has always played in circus performances. The records that survive of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century travelling circuses reveal that music was an integral part of all shows.

When the circus arrived in town – by train or cart – performers would parade through the streets handing out flyers and free tickets. A band would accompany them. When the townsfolk arrived at the tents to watch the show, they’d find a sideshow band amongst the ‘freak shows’ and mini performances around the big top. Every act in the big show would be set to music, and the circus band would exhaust themselves playing throughout the night. When the clowns appeared, they’d often bring their own instruments – the ‘clown band’ was a highlight of many an early circus show – and used their brass and woodwind instruments to produce comical sounds and impressions. For those members of the audience with enough stamina, the circus ‘aftershow’ featured a smaller version of the main band playing a short concert of more ‘serious’ music.

Being a circus musician was no easy gig. Men (and it was almost exclusively men in the early days) who chose this profession were usually expected to play multiple instruments. Due to the varied nature of the programme, lots of different musical arrangements were needed. It would be too expensive for a circus to employ, house and feed a vast orchestra, so they tended to hire players who were versatile. Some performers specialized in strings or woodwind (as these were the more traditional instruments), but the successful ones were the men who could ‘double in brass’ (i.e. they could play the brass instruments that were dominant in the popular clown bands).

One such performer was Tom Brown, who gained fame with his ensemble The Brown Brothers (mostly Tom’s brothers, but occasionally joined by others). This group had played vaudeville – both small-time and big-time – and become known for their versatility, comedy and originality. At some point in the first decade of the twentieth-century they worked with the Guy Brothers circus, but they also worked with the more famous Ringling Brothers as well.

Though the Brown Brothers were able to play a number of instruments, their speciality was the saxophone. These instruments were particularly suited to comedy, and the brothers’ vaudeville act (in which they often performed in burnt cork, oversized shoes, and clothing that would be considered far from politically correct today) showcased the comic potential of the instrument. But in the circus, as in their later career, they revealed their full range. They played ragtime and jazz, music that was ideal for the circus’s late aftershow.

Unlike many of the other saxophone groups around at the same time, The Brown Brothers’ music was recorded on early phonograph technology. And some of these recordings survive, giving us a little glimpse of the circus music created by Tom and his family.

This was the music that was playing in my head (and through my computer) while I was writing ‘Idle Hands’. Just like the audiences of those early shows, I knew the circus had arrived as soon as I heard the band strike up.

(If you’re interested in finding out more about The Brown Brothers and their role in the history of circus and vaudeville music, I highly recommend the book That Moaning Saxophone: The Six Brown Brothers and the Dawning of a Musical Craze by Bruce Vermazen. ‘Idle Hands’ owes a lot to the detailed research in Vermazen’s book.)



  1. Fascinating! I really loved your story, thought it among the best of the lot. This background makes it that much more enjoyable in memory. Thanks for pulling back the tent flap 😉

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.