This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Circus Side Show Trombone

07 January 2017

Some of my favorite musician stories come from simple photo postcards. This is one of them. A bandsman stands with his trombone under his arm, his instrument almost lost in the faded low contrast print. His photo processes two interesting qualities that attract our attention. The first is that the man stands in front of an ornately carved and painted backdrop. The second aspect is that this trombonist is an African-American musician.

The full postcard shows that the backdrop is a wagon decorated with carvings of two angels cavorting over a circular floral medallion. It resembles an old circus wagon, so perhaps this was a musician in a circus band.

The photo also had embossed logo in the lower left corner, Campbell's Photo Art, and a print negative number, 225-B at the bottom. Next to the trombone player is a name in large letters:

H. Langford

It looked like a photographer's hallmark but it did not match the smaller logo. Could it be the name of the bandsman?


On the back of the postcard was the answer.
It was signed
and dated with an address.

yours truly
H. Langford

1155 Aubert
St. Louis, Mo.

To my friend
Happy – 1944

The greeting marked this photo for the 1944 new year's holiday. It was probably taken sometime in 1943 and included with a Christmas card or letter.

But these clues did not reveal a better identification and the story behind this musician remained hidden.

Until I saw this postcard for sale on eBay.

A circus wagon with very distinctive angels.

This circa 1965-66 color postcard was mailed from the Baraboo, WI, the home of the Circus World Museum. The caption describes the Columbia Bandwagon, built in 1897 for the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth.  It remained in service until the early 1950s when it was donated by John M. Kelley, the museum founder.

And with a tax deductible contribution, you too could become an Honorary Member in the Professional Elephant Trainers Association which would entitle you to "shovel privileges with the better elephant herds" in the United States.

A comparison with the carving behind the trombonist shows that he is standing in front of the same Columbia bandwagon. The center medallion is revealed as a music lyre. The only difference is that the angels on the restored museum bandwagon are covered in gold leaf while the figures are painted different colors on the 1944 wagon.    

Baraboo, Wisconsin was chosen as the home of the Circus World museum, because it was the hometown of the Ringling Brothers, who formed the famed Ringling Brothers Circus in 1884. After various mergers it became the largest combined circus company in the world, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

With this new clue, I searched for a connection between the name Langford and the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. I found it on a fantastic website devoted to circus fans, the Circus Historical Society, which has a fascinating collection of circus route books. These trade publications contain every detail about the touring season of a traveling circus. There are names of every circus employee, from tight rope walkers to roustabouts. There is a list of each city on the circus tour and the number of shows. Most circuses started the year in April and continued with at least one performance every day until mid-November. The route books proudly list statistics from tickets sold to miles traveled.

In the CHS archives was a transcription of the roster from the 1946 route book of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. One page listed the members of the Big Show Band, which had 29 musicians with Merle Evans, conductor, but no one named Langford. Below that came the performers in the circus Side Show, which had a band too. There were 14 musicians in Arthur A. Wright's Band and Minstrels.

One of them was Harvey Lankford, 1st Trombone.

1946 Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey
Circus Route Book

In the 1940s, black Americans, South and North, lived within a society divided by segregated color lines. It forced people to follow strict rules of public and private behavior. For traveling circus entertainers, this meant that white musicians in the big top did not share a bandstand with black musicians. The place for black musicians was in the Side Show with the Armless and Legless Girl, the Giant and Giantess, the Tattooed Strong Man, the Comedy Juggler, the Champion Sword Swallower, and the Fire Proof Man. Most black entertainers probably considered it a good job, but the opportunity for advancement was still restricted to only those with an acceptable complexion. 

I felt certain that I had found the right name, and after more research I determined that H. Langford and Harvey Lankford were likely the same man, a musician from St. Louis with a very musical background.

St Louis, MO Argus
19 February 1915

According to his 1918 draft card, Harvey McKinley Lankford was born in 1900 and came from St. Louis, MO. In fact according to the 1900 Census his birthday was a year earlier in 1899.  He was the son of Philip Benjamin Lankford who listed his occupation as Musician in 1900 and Music Teacher Brass Band in 1910. He would pass on musical skills to Harvey and two older sons. By 1915 he  was director of the St Louis Odd Fellows Band, which gave a concert where 16 year old Master Harvey Lankford played a solo on trombone, "Why did you make me care." by Alfred Solman.

The music on that concert, with various Germanic overtures, waltzes, and polkas, was similar to the program of most American brass bands of the era. But this was the decade when the popular ragtime style began to evolve into snappier rhythms and tunes. Harvey Lankford was one of the African-American musicians who helped transform the stuffy staid forms of European centered music into a fresh vibrant style called American Jazz.

_ _ _

Baton Rouge Advocate
03 October 1931

By 1931, Harvey Lankford was a bandleader whose ensemble, the Synco-High Hatters played on one of the excursion steamboats running  up and down the Mississippi River. On one trip they even had the dubious pleasure of entertaining the Daughter of the Confederacy. It was also the age of radio, and in 1933, people could tune into radio station KMOX, broadcasting from St. Louis, to hear Harvey Lankford's Orchestra. Lankford played trombone in other bands too and appeared on a few early recordings. As I began to piece together his career as a professional musician, it became clear that he was one of the unsung pioneers of American jazz culture. Maybe not so much an innovator, but instead a working musician following the rapidly changing fashions in American popular music.

A lot of Langford/Lankford's personal history that I uncovered from various archives was confirmed by a great website devoted to early American jazz, . The site has compiled a large number of notable jazz musicians' WW1 draft cards and presents them with short biographies. Harvey Lankford's name along with his 1918 draft card is listed as one of the bandleaders. The bio says he worked with the "Barnum & Bailey" circus. But in the years 1946-48, not for 1944.

My trombone player's connection with this particular circus was an important detail because if  H. Langford/Lankford was indeed working with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1944, he might have been present at the great Hartford circus fire. This horrible tragedy occurred during an afternoon performance of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. The gigantic canvas tent, which could seat 9,000, caught fire just as the Great Wallendas High Wire act was beginning. Supposedly it was spotted by Merle Evans, the leader of the Big Show Band, who quickly responded by directing the band to play "The Stars and Stripes Forever", the traditional signal of distress for circus folk. However within seconds the flames, fueled by the canvas's paraffin waterproofing, rushed up the canvas sidewalls into the big top. The people below had only about 8 minutes to flee before the tent collapsed in a terrible conflagration. At least 167 people perished and over 700 were injured in the fire.

Was Harvey a witness to this terrible event? My detective instinct said something was missing. I needed to dig some more.

The Billboard
24 April 1954

A search for the Columbia Bandwagon brought a different perspective. Who would expect that a horse drawn wooden wagon from the 1890s would be preserved as a cherished relic of circus life. But in April 1954, The Billboard, the news magazine of the entertainment world, reported that the Columbia Bandwagon had been moved to Baraboo, Wis. by John M. Kelly, its new owner, and the same man who had plans to establish a circus museum. Though originally built for the Ringling Bros. Circus the  bandwagon had formerly been a part of the Cole Bros. Circus.

The Circus Historical Society now has a subsidiary website devoted to the colorful wagons that were once part of every circus parade. There is a page devoted the Columbia Bandwagon which has wonderful photos of the vehicle throughout its service life. Originally used in the 1900s by the Adam Forepaugh and Sells Bros. Circus, in the 1920s it was sold to the Christy Bros. Circus and then in the 30's to the Cole Bros. Circus where it was converted into a ticket wagon. (There are an inordinate number of brothers in circus history!) In 1939 it was no longer used in the parades and was retired to the Cole Bors. winter quarters. But in 1941 the Columbia bandwagon was given a new coat of paint and brought back for the Cole Bros. Circus tour. Photos on the website exactly match the color scheme of the carvings displayed behind my trombonist. In 1943-44 Harvey Lankford was not playing in the side show of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was in the Cole Bros. Circus Side Show.
_ _ _

The Circus Historical Society has a copy of the 1942 Cole Bros Circus Route Book. On the page devoted to the Side Show performers is a roster of the P. G. Lowery Band with Harvey Lankford as one of the twelve musicians.

1942 Cole Bros Circus Route Book

Though the connection with the Hartford circus fire might make a more dramatic story, this relationship with P. G. Lowery was more significant for music history. Perry George Lowery (1869-1942) was a celebrated African-American cornet player, composer, and band director. He started playing music in the age of traveling minstrel shows. Through talent and dedicated hard work, Lowery developed a distinctive style that made him one of the few successful African-American showmen at the turn of the 19th century. He was admired by many musicians, white and black, including the great cornetist and so-called father of the blues, W. C. Handy (1873-1958). Adapting his music to ragtime, blues and then jazz, Lowery helped change popular culture while at the same time providing opportunities for hundreds of black musicians like Harvey Lankford.

During his career P. G. Lowery played for most of the great circus productions including both the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey show and the Cole Bros. Circus. The 1942 tour was to be his last as he succumbed to health problems, dying at his home in Cleveland on December 15, 1942. For more history on this great musician, I highly recommend a terrific biography: Showman: The Life and Music of Perry George Lowery by Clifford Edward Watkins, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2003. Unfortunately Wikipedia has no entry for P. G. Lowery, who deserves more recognition for his contributions to American culture. 

Harvey Lankford's name appears in Watkins book. On that last circus tour when Lowery was forced to be absent due to illness, Lankford was the assistant band leader. It seems very likely that he continued as leader of the side show band in the 1943 season when he was photographed in front of the Cole Bros. Columbia band/ticket wagon. The photographer's inclusion of his name, even misspelled, would be very appropriate for a souvenir postcard. 

The Billboard
24 April 1954

When Lankford moved over to the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1946 he played with another alumni of P. G. Lowery's band, Arthur A. Wright who was also a great cornet soloist and band leader. Lankford's name is listed in the  1946, 1947, and 1948 season route books. In 1950 he was reported in Billboard magazine as playing in the side show band of the Biller Bros. Circus.

By a strange coincidence in the same 1954 edition of The Billboard that reported on the movement of the Columbia Bandwagon, there was a long list of the performers and personnel on the King Bros. Circus tour. One of the musicians in Teddy Parker's minstrel band was Howard Langford, trombone. I feel certain that this must be Harvey Lankford, who surely endured a life of misspelled names. 

_ _ _

In 1944 the Cole Bros. Circus traveled 14,271 miles from April 20 to November 12 playing nearly 400 shows in over 150 cities and towns in 27 states. During that same wartime season the Dailey Bros. Circus logged 13,919 miles; the Baily Bros.Circus made 10,262; the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Baily did 8,846; and the Clyde Beatty Circus managed 7,184 miles. Each circus employed thousands of clowns, acrobats, cooks, trapeze artists, animal wranglers, canvas men, wagon drivers, and musicians. Every day began with setting up the big top tent in a new field. Every night ended with folding it all up and loading it onto a train.  

Evidently Lankford was getting tired of a life on the road with the circus. In the mid-1950s he moved to New York City and settled down, limiting his performances to playing in small club bands. I suspect he had a lot of friends. He died in Manhattan on January 14, 1969.


In 1925 Lankford was a member of
Bennie Washington's Six Aces,
which recorded "Compton Avenue Blues"
in St. Louis for Okeh Records.
YouTube let's us
hear Harvey Lankford in his prime
when he takes a solo at 1:25.



The side show performers
may never have enjoyed
the spotlight in the main ring,
but it was always a very popular part
of the circus spectacle.
Another YouTube video
gives us a glimpse of the 1948
Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus Side Show.
The minstrel band appears briefly at the start about 0:06.
Was Harvey Lankford there too?



This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where every pcture tells a story.


Wendy said...

You know you can write the Wikipedia article. Ok, so I wonder if these are the same wagon or similar. The faces of the cavorting angels are at slightly different angles, or maybe the gold leaf makes it appear so. At any rate, another great story with one surprising discovery after another.

Jo Featherston said...

I see what Wendy means in relation to the angel on the left but still, your detective instincts are second to none!

Little Nell said...

Great detective work, and that bandwagon certainly caught the eye!

La Nightingail said...

That circus wagon was something else. Wow! Gorgeous. I'm always impressed with how much effort you put into your posts - so much 'homework' to identify every piece you include. Rather amazing! :)

Barbara Rogers said...

Great research, as always. I loved the circuses, and attended a few in St. Louis, in the 50s. I don't remember the parades, but when visiting Sarasota FL theres a big Ringling Brothers site. There are wonderful colorful wagons there. The bands were sure important and this is such a great history of one of the many talented musicians.

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

The tattoo'ed and pierced man in the sideshow act was creepy. I imagine that was
the intent. The music brought back memories of the Royal American Shows which
used to perform in Canadian Cities. I cannot believe the amount of information you
can dig up when you start with little more than a name. So enjoyable, as always.

ScotSue said...

That circus wagon is stunning - I have never seen anything like it before. As ever you have given us a wonderful example of research and story telling.

Joseph Scott said...

Harvey doesn't seem to have been a close relative of drummer Paris "Dude" Lankford (he signed his name Paris, not Parris), who was born in about 1890 in Missouri, was in Arthur A. Wright's Band and Minstrels in 1945, led his own quartet in Montana in 1936, and was in a trio with Bennie Moten in roughly 1920.


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