LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Gretchen Peters' Confessions of a Nashville Circus Girl

There’s more to life than circuses... or so I distantly recall. When you spend a year writing a book about circus it tends to become a case of clowns to the right of me, elephants to the left, here I am stuck in the middle with Gerry Cottle.

When I’m not writing about circus, however, I write about music. Sometimes I even combine the two, as I did when I got to interview the massively successful American songwriter Gretchen Peters about her new Best Of, which she titled after her favourite song... Circus Girl.

Here’s an extract of my feature in Country Music People, in which Gretchen explains her affinity with the girl who walks the wire in the centre ring.

She even put a drawing of a big top and a Victorian trapeze flyer on the cover.


by Douglas McPherson

I’ve witnessed some emotionally charged musical moments in my time...

But the only piece of music to give me the full lump in the throat, grit in my eyes, pass me the Kleenex, excuse-me-while-I-just-hyperventilate-a-bit effect, is one I heard a couple of weeks ago. You might not recognise the 100-year-old melody by its title, Entrance of the Gladiators, and you’ve almost certainly never heard of its composer, the unfortunately surnamed Julius Fucik. But if I said “circus music” to you, I guarantee you or anyone else on the planet would be able to dum-dum-dummy-dummy-dum-dum-da-da it to me.

My visit to the Great British Circus
- Britain's last circus with elephants -
where I first heard the famous circus theme music
Entrance of the Gladiators
at ringside with the smell of horses and camels
in my nose
Next to Happy Birthday To You, it must be one of the most widely known pieces of music ever written. It should sound incredibly naff.

Quite why it hit me so hard and unexpectedly was probably because I was sitting in a big, cold tent, with trampled mud and grass beneath my feet, a circle of golden sawdust in front of me, and a whiff of camel wee in the air.

The circus can have that effect on you, as Gretchen Peters found when she took her young daughter to a big top for the first time.

“My daughter was maybe seven or eight and I realised she was getting to that age where she was sort of becoming jaded about things. The circus came to town and I wanted her to see it while she was still young enough to get the magic of it, before she grew up enough to see through it.

“She loved it. But what I really wasn’t prepared for was how wonderful and evocative it was for me. I was really, really inspired by it. The tawdriness as well as the magic. The juxtaposition of both of those things. I went home that night and wrote Circus Girl.”

‘I work the high wire in the centre ring,
Defying gravity, that’s my thing...’

"Defying gravity in the centre ring."
The death of real life
circus girl Eva Garcia during her
high altitude performance at
the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome
inspired my book
Circus Mania
When she came to compile her new Best Of, Gretchen had no hesitation in calling the album Circus Girl.

“There are very few songs that you can play for 15 years that you don’t get tired of at some point. Even the ones that sometimes people really like, you need to give them a rest. But that is one of the very few songs that I have never got tired of playing.

“I’ve always thought it was my most autobiographical song. The character is so very close to home. As a metaphor for the music business... I just thought that metaphor was irresistible.”

‘Believe me darlin’ it’s a lonely world,
It ain’t easy for a circus girl.’

Gretchen is best known for writing Independence Day, a 90s hit which remains the career song of country superstar Martina McBride. But Gretchen is a good singer in her own right, and her Best Of is recommended to all fans of thoughtful singer-songwriters.

I certainly think she’s nailed the life of a girl in the big top. Here’s how Circus Girl ends:

‘So I climb that ladder right on up to the sky,
I don’t look down and I don’t ask why,
And just for a moment I’m on top of the world,
Just for a moment... I’m a circus girl.’

Circus Mania
- Mail on Sunday
To read about real life circus girls, and boys, and clowns and freaks and animals, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus. Just £10 including postage in the UK (add £2.75 overseas) from:
Peter Owen Publishers
81 Ridge Road
London N8 9NP

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon.

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