"There have been street performers at least as long as there have been streets."
– Nick of the Busking Project
Early Street Performance
The earliest records of busking, or street performance, are from ancient Rome during various agricultural and religious festivals. Commonly, these songs were flyting, or a lyrical contest between two parties who would hurl insults in a sing-songy manner. Think medieval rap battle. When street performance made its way into the urban life of Rome, it mostly took place in Rome’s crossroads during celebrations for the working class. Eventually, the Roman government supplied these events with free food and propaganda, using the gatherings to distract the plebian masses.
And then Rome fell. For the next few centuries, free speech among common people was tightened and mostly unprotected. The only “street performers” were court jesters and similar acts within the royal systems. No one else was permitted to poke fun at the court or express any artistic inklings they may have had. Fun was only for the noble. Although, many kings and queens simply loved the singing poets who wrote songs of praise and spun tales of their legacy. Those songs seemed to slip through the cracks of the castle and into the streets of the land. Vanity wins, I guess.
Onward to the rise of the Church in England. Street performers were seen as immoral, lewd, and sinful. The opposition of the church came into the form of, you may have guessed it, bards and minstrels. Picture Jaskier from The Witcher. The more professional minstrels would likely play a harp in the banquet hall of the ruling castles; the lesser would pick a lute or a shawm and play for coins in whatever tavern or street they found on their journey across the land. These wandering songbirds acted as poets and fantastical storytellers, but often carried news from town to town, as well as new ideas, contemporary ways of thinking, and, yes, resistance against the Church. Total rockstars, IMO. However, it is also said that lower clergymen often engaged in street performances to expose the injustice happening in the church, even at the risk of being found out and expelled.
Still of Jaskier from The Witcher Season 2 | Image source Den of Geek via Susie Allnut // Netflix
By the year 1600, the Puritans had taken over in Europe, and all entertainment that did not teach about or praise the church was stamped out and sorely frowned upon. Any street performers that existed during these creatively lean times were in urban areas and were staffed by those who were impoverished, disabled, or of the oppressed minority groups. Still, busking persisted throughout this era. These performers typically sang about news and nonconforming ideas, and crowds generally supported them.
Busking in Early America
By the 1700s, there were street performers all over the colonies of the new America. Circus acts, comedy players, peddlers, acrobats, musicians, and the like made up the new culture of buskers. The new setup introduced around this time was “medicine shows.” Crooks and doctors with phony licensure would set up mobile stalls and stages to sell their snake oil and magical cures. They teamed up with the buskers in the area to lure in hopeful customers (I just want to point out that Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show got his start by busking and the band continues to busk, even today. Hence their name!).
Medicine Show | Image source Curious Historian
When the Founding Fathers wrote and passed the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment to the Constitution, buskers were, in some small way, kept in mind. It was important to the early American people that their right to protest through public demonstration and song was protected. An early busker who took full advantage of this law was none other than Benjamin Franklin, who sang and sold broadsides, or posters containing political views in the form of ballads.
Though the law stood to protect buskers, the 1800s were marked by a swing of the pendulum. Many big cities enacted curfews and were strict to check licenses and permits of street performers. At this point in the article, I am sure you are aware of the he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not attitude that the public has had with street performance over time.
Busking was especially important before the technologies of recording. Street performance was one of the few ways to distribute your music (or talents, but we’re focusing on music) to your community. This was true during the early 1900s, before the Hollywood takeover. Organ grinders and hurdy-gurdies lined the streets. Well-known musicians such as vaudeville performer George Burns, composer Irving Berlin, and vocalist and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, got their start by busking. Of course, as I mentioned, the marvel of street performers dried up when music and entertainment were able to be distributed more easily through film, television, and personal radio shows. Go figure.
Organ grinder | Image source N. Hefort, State Library of New South Wales via Wikipedia
These days in the United States, the government protects the right to free artistic speech, and under its umbrella, busking. Public spaces generally welcome artistic expression, and even some private property is extended to street performers so as long as it doesn’t compromise the function and safety of the area. Street performance can be a fantastic way to breathe soul and cultural ambiance into a city.
However, you’re probably very aware that buskers do not enjoy the great successes they may have had a century ago. Or even 50 years ago. The magic of live street performance has been dampened with streaming and recording technology. Even if an extremely talented musician begins busking in a public space, they are competing with their audience’s time, schedule, attention, and, let’s face it, some people simply want to walk to the bus station without having their true-crime podcast uninterrupted.
The Washington Post set up an experiment in 2007 to see if the general person could recognize the genius of a professional-musician-disguised-street-performer, and if they would stop for a moment and listen during rush hour. Without looking for the article, what do you think happened? I’ll let you know in a sec.
Collage of Joshua Bell playing in L'Enfant Plaza, Carnegie Hall | Image source Soul Alchemy
YouTuber Adam Neely asserts that good buskers are, essentially, good salesmen. In the Washington Post experiment, it didn’t matter that Joshua Bell made his first Carnegie Hall appearance at the age of 17. That his talent and skill were world-renown. It didn’t matter that Bell was brushing the strings of a handcrafted 17th-century violin. Without the quick ability to read a large room (while playing an instrument, mind you) and modify his playing style and song choice to increase your likability, busking is not going to be lucrative. And on that crisp day in January of 2007, no passerby really cared.
Additionally, people today subconsciously confuse busking with begging. Most buskers can optimize their earnings by parking themselves where many people gather for a short amount of time, and so they choose transitional spaces (outside of a train station or on a busy street, for example). This, coupled with some serious subliminal notions of beggars, can be a HUGE a turn-off for someone who, say, is just trying to get home after a particularly bad day at work. It makes sense why there are so many people who sneer at the sight of a guitar hooked up to a huge amp.
But that doesn’t mean busking is an ancient art. There are many, many rising and established musicians who got their start by busking. Here are just a few:
Ed Sheeran – Sheeran has been known to reminisce about these days, calling them “shit, but cute.”
Janis Joplin – In her early years, she commuted from the University of Texas to play her guitar alone on the streets of Austin.
B.B. King – Busking as a young teenager in Mississippi, the songs he sang typically came from a hymn book he picked up at his church, accompanied by a used guitar he bought for $15.
Jewel – Around 1995, Jewel lived in her car and would busk in between small gigs.
Passenger – “Let Her Go” singer Mike Rosenberg busked for 5 years, and says, “There’s nothing glamorous about it."
Rod Stewart – Rod played the harmonica and sang for pennies around 1963 in Brighton, England.
Sierra Ferrell – Just a few years ago, Ferrell busked in New Orleans, lived under bridges, and would often travel by hopping on freight trains.
Tracy Chapman – Chapman busked while she was a student at Tufts University in Boston, eventually being signed by SBK Publishing after hearing her play in Harvard Square.
Old Crow Medicine Show – Members of the band busked in Asheville, North Carolina, and were discovered by Doc Watson while playing “Oh My Little Darling” in front of a pharmacy on a street corner in Boone, North Carolina.
Young Ed Sheeran busking in Galway | Source: GalwayBeo via Tig Choili Facebook
In many ways, street performers are vital to a diverse and entertaining urban life. And, as much as I’d like to get on with my own playlist while a lone guitarist is screeching another “Free Bird” cover, I should remember that their artistic expression is significant and important to life itself. And maybe…they’ll be the next big thing.
A little note from the writer:
Obviously, there are many more artists who have busked in their careers, and there are many more to come. In fact, I didn’t even scratch the surface of the history of busking. I didn’t mention the Romani and Moor communities. We didn’t talk about the Japanese Chindonya during the Edo period. I didn’t get to dive into the great comeback of street performance thanks to the “hippies” of 1950 and 1960. The history is so vast and diverse to be done absolute justice, so I really recommend reading a more in-depth essay like the one by Dr. Pamela Morris and Dr. Susan Sarapin linked here if you are interested, and a great busking video from Adam Neely linked here.
Written by Colleen Walker
I want to thank the sources that I used to put today this post!
Sarapin, S. H., & Morris, P. L. (2018). Entertaining free expression on public sidewalks: Are city ordinances kicking musical muses to the curb? First Amendment Studies, 52(1-2), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/21689725.2018.1500929
Weingarten, Gene. “Pearls before Breakfast: Can One of the Nation's Great Musicians Cut through the Fog of a D.C. Rush Hour? Let's Find out.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Apr. 2007, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/pearls-before-breakfast-can-one-of-the-nations-great-musicians-cut-through-the-fog-of-a-dc-rush-hour-lets-find-out/2014/09/23/8a6d46da-4331-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html.