Busker’s Lament

Ah, but thousands of people march to my songs. Some just ignore me and shuffle along. Some others tip me, hah, and sometimes they sing right along…One for the money, two for the show, three for the busker who plays by the road. (Always The Busker – Jon English)

There’s not too many musos that didn’t cut their chompers in the trade by busking on their local streets. Many of the great harpists, Little Walter, Big Walter, Sonny Terry, Junior Wells and the Sonny Boys all blew their chops for monetary reward on the streets of their town. Our very own Aussie (Englishman in Sydney) harpman Chris Blanchflower hooked up with Boz Scaggs in the mid sixties and busked their way around Europe.

When both our kids were young pups we’d travel down the mountain to the big sticks to continue a tradition that my wife’s Nan had engaged in with her as a child – to view the Myer Christmas windows in Bourke street. One year my focus had been distracted by the sound of amplified blues harp flamming from across the tram tracks. My son and I ventured across and there was a Japanese Cowboy, George Kamikawa with a large crowd boppin’ to his one man band as he performed on a lap steel guitar, kick drum and harp. 

On another visit to the metropolis to watch the footy at the ‘G’ (MCG – Melbourne Cricket Ground) we arrived early (parking by the boatsheds of the Yarra River) to have lunch at the Pancake Parlour (a short stack with cream & maple syrup). As we made our passage there, the sounds of a honky tonk piano filtered through the hustle and bustle of the populous. Within a few shops of our destination a piano busker of Seasick Steve appearance was tickling the ivories on an old battered, upright piano. His name, Terry Sansom. I wondered on the mechanics of manoeuvring his instrument of choice to and from the venue. If people enquired Terry would peer through the tram power lines and into the heavens above and reply, “Helicopter.” I waited to view his exit – stage left. Terry placed detachable wheels to the under carriage (holes had been drilled into a piece of redgum) and then steered the piano by handles along Bourke Street to a laneway where his van was parked. Well I never! No such effort required with the pocket harp.
I didn’t have the honour of witnessing Ross ‘Hanna’ Hannaford, who had in recent times (before his untimely death) busked on Melbourne’s city streets and at the South Melbourne Market. Many passers by had no idea of the legendary status of this man who played lead guitar for ‘Daddy Cool’. Hanna said, “it gives me the freedom to experiment with sample loops and play new tunes”.

This reminds me of the story of virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, who busked as part of an experiment at the Washington Metro System in 2007. Nearly two thousand people meandered past him with only seven stopping for any length of time. In his instrument case was the paltry (and I don’t mean chooks) sum of thirty two dollars. Back in 1936 Larry Adler, chromatic harmonica maestro (reportedly earning £800 a day) had a bet with two executives of the B.B.C. that if he played in the street he would attract little interest. While patrons were queuing outside the Holborn Empire Theatre to hear Larry perform he positioned himself nearby dressed in old clothes and with unkempt hair. He played for ten minutes and only five pennies were thrown in his cap. Larry stated, “this just proves that an artist is not regarded as such without the trimmings that the theatre gives him.”

Then there’s a form of busking that operates indoors, where you play for tips at a bar or cafe. “And they sat at the bar and put bread in my jar.” Under the guise of Bill Martin, Billy Joel (Martin was his middle name) played at the Executive Room in Los Angeles for six months in 1972 to pay for his rent. It was here the iconic tune Piano Man (more like Harmonica Man) was born. The tunes signature was a first position huff and puff melodic riff on the gob iron. His inspiration (for want of a better term) came from seeing Bob Dylan using a rack. Billy blew a harp in the key of ‘C’, however because of his ageing vocal chords a ‘Bb’ is currently required.

Let’s not forget the world’s ultimate buskers the Salvation Army, whose beginnings as street performers arose by accident in Salisbury in 1882. Charles Fry and his sons offered their services as bodyguards for a Salvo street preacher who had been heckled and threatened. They blew their brass instruments to keep a rowdy crowd quiet and from there it evolved into (onward) christian soldiers saving souls by performing on street corners for the proletariat. Charles went on to be the first Salvation Army bandmaster and penned the classic Lily of the Valley. The armies founder William Booth proudly stated, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes.” Amen.

Busking has endured problems with both punters and authorities alike from time immemorial. Heckling, thieving, fines and even arrest. In this modern age new problems have arisen and that’s not mentioning pandemics! Busking has advanced (not for the better in my opinion) from acoustic to amplified and nearby shopkeepers have not been impressed. They already had issues with the same tunes being repeated over and over. Another recent dilemma for street musicians is payment in this cashless age. Not much point in having your hat out for loose change or even the folding stuff. Modern day buskers have adapted by using phone apps to receive their gratuity.

In addition City Council’s don’t make things any easier! They hold rehearsals to see if you’re worthy for a prime location permit, which is more than twice the cost of a general permit. Applications are all online and a credit card is necessary for payment of your permit. A link to a performance video is required at the time of registration and rules and regulations must be met in a formal review. Makes it difficult for a bum like me to blow the tin hole can to the passing public and earn a bit of Do Re Mi on the side. 

When I read this to my son he told me, Why don’t you twitch.” I replied, What?” (Sometimes it happens to my schnozza and the veterinarian used one on my horse). He exclaimed (with a hint of early settler intimation), “No! Twitch is a live streaming platform where you can perform from home and get paid.” There ya go.

Ch EssDawg

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