The first time I ever saw street performers was in San Francisco in what seems like a hundred years ago. They were colorful, up-beat singers and dancers who greeted us as we stepped off a trolley car. It was quite enjoyable, and worth the measly dollar I dropped in the guitar case. I suspect these were not rank amateurs. They seemed to have some class to their performance.
Since then, the concept has become an almost-anticipated phenomenon in cities small and large. The performers, called buskers, range from individuals painted in gold paint standing statue-like on a street corner to full mariachi bands and chamber groups in tuxedos and long, black dresses.
It’s clear that some of them, like the sax player who greets us every time we go to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence for a P.C. basketball game, have some professional performance background, and some are just off-key singers trying to make a buck for a bottle.
The term busker came about, it seems, in the mid-19th century in Italy, with the word buscare (to procure, gain) referring more to street beggars than anything else. It has become, however, more specifically tied to the combination of performance and seeking donations.
At first, in America, the busker was specifically tied to performances in parks and on streets. In the last few years, however, the enterprise has moved to subways, bus and train stations. This is particularly true in New York City, where the buskers have even taken to boarding subway trains, waiting for the doors to close, and then whipping out instruments and beginning to play. The key to this is the fact that the audience is trapped, unable to flee from the obligatory concert.
Some people are highly offended by the intrusion of busker performances into their lives without invitation. It may be seen as an unwelcome disturbance at a time when ambient noise is sufficient at the beginning of a busy day or after a hard day at the office. But others find it enjoyable and willingly drop coins and bills into the hands of the musicians. A friend told me that he once was greeted by a busker poet who led him and his fellow passengers through recitations of Bobby Burns’ poems for a week on his way from New York to Westchester County. That could be a long ride for a non-poetry lover. He enjoyed it, however, and said there wasn’t a repeat poem over the five days.
Civil libertarians and others object to the intrusions into their lives and press legislators for bills that will prohibit buskers. I suspect they have been successful in some places. But in other places these harmless performers are welcomed as part of the local color.
I’m okay with it until it happens on an airplane. It will then join the ranks of cranky babies.
Image Credit: GonetoNewYork.com