Buskers: Modern Day American Bards

A busker playing the fiddle in the streets of Asheville

Photograph by Derek Olson

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Three men, positioned on a stage made of nothing more than the sidewalk in front of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe on Asheville’s Haywood Street, each wielding a different stringed instrument, play the streets of Asheville, North Carolina for their audience.

The guitar seeps a slow, pulsing sound, gypsy in it’s rhythm, comforting in it’s familiarity. The gentleman strumming along is wearing a top hat, sports a handlebar mustache, and slightly dirty, sepia toned garb seemingly ordered right out of a 1920s Sears catalog. To his right the pluck of a mandolin runs Huckleberry Fin circles around the the slowly gathering crowd, those denizens of the city with long lunch breaks or passersby of the more tourist persuasion taking their precious extra time for this seemingly impromptu down on the corner style serenade. The fiddle just then breaks in, it’s high and piercing sound rivaling downtown’s skyscrapers for top position as it’s player, an older gentleman with a massive white beard and tie dyed bandana holding back his hair, uses the instrument like a singer does her vocal chords; stealing the scene from his fellow buskers and moving the crowd through the various emotions of the song, which on a gorgeous blue bird of a day like today, are all encouragement and happy go luckiness. Like a top with a Red Bull kick, the song winds up to a peak of spinningly dizzying rivalry between the three instruments and then they all converge for one last go ’round before the sounds slows to nothing and the last few plucks of the mandolin fade out behind the long notes of it’s fellows.

The crowd claps. Some of them walk away, back to focus on whatever tasks were there before stumbling upon the performance. A few drop some change, a dollar or two, maybe a five from the overly enthusiastic, slightly more inebriated members of the audience. A woman offers six inches of a foot long Subway sandwich to the band, who politely accept. The fiddler peaks under the paper wrapped around their take and looks up in approval at his guitar player.

These three fellows are musicians. They’re playing for money, and yes, the hat in front of them and their garb places them not inconspicuously in the same realm as beggars. But it is a significantly different thing to perform a task in hopes of being paid for that task, and just asking someone if they have any spare change. In fact, busking is one of the oldest trades practiced consistently throughout the centuries, historically dating back to the 5th century BC. While equally venerable positions such as carpentry and blacksmithing have all but disappeared in our modern day America—where most occupations now involve working behind a computer or serving food to those on their lunch break from working behind a computer—buskers have been setting up on street corners since before Jesus walked the Earth, and will likely be doing it long after we’ve replaced the Internet with whatever next big thing comes along to change the world.

In fact, though at times chastised by folks in business suits and government officials alike, buskers can often make more money an hour than the very passersby looking (or not looking) them in the eye with disgust. From those I was fortunate enough to meet and interview, some claimed to make as much as $15 an hour, double the current federal minimum wage. Not to paint them as America’s next middle class, of course, though not everyone would share that opinion. Others talked about how the reward of being able to play in public was almost worth the $2 / hour wage they typically brought in. As with any true pursuit of capitalism, talent and hard work, along with the luck of some generous tippers, might just be the true difference between being a “professional” busker, and just another guy singing out of tune to a beat up guitar on the corner closest to you.

While in many of today’s biggest busking venues—Portland, Austin, San Francisco, New York City, and Asheville amongst them—your typical street performer will be of the musical variety, this is in no way the definitive act of the profession. Flame throwers, poets, jugglers and perhaps even sidewalk evangelists alike share the title. Circus acts, though they typically require a larger space and therefore oftentimes a permit, can be some of the most enjoyable and fully produced street acts. Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté began his career swallowing fire and playing the accordion before receiving a grant from the Canadian government and turning his sidewalk productions into a $2.5 billion dollar affair.

Some 700 miles away in New York’s Central Park, some mythical god has apparently landed on Earth with the sole desire to enlighten the city’s passersby. Resonating violin strings reverberate perfectly through the towering columns, marble tile and a massive archway which play stage to S.K. Thoth’s performance, himself ambiguously human; dark skinned but with features that betray no obvious race, dripping in black robes that fall just above his knees, a tangle of dreadlocks climbing ever toward the ceiling. Then he begins to sing, first as deep as a thunderstorm’s rumblings heard between mountain peaks and then as high as the snow caps on the peaks themselves. Each voice—one, then two, and finally a third eerily midrange, like a goblin with reverb—sound as though a different person is speaking from behind his tongue each time. The language is unrecognizable to anyone listening, and that’s because Thoth invented it himself.

The surrounding crowd ranges from relaxed and situated for the long haul to utterly confused as to what they’re witnessing. Thoth is performing what he calls a solopera, a one man show where he plays every part, singing, dancing out percussion with bells attached to his boots, and finessing the violin the whole thing into a souffle of enchantment. He calls it prayforming, and S.K. Thoth is more than just a street performer, he’s a way of life. Even if he’s the only one subscribing to it.

S.K. Thoth prayforming with his violin
Photograph by Dan Rubin, NYC

“I’m not going to be a necrophiliac anymore. If not me, who else is going to play my heart.” Thoth is referring to his progression from doing covers of classical pieces in the early days of his busking career, before he became the focal point of an Oscar-winning documentary on exactly what it is he does, to his current incarnation as a world traveling performer of his own epic creations.

“Before busking, I was a scooter messenger; and before that, a waiter with ten years experience. I was sick of working for other people. I began to realize that busking would be a better, more honest way of making money, than being humiliated by unintelligent bosses and restaurant managers.”

Thoth is truly an entrepreneur in the grandest sense. He has carved his own way of life out of a world that seems to want for so many of us to take whatever statue of living falls into our laps.

“I never thought of it as an avenue to get into more traditional venues,” he says of his art, “but as a viable creative path towards fully individuating.”

Those onlookers who are bewildered by him are not to be instantly chastised, however. He is an intimidating looking fellow. Not exactly a spring chicken, Thoth is more fit in his sixth decade than most college football players. His clothing, his hairdo, the very look on his face as he performs, it all screams “abnormal”, and as members of the human race, we’ve all been taught to fear what we don’t understand. But he doesn’t seem to be doing it all for spectacle. Instead, once you get past the differences between his garb and your average Joe’s, there’s still the unrepentant reality that Thoth doesn’t live within the same reality that we do. Or at least, if he does, he has learned to live within it in a way much closer to what the truth is: we’re on this world to find our path, and make our own way.

His solopera is a tale of a hermaphrodite god named Nular-In, and if the story itself is a journey he performs regularly, then the voyage to that journey and the years since could only be considered an odyssey.

“In my early years, busking was all about finding my voice. I did covers of great classical pieces, all the while experimenting with my own music.” In a previous life he was also a scooter messenger, and the proverbial waiter on a 10 year path to lifelong servitude in the food industry. “When I realized people were more interested in my music than the classical pieces, I stopped playing dead composers…” and from there began to form The HERMA: The Life and Land of Nular-In. Yes, it sounds hokey, and it’s easy to dismiss Thoth as more than a little insane, another transient loner who just couldn’t fit in. In that vein, he shares the company of the American Pilgrims, Einstein and Jesus, of course. A filmmaker found him and produced a documentary all things “Thoth”. An Academy Award followed, and from a simple street musician living with his mother after losing his apartment to dot-com bubble inflation, he was thrust into the limelight shared by movie stars and big Hollywood directors.

young men and a girl dressed in somewhat rag tag clothing, playing instruments on the sidewalk with a guitar case in front of them to collect tips
Buskers on Haywood Street in Asheville, North Carolina

“Around the time of the Academy Awards, I was in full inventive flight having just finished my three act solopera. Fully confident in my complex and powerful voice, I evolved a new, very physical method of playing the violin to accompany my voice. Right after the Academy Awards, the experience of the celebrities at the event taught me that they were not as energetic as the media projected, in fact less energetic than many homeless people I knew. This observation, shall I call it an epiphany, made me realize that a much bigger accomplishment was at stake — the death dance, to die while prayforming.”

Prayforming is what Thoth calls his performances. They’re something more than just an act, something spiritual. Whether an audience sees it this way or not, the very act of attempting to convey meaning through art and reflection is what’s been driving nearly every personal religious quest since the dawning of man.

“When I look back at my life,” he continues, “I feel immensely satisfied and fortunate: I am a conscious, fully activated, creative being. What more can I ask?”

In the years since becoming a star, or as another busker referred to him, “Legendary, in certain circles,” Thoth and his protege Lila’Angelique—a lifelong musician born in New York City and raised in Nashville who looks like an angel from a Tim Burton / Mother Goose collaboration—have been traveling the world, most recently on a tour of Europe.

“Traveling shows me this truth the most. I have a perspective on life because of my work that allows me to see many of the lies and illusions people in general are embroiled in. Stopping was never an option, and no, I have never thought of dropping it all. Nothing moves, renews and satisfies my need to transmute and neutralize energy as much as prayforming. Why drop the truth?”

When asked about Lila’Angelique and other performers he plays with, Thoth is blatant in his view of his contemporaries, “I am a rugged individualist in the ancient tradition. I don’t belong to any societies. I have yet to encounter any society that fully embraces all that I am. People who perform with me have to be willing to make music in the moment and reveal their entire hearts; know when not to play too. I am not interested in technicians and egoists.”

In general, though, Thoth comes across as a humble man, not the delusional eccentric one might expect from a man who wears a loin cloth and spends much of his time in the role of an alien god.

“At present, I have a partner who is my protege. Although as devoted as ever, I am now a mentor and involved in another’s creative growth. In addition, physical difficulties forced me to reinvent myself; it is either I re-invent or succumb, and I will never put down my sword and shield.”

In his early days, before any Oscars or money for traveling or fame were fortunate enough to ride on his coattails, Thoth was not suffering from a lack of having to pay his dues, of being victim to the same problems with police enforcing non-existent rules or the public eye condescending to him as though he were a beggar.

“Success as a street performer or public performer requires a gargantuan amount of self-discipline and dedication. This is not the path of a slacker, as most might think, but of a person driven to self-realization. Like no other profession, one has complete control of one’s expression and business. Lack of self-discipline both creatively and financially undermines all potential artists. Few if any of the popular artists would have continued doing what they do had not the luck of fame supported them.”

Still, he doesn’t deny the connection between beggars and buskers made by many.

“The stigma of buskers as beggars exists because many buskers act like beggars. I on the other hand, unlike beggars who consider themselves powerless, know that I am powerful. That confidence gives me the responsibility to gift all my power to all and everyone as a public service. Unlike most who gain power and model greediness and excess (as we see daily both in politics and business), I do the opposite. I model altruism, compassion, neutrality and humility, not wielding my power for gain or subjugating others to my will, but to move and inspire others. Thus I am always grateful for any and all tips given from those who recognize what I am doing.”

Far from begging, street performing has, for centuries, been a viable means of earning income and still can be today. Not just for those who find some type of fame cast around them, either. For Janssen Kuhn—who sometimes uses the stage name Artemas Rex, as though his given name was somehow not naturally star-sounding from birth—busking has been a way of making a living for ten years.

“I started busking when I was about six years old,” Janssen looks young, more like what most people might associate a busker should: a tweed jacket and matching fedora, playing fiddle in the streets of Portland. “My dad took my older brother and I to the Saturday Market where we scratched away on our fiddles. We always ended up with enough cash to pick out whatever Legos we wanted, which provided some early conditioning regarding the rewards of busking. It became a profession for me when I was 18 and dropped out of college in order to focus on being a musician. I often saw a street fiddler around town and he seemed to be doing okay, so I dusted off my old fiddle, remembered some tunes, and went out and played them. I started off with half an hour of music I would repeat over and over. But I made dollars. Enough that I could afford to share my first apartment with a friend, even if I did eat his peanut butter from time to time.”

In a world where the infamous “So what do you do?” question rarely returns the answer “What I went to college for”, you’d think exchanging decades worth of school loan payments in exchange for pursuing a career that made you happy would be viewed as brilliantly respectable. Janssen isn’t looking to make a career out of busking, though. He wants to perfect his skills on his path to playing more traditional venues.

“It’s actually my goal to become a celebrated concert violinist, which is a fairly lofty ambition for a strolling fiddler. After about 10 years of being a busker I’ve grown a little weary of the job, and very much want to play in proper venues. It’s not exposure so much that’ll get me there, but becoming an excellent musician. Which is why I spend many more hours practicing at home than I do out busking.”

More like a craftsman perfecting his trade than a hopeful American Idol contestant crossing their fingers, Janssen sees hard work—not the luck of being “found”—as his ticket to furthering his career.

Becoming successful in business regards, however, is only one of the perks of being a fiddle-wielding street entrepreneur. While health insurance and a 401k might not be on the table, Janssen has gotten in plenty of vacation time.

“Busking is the ultimate traveler’s trade. One can go anywhere in the world, as long as it’s populated. I’ve driven around the country, hitch-hiked from town to town, and flew to Japan for a few months on a lark with a fellow busker.” Originally from Portland, Janssen is one of the city’s few true originals—not a transplant hitching on to the city’s recently found fame as a mecca for all things liberal and left—he’s of the indigenous population who can afford the luxury of not idolizing a place, but seeing it for what it is and was. All of which trajected him quickly out of Oregon and around the country, staying in hostels and filling the spaces above city pavement with the sounds of his music.

“Any seasoned traveler knows about that magic of travel, which is enhanced when one is a busker. It is so easy to meet people when I’m playing out the street, and it’s not uncommon to be invited over. Needless to say there have been some unpleasant situations, but I’ve fortunately never been made to do anything I didn’t want to!”

His travels have brought him back to Portland for now, and though he claims Portland isn’t a great place for busking in general, mostly due to competition, some of his transplanted colleagues seem to disagree.

Janssen Kuhn wearing a blue & white striped shirt, vest and playing his fiddle in downtown Portland.
Janssen Kuhn, downtown Portland.
Photograph by Jessica S. McGrath

The city hosts a yearly busking festival, known as the Big Busk, a self-proclaimed “tongue-in-cheek celebration of defiance” and a loose knit organization known as PDXBusk.org which looks to work with city officials and planning boards on keeping buskers in the streets. Portland even has an official policy, the “Street Musician Partnership of Portland”, which outlines what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to busking, not only detailing how spaced out one busker should be from the next, how long they can stay in a particular area before giving someone else a chance, and exactly how loud they can be without officially causing a noise disturbance, but also how business owners and police should interact with street performers as well. Written in 1994, it’s a pretty progressive document considering many cities forbid street performing at all. Halley Weaver, a Washington state transplant, lifelong traveler, and named for the comet that was passing over the year she was born, created PDXBusk.org when she first learned about the Street Musician Partnership, and with the help of other supporters and volunteers, has been working toward uniting street performers to ensure they have a place in the future planning of the city’s streets.

Before I started digging around,” says Halley, “I had been seeing buskers all over the place and had just assumed it was a free-for-all. So, I realized that there might be a place for resources and advocates to take the time to show up at town meetings and stand up for the street musicians and ‘rally the troops’ when needed.”

And it’s clearly working. Any ten minute stroll through downtown Portland or up the trendy Hawthorne Boulevard will have you passing by at least half a dozen musicians, jugglers or miniature circuses.

Halley Weaver playing her harp
Halley Weaver, founder of PDXBusk.org, playing her harp

Meanwhile halfway around the world, guitar in his lap and outside of a Salvation Army in Winchester—a town maybe an hour’s drive from the outskirts of London, England—Marvin B. Naylor is the reverse image of a typical busking career. A working musician all of his life—from being courted by EMI and a record deal in the 1980s to playing in a variety of bands around the world right up until his hearing couldn’t tolerate loud gigs anymore—you might say he’s “retired” into busking. At £10 an hour, it beats being a greeter at Wal-Mart.

“My end goal is to make enough money just to stay alive!” he exclaims. Marvin is English-born, Canadian-bred, and now back in the UK. He admits, “the whole ‘making it big/fame’ thing is what you think about when you’re in your 20s, which is a long time ago for me.”

He keeps up a blog, a personal diary of his life as a busker. As of this writing, he’s been logging his daily adventures in street performing for 209 days. The stories play out similarly every day, in that after a brisk walk through English weather to whatever chunk of sidewalk he decides will be his day’s stage, he plays about an hour and a half’s worth of Chet Atkin covers, some Ragtime or Spanish guitar tunes, and simultaneously enjoys a local crowd of “regulars”, as he calls them, and locals with enough alcohol in them to fuel their desires to join him, in key or otherwise, as though he’s looking to be the next conductor of the Winchester Drunken Street Orchestra.

A woman, wrinkled and gray enough to seem to place her in her 70s, walks up to him. He recognizes her from around town; being a man who spends large amounts of time playing a guitar on the streets, people watching becomes a natural side effect of the job.

“I’m really worried about my son,” she says, not having seen him for some time.

“Where is he?” Marvin inquires.

“I don’t know,” she replies, shaking her head and obviously quite distressed. She walks off and Marvin looks as though he feels genuinely sorry for her.

“If there’s one typical thing, it’s that you can never predict who’s going to come up and what they’re going to come out with.”

Like Portland, there is a local Busker’s Code here, and it states that any given street performer shouldn’t play a particular spot for more than an hour. “….although most, including myself,” Marvin admits, “often play for much longer.”

The rule is intended to keep buskers trading off, to be fair if someone else wants a spot, and maybe to help keep the more annoying acts from driving any particular shop owners crazy for hours at a time. There doesn’t seem to be too much trouble with anyone pushing the limits though, and Marvin’s not the only busker I spoke with who said there’s a general acceptance among one another that when it’s time to move on, someone else is welcome to have their turn. Still, that’s not to say that there isn’t a competitive spirit to it all. These are, after all, business people.

“I’m not a ‘turf warrior’, as I heard someone call it once,” he pauses. “though I once had a word with some kid who set up a music stand and started his scales, blowing on his saxophone just across the road from where I was. It’s no good if other buskers set up too close together.

“The most common problem I have is other buskers being too loud, such as saxophonists with backing tracks or groups of two or more with amplifiers, especially those with acoustic instruments who don’t need any amplification. When these people set up, no one can play anywhere else down the street!”

When it’s not competition from his fellow street performers, regulations—particularly keeping up with them from one town to the next—can be the difference between making an honest buck (or quid, in Marvin’s case), and moving on down the line.

“You have to get a permit for some towns. In London, to busk on the Underground you have to audition!” As though there is an official bureaucrat sitting somewhere in London’s city hall with taste so impeccable he can assure a particular busker is top notch enough to not annoy the public at large.

Sign reading: No Busking Offending Persons could be liable to prosecution
Sign on Tottenham Court Road, London, U.K.

“And get a police check…like what people have to do if they want to work with children! I busked on the Hungerford footbridge, near the Houses of Parliament, and after two hours was kicked off by a cop, as I didn’t have a permit.”

“These days, many people appreciate buskers…who they think are doing a good job of entertaining people. I think there is much less of a stigma, if you like, attached to it now.” This was a sentiment I heard from nearly every busker out there, though always followed with a story similar to Marvin’s.

“I do sometimes get people coming up and giving me sandwiches and cups of coffee—even though I’m very well presented—because I’ve got a bucket in front of me, they think I’m homeless!” Marvin is dressed nearly to the nines in a black overcoat, black trousers and a shinier shoes than most executives walking down the street. It would be hard to confuse him for homeless, given an actual good look at him.

An old Volvo station wagon sits somewhere still full of what must be Polaroid style memories of Nick Rahn and Danielle Lovier, a pair of 22 year olds collectively known as Olive Juice. Two friends from college—one armed with a ukulele, the other slinging an upright bass, as though they’d consciously chosen the Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger of stringed instruments—began busking together in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square before embarking in the Volvo on a summerlong cross country tour from sea to shining North American sea to try their four hands living two of the great American dreams: the Westward roadtrip and making something of your own out of what you were given by nature. Couchsurfing Montreal to Chicago, Denver to Portland, San Francisco to New Orleans, playing their music for tips and any available ears, the two finally settled in Brooklyn where they can be found encircled by the city’s hipsters, children and crowds of all shapes, sizes and colors.

Unlike their counterparts Thoth, Kuhn and Naylor, they also work day jobs.

“Busking is more of a supplement for us. This summer we were doing it full time, and it sufficiently funded the tour and then some. Although we did eat a lot of meals off the dollar menu.”

Touring the continent or playing New York’s subway, as a fulltime gig or something to do to bring in a little extra cash on top of a paycheck, the two seem fit for the role. They don’t look particularly unusual—sheet music written in a Composition Notebook and their backpacks alongside them, standing in front of a small patch of snow in Union Square, Nick’s wearing a blue hoodie and jeans, Danielle skinny jeans and boots—and if the need were to arise, assuming Nick could hide his massive standup bass, they could immediately disappear into any given crowd on just about any street in America. That said, they’re not exactly strangers to the notion that busking and begging are not two different things in the minds of much of their potential public.

“It is definitely hit or miss for us. There is a real science to it, and we are still learning what works and what doesn’t.”

Olive Juice Band members Nick Rahn, with his standup base, and Danielle Lovier, holding her ukulele
Nick Rahn & Danielle Lovier of Olive Juice

Over and over again I hear this same notion, and I’m no stranger to it in my personal life. I’ve more than once heard the opinion that “at least they’re doing something”, meaning that playing an instrument in hopes of a tip is only a shortly placed rung away from holding out a coffee cup and asking for a handout. Try and remember that the next time you see a kid selling lemonade in your neighborhood, they might just be preparing themselves for a life of expecting compensation in exchange for providing a service.

“We actually prefer to play outside in a park on a nice day,” says Nick. Danielle continues, “We look for places that are quiet and nice, but also very busy especially if there are a lot of young children.”

She goes on to discuss the begging perception in more detail, “It really depends on where you are and still everyone has different opinions. Some people see us as vagrants and beggars, while others see us as a joyful addition to their walk home. There have been quite a few situations where people have called the police to have us removed, and the police arrive and allow us to continue.

“The laws for buskers are pretty funny a lot of the time. For example you can’t play inside Union Square Park, but you can play around the perimeter. In the subways you are supposed to have a MUNY permit, but we have never seen it enforced.” MUNY stands for Music Under New York, a program run by New York’s transportation authority in an attempt to make public transit more attractive to residents. On the other hand, “There are probably quite a few anti-busking laws in this city that the authorities don’t enforce.” Nick tells me, “Our rule is, as long as we are not bothering anyone we are probably ok.”

Perhaps in a city where a good chunk of Americans’ pensions disappeared into Wall Street pockets, the idea of a couple of young adults trying to make an honest living isn’t exactly cause to call in SWAT.

Either way, none of it seems to phase them much. They’re currently planning a similar tour again for next summer, this time across Europe.

All in all, buskers are everyday people of every day’s variety. Yes, some are banging on a coffee can, hoping to ride the train of “at least they’re doing something.” But everyone above has been able to, at least at some point in their careers, make a living at it as their sole profession. Some are seeking spiritual enlightenment through music, others just trying to accompany the sound of children playing in a park.

Some use busking as a means to perfect their skills on their way to bigger and better things for themselves, others as a way to wind down a successful career on stages and concert halls across the world as they grow gracefully into old age. None of them, though, are looking to take the easy way out.

Ask anyone who can’t depend on a paycheck coming in every two weeks how difficult it is to be completely dependent on your own hard work and determination to keep their stomachs full and their heads dry at night. You won’t hear any stories of buskers who swindled away their employees’ retirement funds or sold someone a house they couldn’t afford and then reaped the rewards of a foreclosure. What you might hear though, is the immense satisfaction in their voices that only comes from doing something you love and being able to say you’re making your own way in this world. My personal favorite reply I’d heard from anyone, to any question, was when I asked Portland’s fiddling street performer Janssen Kuhn if he had a day job to supplement the tips he received in exchange for his music.

“Hell no.” end of article

Photograph by Derek Olson