They are the free people in society. They refuse the business suit, the MasterCard, the necktie.
They are people with faith in their own ideas, a fierce love of freedom and the basic human need of self-expression. They have to be strong to contend with the legal hassles, bad weather and drunks.
They can be found cavorting in the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt. Europe of the Middle Ages called them “jongleurs,” and the best would find themselves invited to join the royal court. In the 18th century touring groups from the continent made guest “busking” appearances on the streets of the new American republic. In the 19th century freed slaves and new immigrants joined the chorus singing for their supper. In the 1960s a thousand Dylan clones strutted and fretted their hours upon the open-air stage. As for the 1980s, well, the street performers are on our boulevards and avenues again, so it must be summer.
Patricia Campbell, herself a former street bellydancer and author of Passing the Hat: Street Performance in America (soon to be reissued by Delacorte), says, “For a while, I thought street performing was going to disappear. But the media attention to break dancing has made a big difference. People are learning what they’re supposed to do—stand, watch and put money in the hat.”
And there is another reason why nowadays city dwellers from Philadelphia to San Francisco may see two or three performers where but one mimed before—the town elders seem to be getting to like them. In 1983 Chicago abandoned a longstanding city ordinance against busking and has since issued more than 700 licenses to performers. Fifteen other cities are similarly lenient, and one, East Lansing, Mich. actively encourages the practice through new laws.
Even the courts are getting in the spirit, upholding the buskers’ right to their trade as a form of free expression. Explains Stephen Baird, a Cambridge, Mass. performer (see page 27) and the art form’s foremost scholar: “The public will screen out and ignore performers who are disruptive or obscene. They don’t need government to do it for them.”
By Baird’s estimate, the average street performer makes about $50 per sunny day, $3,000 a year at best. So if you spend a balmy half hour on your local corner enjoying any of the people in these pictures or their colleagues, remember they have to live too. And they may be as important to you as you are to them. Baird once more: “People need live performance. They’ve said the movies, radio, TV and video games would kill street performing, but they didn’t. There’s no mechanical means of entertainment that can substitute for it.”
King of the Capital’s puppet regime
When he pulls up to a street corner in Washington, D.C., people notice. Climbing out of his mother’s station wagon, Tommy Duren (left) might break into his dancing act, co-starring a life-size puppet he calls Diana Cross. Or he might haul out a big Michael Jackson look-alike or any one of about 200 other puppets he has made since he was a kid. “I was an only child and I was very lonely,” says Duren, 18, “so I’d talk to myself and play puppets. People called me Weird Tommy. But I do what I love to do and I get paid for it. Nothing weird about that.” Duren, who estimates that he has earned about $6,000 from what he calls his “popetry,” is putting the money toward college and law school, so for now he’s happy to be making bucks. There are other rewards too: “Girls call out, ‘Why dance with a puppet when you can dance with me?’ I find myself blushing a lot.”
AMERICAN DREAM JUGGLING TEAM
Sharp knives, sharper patter
Yes, the humor is different in San Francisco, and Jonathon Park, 22, and Scott Meltzer, 23 (above), know it. Jonathon, tossing around a borrowed handbag, a bowling ball and a Ping-Pong ball: “This is a difficult act to do because of the unequal weight distribution…and because the purse is an ugly color.” Juggling on unicycles and each other’s shoulders, with battle axes, torches and even a battery-powered hedge clipper, Park and Meltzer are one of the most accomplished street acts in the country. The upscale buskers met at Berkeley through a female juggler and promptly abandoned yuppie values. “I could get a job as a computer programmer,” says Scott, “but street performing is a lot more rewarding.” Still there is a down side. Says Jonathon mournfully: “It’s hard to establish good credit.”
LITTLE HOWLIN’ WOLF
In Chicago, when the subject of street performers comes up, most people are reminded, like it or not, of James Pobiega, a/k/a Little Howlin’ Wolf (right). That’s not because Little is such a great saxophonist…he is just, well, original. Rain or shine, the 34-year-old is there on the Michigan Avenue Bridge, playing what some take to be unidentifiable shrieks but what he maintains is “music in every language…. You’re not dealing with someone who pretends he is prep school jazz, man,” he warns needlessly. “I don’t play Oh, My Darlin’ and that kind of stuff, because I’m not into it.” The self-described composer of 5,000 songs, former drug addict, former White Panther, road master of the Hell’s Angels and psychic consultant to Ron and Nancy Reagan (that’s what he says) has been playing for 17 years. He makes only about $50 a day, but a passerby once reportedly offered him $50—if he would just kindly jump off the bridge.
Hot stuff comes back
The tux may be painted on, but the flame is real: Fire-eating, once relegated to carnies, is one of the hottest street acts. Peter Sosna was courting heartburn at the Street Performers’ Celebration near Boston last month.
“I’m a one-woman band, no one knows or understands…” goes a Roger Daltrey song as adapted by Maya Fink. Well that’s not exactly true. There was the understanding trucker who saw the “Support the Arts—Kiss a Musician” sticker on Maya’s antique bass drum, jumped out of his rig and pecked her on the cheek. And the bus driver who halted his bus, debarked, listened to a song and applauded before rejoining his furious passengers. But no one can really identify with Maya, since the Swedish 23 year old with the foot-pedal drum, double kazoo, guitar and tambourine is, as far as the experts know, the only one-woman street band in the world. She brought her 120-song repertoire (“folksy, rocky with a little bit of jazz”) to San Francisco when her parents moved there in 1984. “I was shy before I began playing in public,” she says, but now she braves winos and bag people and even soothes the savage commuter for a mere $20 a day. Who cares about money? “I’m my own boss,” she says between spirited renditions of I’ve Just Seen a Face, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Blue Suede Shoes. “People are busy, tired from work, and the weather is gray. I like to make them wake up and relax.”
Father of them all
His instrument is a beat-up conglomeration of 18 pots, pans and cowbells. But when Robert Young, 85, strikes up a tune (right), it’s music to Philadelphia ears. Washboard Slim began back in Texas, where his father bought him “a whole beautiful room of instruments, a slide trombone, drums…,” and perfected his art playing washboard in pickup bands. Now his stage is a stoop, and despite arthritis and two strokes, he still plays When the Saints Go Marchin’ In loud and clear. “There ain’t nothin’ to it,” says Slim. “This will be around as long as there are washboards, even if I ain’t.”
The head of the glass
Ben Franklin created a pedal-operated musical glass machine, and Mozart and Richard Strauss wrote scores for the glass harmonica. Now Philadelphian Jim Turner, 45, plays water-filled stemware for overflow crowds around the country, and he’s also done Vivaldi on glasses with major orchestras. “Joy is my keynote,” he says. Turner, a Ph.D. candidate in humanities at Rutgers, is now developing his “bass section”—huge brandy snifters. Oh, yes—the Ben Franklin above is really Ralph Archbold, who has been doing his part in theaters and on the streets for 12 years and stopped to watch Turner’s act.
Most Harvard grads favor a subtler wardrobe, but the favorite outfit of Hugh Morgan Hill, also called “Brother Blue,” is colored rags, jester’s accessories, balloons and, at times, heavy chains. “I’m God’s clown,” he says. “I’m every circus you missed, every fair you didn’t see.” He’s a storyteller, plying his trade on the streets of Boston and Cambridge when not lecturing in costume on assorted topics at local schools and universities. “I was the only child in my family who could read,” says the 50ish Blue, “so I told a lot of stories to the rest.” After that he went to Harvard, Yale (for his master’s) and Union (for his Ph.D.). He has been storytelling in the streets since 1966, and his marathons are legendary: He once spoke for 72 hours straight and acted out King Lear in the snow. “Performing in the streets is a sacred calling,” says Blue. “You don’t know why you do it.” Says his wife, Harvard oral history scholar Ruth Hill: “He’s either brave or crazy or both.”
DOBY AND COOK
Give a breaker a break
Break dancing may be old hat by now, but during the Los Angeles Olympics last summer, Rex C. Doby (airborne) and John Cook, both 24, found a new audience for themselves in it. “We made about $600 a day,” says Cook, “but some of it was in foreign currency.” Now they average $200 per diem, but they still spend most of their weekends perfecting routines for a shot at the big time. So far they have appeared on TV’s Soul Train and Solid Gold, breakin’ away. Their most popular act: a slo-mo version of a baseball game. Just in case, the dipsy duo has a backup profession: woodcrafting.
The buskers’ dean
“There was a blind man named Ernie Saunders, with a white dog named Ladybug, who played guitar and sang the blues in downtown Boston,” remembers Stephen Baird. “There weren’t many performers on the streets at that time, and I was enthralled.” Within two years Baird, by then 18, was on the streets himself: singing, playing various instruments, telling jokes and manipulating puppets. He is still at it today, but at 37, he is probably best known as the busker’s foremost historian and promoter—he dreamed up and runs the annual Street Performers’ Celebration on the Cambridge Common. “There’s a tradition of famous performers,” Baird says, “Eubie Blake, Bessie Smith, George Burns, James Taylor, to name a few, who began plying their creativity on the streets.” But none has honored his roots—or his audience—as fondly as the man street players now call “the Dean.” Good show.