The Madwoman's Journal
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"Every work of art is an act of faith, or we wouldn't bother to do it. It is a message in a bottle, a shout in the dark. It's saying 'I'm here and I believe that you are somewhere and that you will answer if necessary across time, not necessarily in my life time.'"
-- Jeanette Winterson, attrib.

Caught a bit of a rerun of Tom Snyder tonight. The show was in New York City, and Tom went down into the subways to show us what the MUNY (Music Under New York) Project was doing. Basically, it seems to be a way for the City to control the buskers. Performers-- Performance Artists, not just musicians, call the City and schedule an audition. If their act is accepted, they're assigned a spot in the subway to perform. I don't know if they're assigned specific dates and times, or if there are limitations on the length of the engagement, or if they're given a carte blanche to set up whenever-- and no one said anything about what goes on up above, on the streets. Anyway, Tom showed us some very good performers: a jazz ensemble, a fellow who performed the macarena with a life-size, life-like, articulated doll attached to his toes, a real woman portraying a mechanical doll, and an a capella singing group. They were all very good. It made me miss living in the city.

I used to live in Boston, back in the 70's. At that time Boston was completing the renovation of their subways system, and it was pretty good job, looked clean and safe, but we were young then, and we walked whenever and wherever we could. We-- Kirk, my first love, and I-- lived over by the Fenway on Queensbury Street. From the roof of our building we could see the Citgo sign and hear the games from Fenway Park. On Saturdays, we'd walk up to Mass Ave, cross the river, and head for The Coop in Harvard Square, Cambridge, the happening place to be. On the way back sometimes we would take the T, and head over to the North End for Pizza at Regina's. After dinner we'd take the T to Copley, and walk home through Fenway Gardens. During the week, I worked over near South Station, so I'd walk to Copley, take the T (Green Line to Park, change to Red Line for South Station) to work, and I'd walk all the way home-- through Boston Gardens-- because walking was faster at rush hour. I don't ever remember seeing buskers in the subways, but there were lots on the streets, everywhere.

In those days, the 70's, busking was frowned upon. Mostly, you could get away with it, but, once a busker had attracted notice, the cops were obliged to make him "move along." It was city policy. After all, who knew what kind of trouble those hippy musicians would stir up playing so care free in the midst of all the decent, hard working folk-- distracting them from going about their decent, organized, establishment lives? Still, only the really bad ones got hassled. And, as for the good ones, it was only when the crowd got too big and blocked foot traffic that right after the set you'd hear, "Okay. Move it along, now." But the buskers always came back, good and bad.

My guess is there have been buskers ever since there have been people making art. At Lascaux Cave, for instance, you know there had to be a guy got the idea to sit outside and sell hand painted souvenir rocks to the tourists. And then, naturally, Og, the guy with the comic mime routine about the Wooly Mammoth Hunt, would decide to grab a spot nearby; then it would be Gog rapping a rhythm with his sticks and bones that would just set a person's feet to tapping-- you can see how it was. Performers and Artists must have an audience, so they go where people are. And I am glad that this is so. (That's something I have in common with author Charles de Lint. If you love artists as he does, you'll appreciate his writing. He's a musician himself, and lives in Ottawa, Canada, where they have a Busking Festival and Folk Festival every year.)

I think all of us are Artists, in our own ways, whether or not we've ever studied art or music. There's just something inside us all. In the Boston subways, there were tiled passageways at some of the stations. The sound echoed there. I remember once, on our way home late at night, when there were few other people about, Kirk and I stopped to test the acoustics-- at least that's how it started. We were neither of us musicians, but we could both whistle, and once one of us had whistled the first tentative riff, we were off, jamming-- jamming jazz whistling. Sometimes alone, sometimes answering each other, sometimes in harmony-- I don't know how it worked, but we did it, and it was great music, a joyous song that had never been heard before, and we had folk stopping to listen-- we had achieved a Happening.

Afterwards we talked about trying to repeat the experience, but, well, we were borderline then, part Establishment, and therefore, only part hippy. We had dutifully dropped out, but we were responsible about it, for crying out loud. And we couldn't comfortably reconcile the contradictions. We knew busking was frowned on, and, much as we wanted to rebel against the Establishment, we didn't want the cops-- we would never call them "pigs"-- admonishing us to "Move along." It's a shame. But that's the way we were.

Kirk looked like a real hippy, I must say, with his long blond hair, moustache and goatee, granny glasses, embroidered dashiki, and what not. And he defied The Establishment by declaring himself a writer and refusing to have a conventional job. He was probably the only licensed hippy pretzel vendor in Boston. The license fee was $25 annually. The day we went into City Hall to get it, we had to ask where the license division was located, and everyone thought we were there to get a marriage license, so they all smiled kindly at us as they directed us on our way, little suspecting that they were talking to Anti-Establishment Hippy Drop Outs, determined never to cave in on that point! Yes indeed! In fact, back in Kansas, Kirk had dropped out of college and burned his draft card, and I had dropped out of high school and refused to wear a bra. And we were Living Together.

Of course, Kirk had never been in any imminent danger of being drafted, so no one, especially the government, ever noticed. And as for me, I'd actually never worn a bra, anyway. (It was only many years later I developed the need for one.) But, we weren't going to let that stop us from being hippies. We moved in together just to show our families what we were made of, how committed we were to the New Order-- of course, we didn't usually mention the arrangement to anyone unless asked.

Saddest of all, though, we were both gainfully employed. Kirk, duly licensed vendor, reported each morning to the bakery in Brookline to collect his pretzel cart and take up his station downtown. And I, who disliked having to constantly dissuade the winos from trying to talk me out of my sterno when I worked the pretzel carts, had a secretarial job with Northern Telecom. On the weekends I filled in for Kirk when he needed a break, and defied The Establishment by hawking-- unlicensed!-- the Real Paper and Boston Phoenix on my own nearby.

We liked living in Boston. We had a good time. Kirk and I most always stopped to listen or watch the buskers. And, of course, we felt for them when the cops moved them along. We used to say we should do something about it. Not protest, of course, but we thought we might go over to the Mayor's office and propose that the city issue licenses to street performers. Obviously, we were ahead of our time-- the very vanguard of the Establishment, as it turns out. Now I'm glad we never did it.

I remember that whistling as the best music I ever made. And I have often wished I could do it again... Someday. I hope I won't need a license, though. Or an audition. And I hope that all the while I'm whistling, I've got to keep an eye peeled for the cops coming to tell me "Move it along." I'm sure the music will be the better for it.

 


Addenda:

  There's a really cool book titled Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo. The introductory message begins: "Welcome to the Zen Guitar Dojo. Please leave the door openů I have established this dojo for anyone who wants to make music. It makes no difference to me whether you're a musician. You're welcome here if you're of the spirit to make a sound." For those of you who are seeking to follow the Way, in music or in life, this is an excellent book.

This site Joys of Busking belongs to Ray Dessy, a busker who plays the recorder, baroque and blues. When you visit, make sure to check out the Recorder Home Page, and the Blues Page, too! You'll be glad you did.

Boston Busking A bit out-dated, but I was interested to learn about the licensing practices.

Couldn't find any information specifically on Music Under New York, but found this answered some questions: Subplay

If you're interested in Busking Festivals, just seach the net. There are lots of them, all over the world.

 


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