Street Busking

Three Musicians Busking in Chalon sur Saône, 1995

In Letchworth, the town where I grew up, there was sometimes a busker in the town centre. Maybe an organ grinder, maybe a one man band with a guitar, a kazoo, cymbals on his head and a drum on his back. In the Paris metro on visits to the French capital, sometimes a couple of musicians would jump on and stay in the train for a few stations. They would sing and strum, sometimes well, oftentimes badly.

When I started work in Covent Garden, London, I’d often see the street entertainers there. There are strict rules for street entertainment there, so the guys and girls were actually quite good. Statues that animated themselves to the chink of a coin dropping in their hat, or more adventurous acts that would occupy the sqaure in front of the old market and drum up a crowd with loud haranguing and juggling on a high unicycle or something akin to it. They’d pass around a hat afterwards and reap small reward for their efforts to brighten a spring lunchtime for passing tourists and businessmen working nearby who were grabbing a sandwich.

My abiding memory of busking was when I took to the streets with a couple of friends, two guitars and a French accordian player. Imagine the scene: the busy Sunday market in Chalon-sur-Saône on a cold wintry day. Two British guitarists, one singing mostly in English but sometimes a bit in French, and a French accordianist that we did our best to follow in renditions of classic French musette style ditties. Incredibly, the mix went down quite well. You can see that we were cold in the picture (I’m in the middle), but giving it our all to entertain the passing public. At the time – it was late ’95 or early ’96 – the Euro was still being debated, and the French Franc was the currency of the day. 10 francs was worth about a British Pound, or $1.40. We finished that day with a good number of 10F pieces, as the Sunday crowd was a generous lot.

As an occasional supplement to our income, we were happy to have made a bit of money. We were there to enjoy ourselves, and perhaps entertain, whilst making a bit of money for the next Friday night. Some other people busk regularly because they need the money – I’m thinking especially of those Paris metro buskers who are often much closer to beggars than street entertainers. Have you had any interesting busking experiences? Do you give money to buskers because they look like they need it, or because they have entertained you?

16 Responses to “Street Busking”

  1. Jerrika Says:

    Thank you for commenting on what could cause my technical problem with Google Search. I don’t know why it’s not indexed yet as I submitted my blog back when I first started it over a year ago…

    By the way little Nathan is very handsome, et si tu préfères commenter en français sur mon blog et bien il n’y a pas de problème vu que je suis une p’tite ‘bécoise!

    Ciao!

    Jerrika

  2. Simon Says:

    Hi Jerrika

    I can’t really see why your blog isn’t indexed, but maybe it will be soon. Do you have access to stats on blogspot that enable you to see if Googlebot is visiting you?

    Merci d’être passée, j’espère te revoir bientôt!

    -Fruey

  3. Aidan Says:

    A few weeks ago I was walking through London Bridge underground station, where one of the official busking spots was occupied by a really rather terrible guitarist and singer howling what just about sounded like a Robbie Williams song, though I wouldn’t like to bet on it…
    Amazingly, he seemed to have amassed a few coppers in his hat, but the person striding just ahead of mesuddenly crouched down, grabbed a handful of coins himself and waltzed off, mumbling that it was the only fair judgment on the cacophany… To give the busker a little credit, he did give a little resigned shrug of apology while carrying on crooning…
    Harsh, indeed. But fair.

  4. Simon Says:

    Aidan,

    If the coins proffered to the busker were actually given in the hope that he stop singing, the person who levied a “not good enough” tax on the busker may have found himself in contradiction. Interesting story!

    Fact is, good musicians are often hidden from view working in studios or just plain doing other jobs that pay better. Those who have nothing but music as a means to an end are those who are most exposed in street situations. I’m all for what they have done in London on some occasions – giving busking spots specifically to bands for public exposure, sponsoring them on local radio, etc. It’s enormously refreshing to be actually entertained on your perigrinations around the underground.

    -Fruey

  5. Aidan Says:

    I agree. The standard of performance around Covent Garden’s piazzas has certainly improved vastly in recent years too, I think as the licence-winning audition processes have become a little more rigorous.
    That is, once you manouevre your way through the inevitable side-street ‘attractions’ of incessant pan-pipe parpers, and very tiresome now people-pretending-to-be-statues-or-robots…
    Those are about the only classes of ‘busker’, or ‘street performer’, I tend to deny any small change, as a point of principle.
    Oh, and anyone playing a saxophone. About as offensive a weapon as any that could be brandished in your general direction…

  6. Simon Says:

    Aidan

    There were some statue/robot performers that were actually quite good actors when animated, but the idea has indeed worn out. Japanese tourists seemed to have a particular affection for them.

    A great sax player is difficult to find. Those who brandish a sax without being able to stop it squeaking might as well write “need money for beer” on a piece of card, and sell the sax for food.

    -Fruey

  7. Jeff Kozlowski Says:

    Trent,

    Thanks for your comment and I agree with the fact that writing about something that resonates with the blogging audience definitely gets far more comment posts. I just find it difficult to come up with these kind of posts on a daily basis. Wish there was a guaranteed technique to keep the bloggers interested but it sure is hit and miss.

    Thanks again

  8. april.zara Says:

    Hello! Thanks for leaving your thoughts on my site. =) I took French while I was in secondary school but I wasn’t a very good student. I didn’t have anyone to practice the language with.

    You have a really cute baby!

  9. Simon Says:

    Hi Jeff,

    It is indeed difficult – well nigh impossible – to find a post that resonates on a daily basis. Some sites do manage to do that, but usually after having built up a community. Then, the blog comments become as much of a draw as the posts themselves.

    Thanks for dropping by.

    -Fruey

  10. Simon Says:

    April,

    I enjoyed your post on Singlish. It’s a shame you didn’t get to practice your French, I think it’s a very nice language to learn and especially to speak.

    Nathan is very pleased you think he’s cute :-).

    -Fruey

  11. Anna Park Says:

    The best busker I ever saw was in the St Paul area of paris on a pretty quiet back street. he’d set up a table on castors in front of him and on the table were a good 20-30 glasses of different sizes with different amounts of water in them. He played the most beautiful tunes just by rubbing the rim of the glasses. My memories of paris are full of surreal and beautiful moments that happen just by stumbling upon them.

    on a baby note – what’s the official french line on weaning onto solids?

  12. Simon Says:

    Hi Anna

    The official French line on weaning is wait until 4 months at least, and then go gradually on to solids. Our paediatrician is suggesting we stick to milk for the moment, although it’s Nathan’s 4-month birthday today. So I’m not sure when the switch is actually supposed to happen. He’ll also switch to a different milk. Right now he’s on milk with a big “1″ on the side, and soon he’ll have milk with a big “2″ on the side…

    I’m off to St Paul and wander around looking for the glass rim tune monger.

    -Simon

  13. Fella Says:

    Hello Fruey
    I remember that day in Chalon all too well.
    I still have the blisters on my fingers to prove it (that guitar was ridiculously difficult to play with the strings about 3 miles from the fretboard) and I also seem to recollect that it was brass monkeys on that particular morning and we ended up playing with our gloves on !!
    Fella (in above photo, on the left)

  14. Simon Says:

    Fella,

    Yep it was pretty nippy out that day. I think you were indeed strumming with a gloved hand holding a plectrum and fretting with a very cold left hand. Here and there one person would take a long unaccompanied solo so the others could warm their hands. As you can see, Mathilde (the accordeon player) was taking a hand warming break in the snap…

    -Fruey

  15. Jim Druid Says:

    Hi Nick,

    Great site/blog/whatever!

    Are you the same nick who does The EuroBuskers site?
    Doesn’t matter if you’re not, you’ve got people talking about busking , which is vital.

    Keep up the good work.
    Keep the faith.

    Jim Druid

  16. Simon Says:

    Hi Jim,

    I am not associated in any way with the EuroBuskers site. I’m also not called Nick ;-). Fruey is my nick(name) online and I state that on the righthand side, I suppose you misread.

    I’m not much of a busker either, having never left the rat race really. That said, still love performing in public.

    I checked out your busking website and your own site, very interesting. Can’t be easy busking for a living, because some of the best buskers these days are pushed out by – as you say – karaoke singers and beggars who strum badly.

    -Fruey