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Artis the Spoonman with Jim Page at Ballard Farmers Market
THE BUSKING MUSICIAN
PREDICAMENTS
by Artis the Spoonman

Dear Readers: There are some aspects of busking that leave a lot to be desired. It seems like there are few vocations that leave one alone, unprotected and insecure among “strangers”. Buskers are literally “out there on their own.” Sure, the beat cops may know you, the storeowner nearby may be a supporter, or at least smile when you come in to buy a jaffle, the audience applauds with welcoming cheer, but some surprises are astonishing.

 

I was in Ireland a few years ago - 1985, playing in a west coast town – Killorglin, at their annual Puck Fair. Puck is the mythical prince of lore. The celebration honours the Faerie Prince & goats. Goats?! I wondered that too.

Back in the day (17th century), Oliver Cromwell roamed Ireland pillaging towns and villages along the way.  The word was throughout the land, but still attacks were unexpected and ruthless.  One quiet night in the little burg of Kilorglin the residents were awakened by the disturbing racket of goats traipsing through town in frantic dispatch. It didn’t take 2 bright minds to realize the goats were scattering ahead of an advancing legion of graceless thugs about to attack their lovely village.  There was little these hard working peasants could do to fend off the brigands.  Their only option was to leave town before the arrival of the merciless troops. When Cromwell’s band entered Kilorglin they found only empty buildings and a chicken or few. Consequently, they had no incentive to sack the town, so left it standing. Since that time, the citizens of Kilorglin and surrounding neighborhoods annually celebrate the goats for having saved the village and its citizens. While fleeing Cromwell’s army the goats inadvertently warned the citizens, allowing enough time for a speedy exodus.

Aside from tethering a goat to a 30’ high scaffold, and feeding and fussing over it for 2 days, this event also celebrated buskers. There was even a buskers’ competition with cash prizes. I actually won 50 quid for 2nd place. I think the guy I did a few sets with won 1st. Over the weekend, he and I played a few sets.  One time, a couple of scruffy 10-12 year-old Tinker boys came by and stopped to watch us play. They stood at the guitar case, facing us, and burst into a bit of a brawl, falling into the case, and sure enough, grabbed the money and ran.  Couldn’t do a thing about it.

Audience members aren’t the only place such shenanigans originate. Once upon a time, circa 1977, in San Francisco, along Market and Powell, I set up to play and another performer came up to me and sternly informed me that I was about to set up on his pitch. Rather territorial.

Recounting it, I remember a situation, recently, when Jim and I were taking a break, at a pitch in one of Seattle’s weekend markets. While we were hanging between sets, a couple of young fellas (preteens) set up and did an awesome show of musicianship. Guitar and fiddle (I think), they were very good. After a half hour or so (which for us is about the standard length of shared acts at a single pitch, give or take 10-15 minutes), Jim and I discussed who ought to talk to them about when they were intending to turn it over. I said I would, and did.  It was a very touchy scene. The young fellas were flummoxed. I asked how long did they intend to stay. They hadn’t been thinking of leaving, or taking a break. I pointed out to them that Jim and I were taking a break but we share pitches, as is common (well, in our mind and experiences). One of the boys’ mum was handy and joined the discussion. It ended with a taste of submission, rather than harmonious conclusion. In their eyes I’m sure it wasn’t far from the image I conveyed of the guy in San Francisco – 30+ years earlier.

I reckon there’s a fine line between territorialism and sustained sharing - maybe not. Jim and I have each always shared pitches rather than sit on it for the whole day or however many hours to insure no one else plays. Many others are of that ideology, but just as many aren’t. Some buskers take a break, and don’t allow another act to play a set for an equal period.

Then there are cops and gendarmes. I’ll do my best to remember that topic next article.

If you have queries, comments, topics to suggest, stories you might like to share, please contact me – This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .