Mudcat Café Message Lyrics & Knowledge Personal Pages Record Shop Auction Links Radio & Media Kids Membership Help
The Mudcat Cafeawe

User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
kirstenanderberg Interviews With Professional Buskers (5) Interviews With Professional Buskers 11 Aug 05

I Wish Everyone Passed The Hat For Their Pay
By Kirsten Anderberg (

Street performing (or busking) is one of the most radical economic and arts systems I have seen. It is always walking on outlaw status, it is underground culture (you cannot get it on TV), and honestly, it takes a very bizarre character to stick to the streets long enough to become a professional level busker. Certainly there is no viable academic route to actually working the streets, you cannot learn how to work a crowd via reading or study alone. One of the most genius buskers I know, Steve Clark, has a song about being a professional busker. He says, well, if he did not end up making any money from busking, he at least got to play music all day! Another one of my busking mentors, P.K.Dwyer, one of Seattle's first street performers, has a song called "Alms," about street performing. It says, "You say, you can't accept charity, you say, you wouldn't get caught doing that, But I wish when everybody's day of work was done, we all collected our pay by having to pass the hat." I am with P.K. on that one. For this article, I interviewed buskers about their lives, and what makes them do the crazy shit they do.

Artis, the Spoonman, used to do a lovely performance piece on why he is a busker. He recited a long list of good reasons to busk versus playing inside. He listed no age limits, no minimum drinks, no cover charge, fresh air, etc. He said you get to watch the show first, then decide what you want to pay for it, a bold move most music venues would never risk. Andrew Pulkrabek, a 20 year old veteran busker in Seattle, said the reason he chose the street venue was "the street doesn't hire you, and you don't have to publicize, or hawk fancy press kits, to market yourself to it. Street performing places you on a neutral ground where only your show and abilities as a performer count….Although knowledge of the joy I've brought to my audiences will last long after I stop busking, local notoriety has been the most immediately appreciable side benefit of being a young street performer. Nothing impresses a date more than to have a complete stranger come up to me at a bus stop, and say, "You're the bed of nails guy, right? I love your show, dude!"

Tom Noddy, a street performer from old, said the reason he began busking was, "I was broke, I was on the road, living on the streets and sleeping in the bushes. I wrote my puppet plays and was offered no other venue." (Tom later ended up on the Tonight Show, via his humble street beginnings, and now tours internationally doing bubble magic, making square bubbles, etc.) Tom said one of the benefits he has gotten from busking is "friends." He also added, "They didn't come looking for me. I just happened to them when they passed by. They went on with their lives and maybe never consciously remembered me. But we shared something, those strangers and me."

When asked where buskers began, the answers varied from the Boulder Mall, to Berkeley, to Los Angeles, to NYC, to Seattle. When asked what a good place to busk represents, Tom Noddy answered, "For me "the best" meant that I would meet people. Hitchhiking was a lonely life and when I hit a town and found a spot where I wasn't hassled, I could pull off a show and talk to people afterwards. I never made good money at it, but I never needed much money. I had dropped out of college and so I naturally made my way to college towns and often performed on college campuses. I made friends, got high, met lovers, argued politics, was invited to dinners, and places to crash. Sometimes I found rides to my next destination."

When asked about the best street act they've seen, Andrew answered, "My favorite Northwest performer is Leif Olsen - he's hilarious, talented, and has a bag of one-liners that has amazed me for years. The best act I've seen outside of the Northwest was probably a French Canadian stunt cyclist in Montreal - though myself and a good part of his audience couldn't understand a word of his show, his language-transcending charisma and personality kept us riveted for at least half an hour." Tom Noddy said, "Tommy Roberts. An animated old man in an overcoat and wool cap who carried puppets around in two large grocery bags with handles. He walked into busy areas and set up his quiet little show with no stage. He charmed and entertained people with his puppets and poetry and asked only enough money to feed the puppets a little saw dust. Then he wandered off looking for all the world like a wino." When asked about the worst street acts, Tom responded, "There was a guy who sat on the sidewalks with a ventriloquist dummy and no skill at all with the art. He barked bad jokes and insults at passersby. He became a regular and people learned to cross the street to avoid him. I just loved that act."

When asked if they would want their kids to be professional buskers, Andrew responded, "I think the lessons of independence that being a street performer has taught me are valuable enough that I would want my children to experience them too, but I would not advocate the life of a professional street performer to them. It's a life which ages people quickly, and I've encountered more than a few weary veterans with nothing more tangible to show for their life's work than the school buses they live in. On the other hand, these veteran performers love what they do and don't seem like they'd be happy doing anything else, which gives me a high level of respect for them that I could not concede to anyone else." Tom says, "I have no kids but sure, yeah, you bet. Reaching out to strangers with your art is one of the higher callings. It's underappreciated in a way that is good for the soul of the person who answers the calling. That doesn't mean its an easy life, just the opposite." Tom added, "Let me also add that my pursuit of my place in the grander scheme led me to a form of performance that led me off of the streets. I love what I do and I hope that I'm as willing to follow life turns when they present themselves in the future. I stay connected to street performing but I have not been a regular street performer for a long time now."

When asked if he is proud of being a busker, Andrew replied, "Although I've been purveying lowbrow humor and inflicting pain on myself for years to entertain others, I am still proud of being a street performer. Much of this comes from the feeling that I'm doing my part to continue our age-old tradition, but at the end of a day of performing it comes from nothing more than knowing that somewhere I have made another person's day just a little more fun."

Post to this Thread -

Back to the Main Forum Page

By clicking on the User Name, you will requery the forum for that user. You will see everything that he or she has posted with that Mudcat name.

By clicking on the Thread Name, you will be sent to the Forum on that thread as if you selected it from the main Mudcat Forum page.

By clicking on the Subject, you will also go to the thread as if you selected it from the original Forum page, but also go directly to that particular message.

By clicking on the Date (Posted), you will dig out every message posted that day.

Try it all, you will see.