Jun 07, 2016 832

From the Streets to the Spotlights

They are ubiquitous in every major city: some play music, others tell jokes, still others do both (and more) in a single act. Whether performing magic tricks or pretending to be a bush and startling pedestrians (cheers to you, Bushman!), street performers, or buskers, populate subway stations and street corners all around the world.

Derived from the Spanish word buscar, meaning “to seek”, busking is an art form in and of itself, with performance only part of the equation -- the location (or “pitch”), the way they collect money (do they use a “bottler” to walk around and collect money?), and the nature of the act (are they putting on a circle show? Are they a walk-by act?) can make the difference between making pocket change or laughing all the way to the bank.

There have been laws governing street performance as long as it has existed: the first recorded legislation came from Ancient Rome in 462 BC, where the Law of the Twelve Tables made it illegal for performers to sing about or parody government officials in public places, under penalty of death. It’s not unusual for modern street performers to have tenuous relationships with law enforcement, but many cities have legislation that tolerates, if not encourages, street performance. And fortunately for the performers, punishment is much less severe than in Roman times!

Some cities have an especially rich history of street performance – South Africa is famed for its township jam sessions (and two Cape Town musicians recently parlayed a performance of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” into viral success). Dream-seekers from all over the world seek their shot at fame in Los Angeles, and many of them can be found performing on Hollywood streets, at Venice Beach, or at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, hoping that they catch their big break when the right person walks by.

Fortunately for music fans, numerous prominent musicians were discovered and honed their talent playing on the street. Tracy Chapman regularly performed in Boston’s Harvard Square, where a fellow student and classmate, whose father ran a record label, became a fan. Riley King played the blues for change on Mississippi streets, acquiring the nickname “Blues Boy”, or BB, after a move to Memphis that launched his long, fruitful career. Rod Stewart, who has sold over 100 million records worldwide, travelled around Europe playing street corners with fellow performer Wizz Jones, until an untimely deportation from Spain for vagrancy led him to pursue his solo career back in London. San Francisco hosted “be-ins” during the psychedelic 1960s, where artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and more would perform for free in public parks. Janis Joplin, who played at numerous be-ins with Big Brother and the Holding Company, refined her skills as a singer on her journey out west from Port Arthur, Texas.

Whether busking is a springboard to superstardom or simply a way to make a few bucks, street performers are an important part of the fabric of the cities they live and perform in, providing a break from the monotony of daily routine and adding flavor wherever they share their craft. And you never know: maybe their big break is just around the corner!