Kenneth Burns: Take it from a busker – it's not an easy job

Jul. 20, 2013 @ 11:03 PM

I strolled around Knoxville’s Market Square earlier this week. It’s a bustling place, an excellent downtown destination. The eating is good, the shopping interesting, the people-watching first-rate.

And there is music everywhere.

That’s because of the buskers, those hardy musicians who, without amplification, entertain passers-by. Buskers are paid in pocket change and small bills. Sometimes they draw a little crowd. Sometimes no one pays attention.

I salute them. Because I have done some busking myself.

I lived for many years in Madison, Wis. Madison’s equivalent of Market Square is State Street, a short thoroughfare that connects downtown and the University of Wisconsin.

If you walk down State Street on a warm weekend afternoon, you’re likely to encounter musicians performing country, rock, folk, polka and blues. Maybe even a little free jazz.

For a time in Madison I worked as a professional musician. I sang and played guitar with several groups, sometimes in nightclubs, sometimes at weddings and other private events. Mainly I performed country and other American roots music.

One weekend I had no gigs booked. So I decided to give busking a try.

I put on one of my cowboy shirts and took a guitar to State Street. It was my beat-up guitar, not the nice one.

I chose a promising-looking corner, then put a little seed money in an old hat and placed it on the sidewalk. I started singing the music I like best, lovely old tunes by Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton.

Some people stopped and listened for several songs. Others paused only to throw me a little money.

In two hours I made $80.

For a musician in Madison, this was seriously good cash. I did some quick computations and began dreaming of early retirement.

It was beginner’s luck. I never had another take like that.

I realized later that I had chosen a perfect day. The early fall weather was ideal. Downtown was mobbed. There was a University of Wisconsin football game that afternoon. The enormous Dane County Farmers’ Market was in full swing.

Still, I kept trying. And I learned that even during slow times, busking has rewards.

On a pleasant day, playing music outside is fun. It’s nice to see people smile when they hear a song they like. At places like State Street and Market Square, people tend to be in a festival mood, so impromptu singing and dancing may break out.

Busking is artistic commerce at its most basic. A good busker must always be thinking: What can I do to make strangers give me money? Subtlety is not rewarded. Humor is, and so are grand or surprising gestures.

On Market Square the other night, I was impressed by a couple of guys who played high-energy bluegrass. They wore mountain clothes and had hipster facial hair. They put on a good show. But I wasn’t moved to give them money.

You know who I gave money? The somber-looking woman who strummed a lonely guitar and sang with a gigantic voice.

I didn’t pay her at first. But after walking for a few minutes, I sat on a bench to take in the scene.

I was on the opposite side of Market Square from this busker, but I could still hear her. That’s how loud she was.

Then I realized she was singing one of pop music’s most divisive songs, the 1993 hit “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes.

A lot of people hate that song. I secretly love it, and I admired the brass of this woman for singing it in public.

Not just singing it. NAILING IT. Pulling that song off requires a big voice. She had one. I had to show my appreciation. She got my money, not the bluegrass guys.

On behalf of buskers everywhere, I ask you: Be good to them. It’s a tough job.

I’m not asking you to pay for something you don’t want. That’s not the way capitalism works. But if you are entertained, give them some money. They’ll really appreciate it. I know I did.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send e-mail to kburns@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @KennethBurns.