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Street Performers Talk About Their First Times Busking

Although little is written on the subject of street performer heritage, I am trying to help that void by interviewing buskers about their lives for the record. This article talks about buskers' first times, and what lead them to the street as a venue.
Raw Sugar, feminist trio, perform on streets of Seattle in 1982
Raw Sugar, feminist trio, perform on streets of Seattle in 1982
Street Performers Talk About Their First Times Busking
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

I began street performing in Seattle, Wa., at the Pike Place Market, in October 1978, just before my 18th birthday. I had never seen street performers until August 1978, two months prior. I grew up in the sterile Los Angeles suburbs, and although I had the slick music industry at my back door in Hollywood, I was looking for a more holistic approach to performance. I did not necessarily want to get rich, I wanted to relay a message, I wanted to share music. Sick of alcoholic, cigarette-smoking parents, I did not drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, so bars were not my preferred venue for performance, so, I was actually sort of stifled in my creative abilities, out of not knowing where I could showcase them. My stepmom was a nightclub singer on the L.A. circuit, and although she made good money, she worked in bars, and her work was as much social worker as singer. I just did not want to have to hoist my breasts up in "push up bras," as we called them back then, put on gobs of makeup, and then go tend lonely drunk men in bars who, yes, would tip me, but at what cost to my soul? It sounded like a bad scene from Breakfasts of Champions. Also, I did not want to perform to sell alcohol, I could not breathe in bars due to the thick cigarette smoke, I wanted to perform politics, not some predictable boring sexy blues, and I was underage for most bar venues, anyway.

It was not until I wandered into the Pike Place Market in 1978 that I saw street performers. I remember the revelation clearly. We walked into the Market, I saw the street performers, and immediately went up to one and asked how it worked. I asked if you had to audition. They said no, that you just had to "register" for a pin with the Market. (The Market now, in 2004, illegally charges us money for those pins for free speech, but that is another article). I asked buskers what the rules were. They said they each took turns in one hour rotations, you got in line on a spot, and waited your turn, and played. That was it. I ran home, and asked my relatives for a guitar for my upcoming birthday. I did not know how to play guitar, mind you, but I had seen my sisters pick it up easily. And I already had played violin from grade school to college, so I just felt I needed the instrument, I would teach myself. They gave me a cheap guitar, I wrote down words and chords, with diagrams of the chords, into a notebook, and took off for the Market. I wanted to perform before I really knew how.

I got to the Market and sang, sitting down on the ground, with my notebook of songs open, reading from it. I was doing complex vocals, things like Laura Nyro and jazz standards, but my presentation was pathetic. So, street performers took me under wing and taught me the ropes. Basically, Robert Almblade and Rick Mandyke taught me to memorize my music and stand up when I sing, looking at the audience. And yes, that improved my tips 100% and got me paying gigs. Then they taught me unusual bar chords and slide guitar, and that helped too, to have a more complex guitar voicing than three chord standard progressions. Before I knew it, I was being tutored by some of the Northwest's finest performers. And I was standing in line watching them hone their acts on the street, as a living lesson, also. I learned money pitch lines, I learned how to do comedy, I learn how to be spontaneous, I learned a certain NW style of public performance, honestly. I became part of a rich street performer culture, and community, and that was something that surely enriched my life, as well as my son's. I may not see eye to eye, politically, with all my busker colleagues, but as Buster Keaton said, "we don't hear ear to ear either."

P.K.Dwyer, legendary performer from the Pacific Northwest, echoes another reason for hitting the streets. He was kicked off stage for language at his first gig on stage at age 15. He says about his street performing past, "The street thang started because in 1970 I had a duo with a guy who played standup bass and sang and wrote songs and we decided to go to LA. So... (we all) jumped in a VW bus, which was from The Yakima Central Assembly of God Church and said so all over the bus, and went to LA where we got hungry pretty soon after getting there. So we heard sometimes people played on the grounds of UCLA and put their case out for donations, so we thought we'd try that rather than starve. We did ok, and somebody told us that sometimes people played for the theater lines in Westwood. Well, all of a sudden we're making $50 a night, which was huge money in 1970, we were able to rent an apartment and everything... the thing is there wasn't anyone around doing it, we just sort of stumbled on it. The only other person I ever saw doing that at the time was Wildman Fisher, if you're hip to that guy."

One of the more recent members of our busker clan, a youngster Andrew Pulkrabek, recalls, "My first street performing experience took place at the Bumbershoot Arts Festival (in Seattle) in 1997 at the age of 13. At the time, I was performing as a magician with my longtime partner-in-crime Pepper Fajans, who was then 12. We had been doing magic shows together at private events for about a year at that point, and had decided that it was high time we got out to show the general public what we could do, and hopefully make girls at school think we were cool. Being green to the ways of the street, we had more or less lousy audiences the whole weekend - and still nobody at school thought we were cool, especially the girls."

Mildred Hodittle, aka Tash Wesp, says that the reason she started busking in 1988 was because she had created a European woman clown act, while she was in the Pickle Family Circus, and they did not let her do the act in the show. So she took it to the streets of Berkeley instead. She said she decided to incorporate the audience as volunteers which helped her act. I have seen that the most interactive buskers, or ones who use the audience as part of the act, are always the most successful and entertaining as the act is never the same.

Old-timer bubble magician/puppeteer Tom Noddy recalls his first busking experience: "I was working in a factory in New Jersey and saving my money to buy a plane ticket to Europe so I could hitchhike around there with no money (as I had done in the States for years). On weekends, I would hitchhike into New York City and wander around entertaining myself with the life of the city. I saw a couple of street performers in Central Park, and sometimes in Washington Square Park. I already had written puppet plays ("Political, Social, and Spiritual Satire with Puppets") but didn't yet have puppets. I looked up my old friend in NYC... She asked what I was doin' and I said "Writing puppet plays." I asked what she was doin', and she said "Makin' puppets and selling them on the street in the Village". I helped her sell them by doing my plays and talking to passersby. It was a rush and I got some puppets from her for shows that I then did in Central Park and beyond."

Although little is written on the subject of street performer heritage, I am trying to help that void by interviewing buskers about their lives for the record. You can read more of my documentation of our busker history on my Busker Webpage at  link to resist.ca. Stay tuned for another street performer article on why we busk, and what we get back from it personally, coming soon!

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