Saturday, July 10, 2010

Who and Where: An Essay on the Art of Busking

The silver bells on the Glockenspiel were silent. This was quite in contrast to the thirty or so squealing and laughing little children climbing and sliding in the yellow and red plastic playground, next to a smaller group of grunting and swearing adolescents kicking soccer balls in the freshly cut grass.

X marked the spot where all the concrete walks in the park converged at the marbled cenotaph in Victoria Park, which honoured soldiers from the Great War of 1914-1919, the World War of 1939-1945, and the Korean War of 1950-1953.

I set up to busk on a brown wooden bench, away from the cenotaph and directly in front of the steady stream of customers lined up at the Frank Cart, a two-wheeled oven having an orange-vested man selling roasted wieners on a bun. (Yes, I could almost taste those hot dogs and french fries he was selling!) I had accurately anticipated that most of these hungry souls would be walking right past me to relish their hot dog picnics in the park, to nibble among the colorful and perfume flower beds of Ruby Red Geraniums, Pink Begonias, and Blotch Pansies, all of which 'neath the cooling shades of the many Paper Birch and Speckled Alder trees.

It was on this boardwalk-kind-of-a-day, as the wispy gray and white clouds floated ever so gently, as the clinking of coins greatly filled my ego with moments of mercenary joy, when a familiar stranger walked up and grabbed my attention.

Hey, Child, he said. I've just read your blog and you wanna know something?

What's that? I smilingly replied.

Your blog is not about busking and it's not about psychology. Why don't you write something about busking or psychology or both? he asked.

My next blog entry for sure, I said. Just for you, I added.

I had chatted with this same fellow on a few occasions (in this same park in Regina, Saskatchewan). He was of medium frame and height, graying hair, smartly dressed, and usually somewhat eloquent in his conversation. Afterwards, I thought about what he'd said, and I decided that he was quite right. Though I had always alluded to it, I had never written explicitly about the art of busking (or psychology for that matter).

And so today, I shall write about Who and Where of guitar and banjo busking, and I shall do so in a very general way to avoid the specificity and form of an awkward argy-bargy debate.

First of all, the art of busking is mainly for those temerarious, and most certainly not for the indolent. I am implying that busking is hard work; I am simply stating that it takes a sense of adventure and a certain stamina to hit the street every day for two and three hours at a time, playing and smiling for everyone who passes by. When Baron and I are on our summer busk, a necessary part of our daily regimen is to hit the local weight club for at least an hour each morning. For a successful busk, we need that extra energy that exercising provides, in order to roam up and down the streets, dragging our equipment, having our American Decafs and lunches always while sitting on the curb, hopefully in the sunshine. This daily activity demands a certain rigour, for especially not to present that dragged and bedraggled look. Most passers-by will recognize quality when they hear and see it, and we never want to be regarded as panhandlers having instruments, nor as just another couple of n'er-do-wells among the peloton of cadges and other unfortunate guttersnipes who line the downtown streets in all major cities. In this regard, it could very well be, that for the many who but dream of busking, the actual art of busking may be just too infra-dig, especially if they cannot shake that beggar-playing-an-instrument mentality.

To be a successful busker is to be willing to abdicate a regular life (at least temporarily), and be more than willing to advert one's attention to the very art of busking. And one cannot be in the doldrums when so doing -- in fact, one needs a rather panglossian temperament (positive, positive). It also helps to be rather eclectic in nature e.g., 'Tis far easier for a banjo busker to smile while sporting a boler or derby hat, than forcing some feeble grin whilst engulfed in a full-out foppish costume.

Where one chooses to busk is usually dependent upon one's bank account. Generally, pick a place that you deem copacetic. For most buskers, warm climes prove most satisfactory. During summer, this means anywhere will be suffice. During winter, if one wants to busk along the Mediterranean, one must have means. Last summer, I spent thirty days on the streets in downtown Victoria, the most perfect of places for summer busking. Each morning at 8 o'clock we checked into the Phoenix Club for a weight lift and shower, followed by a breakfast and Americano Decaf on the curb.

In Victoria, specifically, most areas make amicable surroundings for busking. However, not all wandering buskers can afford such littoral sea surroundings. (I must confess that I am a faux busker, one who can budget for such exotic adventures. I am currently planning a buskation in Banff within the next week or two. How much money I make there will determine the length of my stay.) Most buskers are not like me -- most buskers I know are the real deal. They are raw and they are poor.

For me, the yen to busk is ever present -- and to scrabble together an actual plan for such a summer enterprise makes for great joy.


  1. Peloton of cadges? Who is really writing this blog, Rex Murphy or Conrad Black? Neither, I suppose. One is in custody; the other should be. you are the Neil Child of buskers, not the Rex M. or Conrad B. of buskers. Have a good trip to Banff! Bye for now, Ken

  2. Hi Neil, hope all is well. Are you back from Banff? Here is something at least mildly interesting. My earlier comment on this particular blog (from July 12) is, so far, the most recent memory I have of any event preceding my 'memory-loss event' of July 15 or 16 (don't even know the exact date). Very strange is the brain. I think I am doing better and better and will be going to my apartment soon enough. And hope your stay in Banff has been a good one. Here is my email again:

    Awaiting your next blog, Ken