Street performance or busking is the practice of performing in public places, for gratuities, which are generally in the form of money and edibles. People engaging in this practice are called street performers, buskers, street musicians, minstrels, or troubadours.
Street performance dates back to antiquity, and occurs all over the world.
Performances can be just about anything that people find entertaining. Performers may do acrobatics, animal tricks, balloon twisting, card tricks, caricatures, clowning, comedy, contortions and escapes, dance, singing, fire eating, fire breathing, fortune-telling, juggling, magic, mime and a mime variation where the artist performs as a living statue, musical performance, puppeteering, snake charming, storytelling or recite poetry or prose as a bard, street art (sketching and painting, etc.), street theatre, sword swallowing, and even putting on a flea circus.
An organ grinder with a Capuchin monkey, photographed in 1892.
There have been performances in public places for gratuities in every major culture in the world, dating back to antiquity. This art form was the most common means of employment for entertainers before the advent of recording and personal electronics. Prior to that, a person had to produce any music or entertainment, save for a few mechanical devices
such as the barrel organ, the music box, and the piano roll. Organ grinders were commonly found busking in the old days.
The term "busking" was first noted in the English language around the middle 1860s in Great Britain. Up until the 20th century buskers were commonly called minstrels in America, Europe and other English-speaking lands.
The word "busk" comes from the Spanish root word "buscar", meaning "to seek" – buskers are literally seeking fame and fortune. The Spanish word "buscar" in turn evolved from the Indo-European word *"bhudh-skō" (to win, conquer) via the Celtic word "boudi-" (victory).
Busking is common among some Gypsies, also known as the Romani people. Romantic mention of Gypsy music, dancers and fortune tellers are found in all forms of song poetry, prose and lore. The Roma brought the word busking to England by way of their travels along the Mediterranean coast to Spain and the Atlantic ocean and then up north to England and the rest of Europe.
In medieval France buskers were known by the terms troubadours and jongleurs. In northern France they were known as trouveres. In old German buskers were known as Minnesingers and Spielleute. In obsolete French it evolved to busquer for "seek, prowl" and was generally used to describe prostitutes. In Italian it evolved to buscare which meant "procure, gain" and in Italy buskers are called buscarsi or, more simply, Buskers (see loan word). In Russia buskers are called skomorokh and their first recorded history appears around the 11th century.
Mariachis are Mexican street bands that play a specific style of music by the same name. Mariachis frequently wear ornate costumes with intricate embroidery and beaded designs, large brimmed sombreros and the short charro jackets. Mariachi groups busk when they perform while traveling through streets and plazas, as well as in restaurants and bars.
Around the middle 19th century Japanese Chindonya started to be seen using their skills for advertising, and these street performers are still occasionally seen in Japan.
In the US, medicine shows proliferated in the 19th century. They were traveling vendors selling elixirs and potions to improve the health. They would often employ entertainment acts as a way of making the clients feel better. The people would often associate this feeling of well-being with the products sold. After these performances they would "pass the hat".
1855 painting of a street musician, O Pobre Rabequista (The Poor Rebec Player), by José Rodrigues
One man bands are buskers who perform a variety of instruments simultaneously. One man bands proliferated in urban areas in the 19th century and early 20th century, but they continue to exist in the first decade of the 21st century. A typical first decade of the 21st century-era one man band set-up is a singer who plays acoustic guitar, while also playing a harmonica (attached to his neck with a rack) and tapping a tambourine with his or her foot. Many new one man bands are using karaoke recordings on CD or sequenced MIDI recordings for backup.
Folk music has always been an important part of the busking scene. Cafe, restaurant, bar and pub busking is a mainstay of this art form. Two of the more famous folk singers are Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez. The delta bluesmen were mostly itinerant musicians emanating from the Mississippi Delta region of the USA around the early 1940s and on. B.B. King is one famous example who came from these roots.
The counterculture of the hippies of the 1960s occasionally staged "be-ins", which resembled some present-day busker festivals. Bands and performers would gather at public places and perform for free, passing the hat to make money. The San Francisco Bay Area was at the epicenter of this movement — be-ins were staged at Golden Gate Park and San Jose's Bee Stadium and other venues. Some of the bands that performed in this manner were Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, Moby Grape and Jimi Hendrix.
Christmas caroling can also be a form of busking, as wassailing included singing for alms, wassail or some other form of refreshment such as figgy pudding. In Ireland the traditional Wren Boys and in England Morris Dancing can be considered part of the busking tradition.
In India and Pakistan's Gujarati region Bhavai is a form of street art where there are plays enacted in the village, the barot or the village singer also is part of the local entertainment scene.
In the first decade of the 21st century, some performers have begun "Cyber Busking". Artists post work or performances on the Internet for people to download or "stream" and if people like it they make a donation using PayPal.
There are three basic forms of street performance.
"Circle shows" are shows that tend to gather a crowd around them. They usually have a distinct beginning and end. Usually these are done in conjunction with street theater, puppeteering, magicians, comedians, acrobats, jugglers and sometimes musicians. Circle shows can be the most lucrative. Some time the crowds attracted can be huge. A good busker will control the crowd so the patrons do not obstruct foot traffic.
German street performers play for pedestrians
"Walk-by acts" are typically with the busker providing a musical or entertaining ambiance. There is no distinct beginning or end and the crowds do not particularly stop to watch. Sometimes an intended walk by act will spontaneously turn into a circle show.
"Café busking" is done mostly in restaurants, pubs, bars and cafes. Musicians can frequently be found using this venue with the performers doing a show in return for tips and gratuities offered. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez all used this venue early on in their careers. Making a living on the piano bar principle (i.e. for tips) is done in a range of genres, including jazz, rock, and even "light" Classical style. Diverse artists like Jimmy Durante and Andrea Bocelli have used this venue. Perhaps one of the most famous of these is Billy Joel, who rose to fame from working in piano bars. His hit song "Piano Man" was written about a six month stint he did in 1972 at the "Executive Room" piano bar in Los Angeles.
Most buskers will use their instrument cases or a special can or box to collect the tips. A bottler is a British term that describes the person with the job of collecting the money. A bottler may also be called the "hat man" or "pitch man". The term bottler came from a device old world performers used for collecting money. It was made from the top half of a glass bottle. It had a leather flap inserted in the bottle neck and a leather pouch attached. It was designed to allow coins in but not allow them to be removed easily without being noticed by the jingling of the coins against the glass. The first use of such contrivances was recorded by the famous Punch and Judy troupe of puppeteers in early Victorian times. Bottling itself can be an art form, and the difference between a good and a bad bottler can be crucial to the amount of money earned on a pitch. A good bottler is able to encourage audience members to give money. A bottler usually gets a cut of the money made on the pitch. Prior to the 20th century, it was common for buskers to use a trained monkey as a bottler. That practice has diminished due to animal control laws, but as tribute to the monkey's service there is a device known as monkey stick which buskers use to get attention. A monkey stick is a long stick with bottle caps or small cymbals attached such that they make an attention getting noise when shaken.
A street performance trio on their pitch outside Prague Castle
The place where a performance occurs is called a "pitch". A good pitch can be the key to success as a busker. An act that might make money at one place and time may not work at all in another setting. Popular pitches tend to be public places with large volumes of pedestrian traffic, high visibility, low background noise and as few elements of interference as possible. Good locations may include tourist spots, popular parks, entertainment districts including lots of restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs and theaters, subways and bus stops, outside the entrances to large concerts and sporting events, almost any plaza or town square as well as zócalos in Latin America and piazzas in other regions. Other places include shopping malls, strip malls, and outside of supermarkets, although permission is usually required from management for these.
In her documentary movie and book, Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York, Susie J. Tanenbaum examined how the adage "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast" plays out in regards to busking. Her sociological studies showed that in areas where buskers regularly perform, crime rates tended to go down, and that those with higher education tended to appreciate and support buskers more than those of lesser learning. Some cities are encouraging buskers because they can be a tonic to the stresses of shopping and commuting, and can be an influence which is entertaining and beneficial for all. Some cities give preference to "approved" buskers in certain areas and even publish schedules of performances.
In the United States there has been a rebirth of this art form as the new millennium has started. Buskers are found at many locations like Mallory Square in Key West, in New Orleans, in New York around Central Park, Washington Square, and the subway systems, in San Francisco, in Washington DC around the transit centers, in Los Angeles around Venice Beach, the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade, and the Hollywood area, in Chicago on Maxwell Street, in the Delmar Loop district of St. Louis, and many other locations throughout the US. Busking is still quite common in Scotland, Ireland, and England with musicians and other street performers of varying talent levels.
See also: List of well-known busking locations and Category:Busking venues
See also: Busking (U.S. case law)
The first recorded instance of laws affecting buskers were in ancient Rome in 462 BC. The Law of the Twelve Tables made it a crime to sing about or make parodies of the government or its officials in public places; the penalty was death. Louis the Pious "excluded histriones and scurrae, which included all entertainers without noble protection, from the privilege of justice". In 1530 Henry VIII ordered the licensing of minstrels and players, fortune-tellers, pardoners and fencers, as well as beggars who could not work. If they did not obey they could be whipped on two consecutive days.
In the United States under Constitutional Law and most European common law, the protection of artistic free speech extends to busking. In the USA and most places, the designated places for free speech behavior are the public parks, streets, sidewalks, thoroughfares and town squares or plazas. Under certain circumstances even private property may be open to buskers, particularly if it is open to the general public and busking does not interfere with its function and management allows it or other forms of free speech behaviors or has a history of doing so.
While there is no universal code of conduct for buskers, there are common law practices which buskers must conform to. Most jurisdictions have corresponding statutory law. In Great Britain free speech and busking can be regulated. Some towns in the British Isles limit the licenses issued to bagpipers because of the volume and difficulty of the instrument. In Great Britain places requiring licenses for buskers may also require auditions of anyone applying for a busking license. Some venues that do not regulate busking may still ask performers to abide by voluntary rules. Some places require a special permit to use electronically amplified sound and may have limits on the volume of sound produced. It is common law that buskers or others should not impede pedestrian traffic flow, block or otherwise obstruct entrances or exits, or do things that endanger the public. It is common law that any disturbing or noisy behaviors may not be conducted after certain hours in the night. These curfew limitations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is common law that "performing blue" (i.e. using material that is sexually explicit or any vulgar or obscene remarks or gestures) is generally prohibited unless performing for an adults-only environment such as in a bar or pub.
In London, busking is prohibited in the entire borough of the City of London. The London Underground provides busking permits in tube stations, and many London boroughs allow busking by permit. The only borough in London permitting busking without a permit is Camden.
Buskers may find themselves targeted by thieves due to the very open and public nature of their craft. Buskers may have their earnings, instruments or props stolen. One particular technique that thieves use against buskers is to pretend to make a donation while actually taking money out instead, a practice known as "dipping" or "skimming". George Burns described his days as a youthful busker this way:
“ Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats.
Sometimes they took something out of the hats.
Sometimes they took the hats.”
Classical fiddler in Arles, France
The American inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin was a street performer. He composed songs, poetry and prose about the current events and went out in public and performed them. He would then sell printed copies of them to the public. He was dissuaded from busking by his father who convinced him the stigmas that some people attach to busking were not worth it. It was this experience that helped form his beliefs in free speech, which he wrote about in his journals.
Paul McCartney of The Beatles donned a disguise to be filmed busking for Give My Regards To Broad Street in 1984:
"They just made me up and dropped me off. [...] So I was standin' there plunkin' chords, doing this silly version of the song, and no one noticed it was me. No one wants to look a busker (street singer) in the eye, of course, 'cus then they get his life story. So they'd toss coins and I'd be going 'Yesterday, all my troubles - thank you, sir - seemed so far away.' [...] After we did it, I made sure the money was donated to the Seaman's Mission."
Bruce Springsteen has been known to busk. There is a famous set of videos, recorded on 23 July 1988 in Copenhagen, where he plays a variety of his songs with a busker on the street.
Sting has also donned a disguise and gone out busking. He reportedly made £40. "He pulled a hat down over his eyes, but one woman said: 'It's Sting.' The man behind her said: 'You silly cow. It's not him. He's a multi-millionaire.'"
In a stunt organised by The Washington Post, the classical violinist Joshua Bell played as an incognito street busker at the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, D.C. on 12 January 2007. Of the 1,097 people who passed by, only one recognized him and only a couple more were drawn to his music. For his nearly 45 minute performance, Bell collected $32.17 (not counting $20 from the passerby who recognized him). He did this using a Stradivarius violin valued at around $2,000,000.
Bon Jovi has been known to take to the streets from time to time. Among the most famous Bon Jovi busks were those at London's Covent Garden and Moscow's Red Square.
Violent Femmes were discovered by James Honeyman-Scott (of The Pretenders) on August 23, 1981, when the band was busking on a street corner in front of the Oriental Theatre, the Milwaukee venue that The Pretenders would be playing later that night. Chrissie Hynde invited them to play a brief acoustic set after the opening act.
Singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey recorded an entire album down in the Boston Subway, where he was a regular busker. In most cases, songs were recorded in one or two takes.
Guy Laliberté was a street performer when he founded the Cirque du Soleil theatrical company in 1984.
On 18 November 2008, singer Tom Jones went outside London's Royal Festival Hall and busked for charity. He raised £500 for cancer research while doing a twenty minute set.Hayley Westenra at one time busked on the streets of Christchurch, New Zealand.
John Butler, a well known Australian artist, has been known to busk and started his career busking.
KT Tunstall, a popular Scottish singer, has been recorded busking in Glasgow.
Shannon Hoon, former singer for Blind Melon, was known to busk all over the U.S.
Heth and Jed, New York City street performers and authors of the memoir Buskers: The On-the-Streets, In-the-Trains, Off-the-Grid-Memoir of Two New York City Street Musicians.
Tracy Chapman began her career busking in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA.
Art Paul Schlosser who's music has been played on Dr Demento and has recenty appeared on America's Got Talent as Buddy Holy Cheesehead is a very popular busker in the Madison,Wisconsin area.
Newton Faulkner has been known to busk and video footage of him busking has been made available on YouTube, including a full acoustic cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody".
Earl Oliver, known as the Walkin' Blues Man, performs five days a week in the summer months on the historic Skunk Train based in Fort Bragg, CA near Mendocino.
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