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Sing for Your Supper!
Created by JoeMason on 2/25/2014 12:01:00 AM

Music Editor Mister M looks into the tradition of busking via Brendan J. Stephens the Vaudevillian and Willow Walker.


Itinerant bluesicians Brendan J. Stephens the Vaudevillian and Willow Walker spent a week at my place and introduced me to the world of busking. They roam North America with suitcases, guitar and washboard, playing to the public to earn the cash for meals and a night’s lodging. It’s a world of trains, buses and hitchhiked rides. There are paid gigs and there are destinations like Asheville, NC, and New Orleans that are friendly to troubadours.

Stephens belies his age with a great love of pre-WWII blues. His patch-covered overalls carry the air of a sharecropper or dustbowl Oakie, but the septum ring is decidedly contemporary. His latest album Beedle-Am Bam (released in October 2013) reflects the anachronism. Despite the original songs (“The Panic Is On” is the sole cover), none of the music sounds like it came from a particular time. It sounds like a Smithsonian Folkways recording, but without the lo-fi crackle and hiss. It’s not like he’s a purist trying to recreate another era. The resonator guitar, kazoo and Walker’s washboard sound like what they are. Stephens and Walker play the music that they like.

Fortunately, there are appreciative communities. Canada seems to have an appreciative old-timey folk scene with acts like Sheesham & Lotus & Son.  This may be the result of the Canadian Folk Music Awards that were initiated in 2005. It would not be a stretch to see this as an extension of the requirement for Canadian content in Great White Northern media. South of the maple curtain, Stephens spoke fondly of the opportunities he could find as a busker in Asheville, NC and New Orleans.

Asheville takes pride in its Appalachian mountain music heritage, but welcomes street performers. The Ashville Street Music website provides instructions on how an where to perform. The pitch points page instructs musicians on legal points (busking is not permitted within 50 feet on a bank entrance; there is a marked difference between busking and panhandling). There are pages listing groups and solo acts. When it comes to street performing, this is one organized town.

New Orleans has a rich history of street performance from its Mardi Gras Parade to its jazz funerals. Often the funerals are for local musicians, but may be held for members of social clubs or parade krewes. Brass bands march to dirges, picking up the pace with spirituals and hotter jazz after the ceremony. Death is a far cry from the main inspiration for New Orleans musicians. Stephens looks forward to trips to the Crescent City for the music itself, as well as the cash. There is competition for the lean green. Street performers have to get up in the wee hours in order to secure a good spot. They wrap up with the city’s 8pm curfew. For photos and more details of the lively scene, I recommend Kenny Klein’s Huffington Post article.

The next time you pass someone with a song in their heart and an open guitar case with coins and dollars, remember that they are carrying on the fine tradition of romantic troubadours, medicine shows and delta bluesmen.  Tipping is not mandatory, but appreciated.

The Vaudevillian’s Beedle-Am Bam is available at http://brendanjstephens.bandcamp.com.

 

Mr. M plays theremin and other oddball musical devices in the old-timey mad scientist band The White City Rippers and twangs washtub bass in the steampunk Britney Spears tribute band Spears and Gears. He also spins the amber oldies with the Lords & Ladies DJ crew.

 

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