Street Musicians

Street musicians. Performers of music in an outdoor, generally urban street setting, who are (more or less) economically dependent upon donations solicited from the passing public in return for their performances.

Performers of music in an outdoor, generally urban street setting, who are (more or less) economically dependent upon donations solicited from the passing public in return for their performances. The term 'busker,' often applied to all types of soliciting street entertainers, first appeared in 18th-century England and is derived from the wearing of a short boot or 'buskin' by itinerant dramatists.

Itinerant singers such as the goliard and later the troubadour are reported during the middle ages in much of continental Europe. Municipal authorities in many parts of 13th- and 14th-century England organized street musicians into minstrel guilds or town waits as part of their efforts to control various street entertainers and beggars - they continued to persecute freelance itinerant street musicians and other buskers with varying intensity as 'sturdy beggars' through much of the 19th century.

While a survey of London's poor in the 1850s reported 1000 street musicians and 250 regular ballad singers working in the city of London, written reports of the occasion of itinerant street musicians in Canada are rare. James Duncan, the Montreal artist, sketched a 'celebrated blind fiddler' on a city street ca 1850 (Royal Ontario Museum). Elaine Keillor in Musical Canada cites examples from the Ottawa Free Press of 1874: an organ grinder and his monkey, and a blind old man wandering through the Ottawa streets, singing arias from operas and playing the accordion, led by a little girl singing and accompanying him on the 'French fiddle.' Quebec fiddling great Jean Carignan is said to have spent time playing as a boy, on the sidewalk outside his father's shop.

In the 1960s, the folk-song revival and the counter-culture led to a resurgence of interest in the guitar and other traditional stringed instruments such as the fiddle and banjo which are well suited to outdoor performance. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, young stringband players, performing in the street often for pocket money or simply to practice and meet other like-minded musicians were common to all Canadian cities. This influx of young, albeit inexperienced street performers, sparked a renaissance of all forms of street entertainment in most large cities throughout Canada, along with western Europe and the USA. This resurgence of street culture was noted by other Canadian artists including film makers and choreographers, inspiring Ryan Larkin's animated fantasy, Street Musique (NFB 1973) and Charles-Mathieu Brunelle's experimental dance piece, Street Music.

The musical genres and instruments played by street musicians in Canada run the full gamut from the ubiquitious singer-guitarist to the exotic alp-horn. Often sheer volume and endurance are the most essential ingredients in a street musician's performance and while a small string ensemble may project well in a courtyard setting, brass or woodwind instruments are more successful on noisy street corners. Among street instrumentalists, the fiddle is still the most often featured instrument, along with banjo or mandolin, however, vibraphone, bandura, celtic harp, bagpipe, hammered or mountain dulcimers, accordion or concertina, marimba, flute, harmonica, can also be heard

Any number of contemporary folk, popular jazz and country musicians, as well as conservatory students have begun or conducted some part of their careers on the streets of Canadian cities, including Barde (Montreal), Dario Domingues and Sneezy Waters (Ottawa), Graeme Kirkland, the Leslie Spit Treeo, Lost Dakotas, Loreena McKennitt, Don Ross, and the Shuffle Demons (Toronto), and Pied Pumpkin (Vancouver), all subsequently or concurrently having recording careers of some distinction.

In 1990 street musicians could be heard working a wide variety of venues: urban street corners, farmers and craft markets, public malls, library courtyards, liquor stores, and public transit systems. Nevertheless, the truly freelance street musician is still often unwelcome in many jurisdictions and is increasingly subject to a wide variety of municipal or governmental restrictions. Many preferred busking locations in Canadian cities are now coming under the control of various authorities who, like their 14th-century precursors, license (and limit) busker-musicians, often by means of yearly auditions. In Toronto, the subway musician program begun in 1978 allows only audition-selected musicians in 8 of 65 subway stations - Vancouver's similar program allocates 10 locations in its 14 stops. Montreal's Metro allows busking in 40 of 65 subway stations, moreover, licences are available to all applicants, assignments are handled by daily sign-up and the musicians themselves have even formed the Association des musiciens itinerants du Métro. A similar system is in operation in the downtown Edmonton area and is under active consideration in Vancouver and elsewhere.

In other communities quality busking locations are subject to outwardly imponderable but nonetheless functional pecking orders among the performers themselves, often based on a combination of seniority and ability. On a typical Saturday morning, shoppers at Toronto's St Lawrence Market might hear a dozen different musical acts including two or three sets of old time fiddlers, a Latin American band, solo guitarists, an elderly country-style singersongwriter, a Morris Dance troupe, and a classic barrel organ grinder, accompanied by a monkey with tin cup.

Churches, the AF of M (through a trust fund established for the purpose), municipal governments, and private corporations also sponsor outdoor concerts (without the solicitation of funds) in parks and public malls in most major centres throughout Canada. These scheduled venues provide off-season or day-time employment for mainly professional musicians and generally feature scheduled light classical, jazz, or popular ensemble music.

Street entertainers, including musicians, are often featured in highly organized festivals in cities throughout Canada, including (in 1990) Halifax, NS, Edmonton, and in Ontario in Orillia, Waterloo, Kingston, and Hamilton. In most cases these are produced for municipalities or cities by busker talent agencies and feature prizes as well as 'hatting' proceeds. Musicians, however, constitute a diminishing percentage of performers at these events, often overshadowed by the visually more spectacular efforts of jugglers, mimes, and acrobatic busker acts.

Further Reading

  • Campbell, Patricia J. Passing the Hat: Street Perfomance in America (New York 1981)

    Cohen, David and Ben Greenwood, The Buskers: A History of Street Entertainment (London 1981)

    Rauchman, Steven. 'Classical busking adds new dimensions to street music,' PfAC, vol 22, Fall 1985

    Potter, Mitch. 'Treeo still true to street-busking roots,' Toronto Star, 11 May 1990

    MacInnis, Craig 'The TTC: why can't it also be the musical way?' Toronto Star, 8 Aug 1990

    Official Souvenir Progam and Autograph Book, 6th Annual Edmonton International Street Perfomers Festival (Edmonton 1990)

    Kallmann History of Music in Canada

    Keillor, Elain. 'Musical activity in Canada's new capital city in the 1870s,' Musical Canada