By Pete Wernick – August 2009 column, Banjo Newsletter (PDF)

I’ve been “playing in the street” since I was a teenager, going back to my pre-college summer, at the short-lived Freedomland amusement park in NY City. My folk trio played in a high-traffic spot for a few hours, and then took the coins from the open guitar case and spent them all, replacing the fluid we sweated that afternoon.

The summer I was 23 I drove out of the city and headed west. In Boulder I picked up some pocket money by suggesting to a bartender that I play banjo by the bar for $10 and tips. The next day I met my future (and current) wife, not while busking, but that did help make the week pretty memorable — 40 years ago this May, incidentally.

Upon moving to Boulder several years later, I met an interesting group called the Ophelia Swing Band whose mando and fiddle player was a talented young guy named Tim O’Brien. I would join them sometimes when they’d play on the downtown mall. Featuring the hilarious repartee of Dan Sadowsky and the inimitable Washboard Chaz, they made both good music and tips. I still play on the same mall sometimes with Joan, and periodically still hire out as a strolling banjo player at local farmers markets.

All this is to suggest that whether you’re quite inexperienced or quite experienced, there is a great cluster of benefits to bringing your banjo right into or near a crowd of people at leisure, just to share music and see what happens. I recommend busking to each and every banjo player reading this column. (Yes, you.)

Since money both makes the world go round and is also the root of all evil, let’s talk money. There’s money in busking, which is not only … well, money, but also an interesting measurement of value. People pay money for something of value to them, so your take represents what you did for people. That somehow adds to the satisfaction in counting those coins and dollar bills, and using them for refreshments, strings, or whatever. No negotiating for this pay, no discussion or middleman, just the pure relationship of putting out a sound and performance that people value, and getting sustenance in return.

Noam Pikelny recently told me that when he was just out of junior high school, he and some other kids would play downtown and make “$40 an hour – apiece”. This involves of course the “kid factor”, familiar to any of us who’ve seen how folks love kid pickers. You kids reading this, take heed! What other (legal) activity could make you that kind of dough?

Another teenager banjo busker was our buddy Béla Whathisname. Béla’s parents were understanding enough to not insist on college, so while his fellow high school grads were toiling as college freshmen, Béla was doing long days in the streets of Boston with an Irish band, expanding his chops and repertoire right in line with his professional goals. The income he made with Tasty Licks that year might have been good, but not as good as what he made from his full-time picking job.

But it’s not just about money, or I’d have written this column for Forbes, not Banjo Newsletter! Let’s consider the purity of the entertainer/audience relationship.

There is no commitment from either the entertainer or audience, no contract. Either can leave at any time. No spotlight, no lit stage, no amplification to give the entertainer an advantage. It’s just “interest factor” vs. “whatever else the spectator was going to do”. As long as you keep it interesting, people may stay, and on a busy thoroughfare, the crowd might even swell quickly – partly just because people want to see what’s drawing a crowd.

With humorous banter, reaching out to connect with the audience, just plain sounding good and displaying musical mastery, or doing anything amazing/awesome, performers can get a variety of people to stay around. At first it’s curiosity, or maybe they’re entertained or impressed. Some folks may sit and get comfortable, savoring sounds that tickle their ears.

Children are fun to watch, especially the little ones seeing their first banjo. They’re enchanted by how a big special sound comes from an object. (Think about it… That IS special!). If you’re between numbers or are playing by yourself and don’t mind stopping, you can offer the child a chance to strum a string. The results can be cute enough to be part of the show… or not.

You should know, requests are part of the gig. You don’t have to play them, but requesters need a prompt and non-disappointing answer. Confused looks or explanations or “I don’t do that one,” can break the mood, but “no, but here’s a good one…” keeps things rolling. If you only sort of know the song, OK to say so and “I’ll fake it the best I can,” and play what you can a time or two, best you can, no excuses. End with a flourish and a “well, I tried” look, and you’ll probably get grateful applause and a tip!

Farmers markets and strolling gigs (indoor or out) are an interesting case since you are mobile and you can choose your audience at any time. Being mobile reduces tip possibilities but it’s fun, and appropriate when it’s a paying gig. You can walk or pick a series of people-friendly or shady spots. If a booth merchant seems to like you being there, by all means hang out. During the course of a couple of hours you might try actually following someone in a playful way, or when someone comes up to talk to you keep playing nice sounding quiet rolls, to keep the music going. Vary tempos, keys, tunings, energy levels. Gigs like this, it’s good to dress up a bit to look the part of “a strolling banjo player”.

If you have music to sell, bring a small table (like a foldable TV tray) and a few little stands (knickknack stores have them to display plates) to make CD covers more visible. A little basket on the table with a couple of 5’s for change lets people shop while you’re playing. Flyers for your next gig.

Another of our down-to-earth banjo gods, Jens Kruger, has considerable busking experience. When he and his brother Uwe left home as young men, they supported themselves for two years playing in the streets of European cities. Some of their most crowd-pleasing material to this day (combinations of songs, finishing with something very fast) seem to have the imprint of “designed for busking”.

You say not only are you no Jens Kruger, you’ve hardly ever played in front of people? OK then, that’s reason enough to try your hand at a few minutes of public playing. Yes, anyone can sit by an open case and play a few tunes they know. While it may not produce enough tips for dinner, it may lead to meeting folks to play with. One fall day in 1964 I was picking on the college green and a kid came up and asked “Do you know Salt Creek?” We became picking buddies and are still good friends today (Dave Nichtern).

Money, friends, a chance to practice, and a chance to learn about people and entertaining… I hope I’ve given you a little spur to get out there and be a Busking Banjo Ambassador! (BBA)