Honor the craft: Busking is not begging

In a city known for its commitment to public art, I have to wonder why so often we treat its diverse artists with so much disdain.

The more I look, the more I see it and the more unsettling it is.

On a recent glorious Bay Area weekend, I ended up wandering around down in the heart of Tourist Central, the San Francisco Waterfront between Market street, the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf. San Francisco is chock full of things to see but nothing so attracts visitors as sun, sea and shops, not to mention the notable Alcatraz tour, a newly built port for cruise ships, an artisan craft market and one of the busiest farmer’s market you’d ever see smack in the middle of the greatest city on the planet.

Suffice to say, people were everywhere.

Right along with them were a mainstay of San Francisco, the artists who perform for cash. Right along with them were the food and housing insecure folks who sit and wait for handouts and/or panhandle tourists for whatever they can get.

I know quite a few of the homeless in this neighborhood. Most suffer from the usual array of mental illness and drug addiction. Most will ask for a dollar or two without incident or aggression. Still the disdain on people’s faces as they pass is notable to anyone who really looks. The homeless: they look. They notice. They experience it.

But the street artists also confront their fair share of annoyance not at all dissimilar from the panhandlers. In short, people view all these residents of this great city as a nuisance, even though the most common thing they share is our disapproval. Street performers are not panhandlers, but we too often treat them the same. Poorly. 

As I wandered the city, the music and energy the artisans brought filled the air with something more than the bustle and anxiety of crowds trying to all get somewhere. Almost like listening to a radio dial, I’d hear the sounds of a country tune on a stand-up bass, meld into the metallic drums of Jamaica, which soon morphed into the laughter of people watching a magician or a the squeak of a man molding animals from balloons. In quieter times I have sat on a balcony and heard a violin being played in a nearby park with a sound so pure it could be a CD.

It’s not just a city thing. During a jog on an early-ish morning through downtown Ashland, Ore. I heard a violin being played even though few were out on the streets. I veered hard left across the street and dropped money in her case as I jogged by. I think I scared the crap out of her, but she never stopped playing.

How can any of this be a nuisance, I wondered. 

Regardless of your politics of homelessness, the art of performing in public–busking is the correct term–goes back as far as time likely does. Musicians and storytellers were the wisdom keepers of the tribe. Jewish culture is often sung, not read, from the Psalms. Kings and queens had their jesters and the great artists of the renaissance found their craft supported largely by patrons who simply wanted artists and their art nearby as a cultural enhancement.

Famous musicians have played on street corners, either before their fame as the likes of Janis Joplin and Tracy Chapman, or after they were big but headed out to the streets simply to perform, like the famous clip of Neil Young’s unmistakable voice playing banjo in Europe back in 1976. Bon Jovi is known to take to the streets time and again, and most famously Paul McCartney once went out and busked for video of a song.  Perhaps the greatest rocker of all time caught how people simply didn’t want to notice him:

“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 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.'”

If we are annoyed by Paul McCartney something’s kinda haywire with our built-in prejudices.

So why the disdain? Because many hawk CDs or perhaps have an open instrument case to accept passing donations? It makes no sense to me. I’ve tried to wrap my head around seeing these musicians and performers as a pain the ass and I just can’t make the pieces fit. Buskers are not panhandlers.


The more I thought about this in my wandering, the more my meager dollars flew out of my pocket into cans and bags and guitar cases, the more frustrated I became. I texted a friend and said, “I’m having a crisis of confidence with humanity right now.” Thankfully I didn’t have to explain it. It was just an ache, like a bruise that arrives but you can’t recall how it got there.

I’ve found that whenever I get too high and mighty life kicks my legs out. So I guess I wasn’t at all surprised when riding on BART from an assignment in Oakland, I felt annoyance as a guy stood to make an announcement on the train as it ducked under the bay.

I don’t mind panhandlers at all, but I don’t want them on the trains. It’s too close, too stuck, too intrusive even for those like me who don’t mind panhandlers on the streets. My own hypocrisy began to seep out of my skin.

I tuned out the announcement and even rolled my eyes as he pulled out his guitar and began to sign, soon accompanied by his two sons.

My first reaction: “Oh geez dude, get an EFFin life. Don’t pimp your kids on a commuter train.”

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Then I listened. They played Take me Home, Country Roads, a beloved song from my childhood that couldn’t be more out of place on a Bay Area train played by a black family… on plastic tubs and kazoos no less! The song transformed my thoughts. I pulled off my own headphones which were blaring gangsta rap. The discordant thoughts, latent racism and classism, and everything seeming so out of whack caused my head to swirl to the lyrics of “…to the place, I belong, West Virgina, mountain mama… gotta take me home…”

My crisis of confidence in humanity was a crisis of confidence in my own selfish little self.

I made sure to look all three of them in the eyes. They were having fun. I smiled and nodded and clapped a bit. I dug out a five-spot and held it aloft as soon as they finished. I looked around and noticed others did the same.  The father made sure to say, “Don’t give it to me. It’s for them. It’s for their education.”

And I believed him. I didn’t even care if its some hustle. That’s not my issue. They played, I liked it, the commute was better, so I tipped them. I could care no more what they were about than the waiter I tip after a nice dinner, which is exactly how it should be.

“Don’t forget your bucket,” I said to one of the kids before they left to play for the next train.

“Don’t worry. I got a system,” he said with a wink. He was having fun. He was and EFFin Artist, man.

That night as I played guitar with my daughter who worked on picking up the ukulele, I asked, “What do you think of going up to North Beach and playing some songs so you can sing to people on the streets?”

“That’d be cool,” she said.

“It would. And you can keep whatever money they give you. Consider it a job.”

“Why not?” she said and nodded. “Sounds fun.”

Fun. She simply wanted to sing for others even if that meant on a busy street corner of one of the busiest corners of the greatest city on the planet. Why not, indeed.


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