The Buskers, oil painting by Matt Duckett

Fishing the Streets: Busking in a Bar Town

The Buskers, oil painting by Matt Duckett

The Buskers

Oil on linen

36″ x 48″

We sat engrossed in spectacle under the swirling, drunken crowd that circled us like dumb buzzards. Some of them danced to our music, some to the pulse of some bassy anthem still rattling in their skeleton from two bars down, and others were just there looking for someone to shout at and rub up against. Our locking eyes corroborated a repeat, and we took it from the top again, then again, already at top speed but pressing faster, our boxes of wood and metal volatile and skittering on the edge of control in our own hands, risking explosion if we kept going but ensuring one if we stopped. The drunkest of them teetered in their orbits, set aright by a gentle kick, or glancing off fixed things and sent careening . On two main streets we sat in delta, passers-by, their current interrupted, drifting bemused by our presence, all craned and coiled in private, quizzical eddy around the corners and over the curbs. And in the brackish exchange of people and music, many bobbed and beached in front of us, casting dollars like seashells and disappearing into the rising tide.

We had waited through the evening. Like fisherman we waited. For a dark hour, for a comfortable quarry, for favorable weather and a contented gut we waited. Sun light skipped along the tops of brown brick storefronts on its way beyond the horizon. At its heels we stepped through the stickered doors of a convenience store for coffee. The weary warmth of September would turn in well before us tonight.

When we got to the spot, Tim was there. Tim knew all the best spots. He’d fished his music all over this town, and near as I could tell, all over all the towns. He could feel the fish in the water, or whatever the good fisherman do, and this was the spot. He was here already, standing under the awning of a dark salon, casting and reeling, perched at his fiddle-case like he was standing in a boat, shuffling to his meter as if drawing in his line. A half dozen green paper fish lay dead in his case.

The streets were filling with people, and we set out our chairs and stools. We squeezed our coffees for another minute then warmed our instruments in gloved hands. As we set up, Tim made room for us by brushing aside the dollars in his case. As you do. All but one, and I threw in two more, and Misha none.

Tim called the tune, we followed suit. An old time American shuffle. Kitschy, maybe corny to the young people walking to their next beer. We repeated the tunes more than we would under any other circumstance, playing to the deaf guppies with their scales of silver and gold and red and denim. We passed tunes back and forth under the awning, different bait for different fish.

Misha played the Arkansas Traveler, but to the couple passing by it was a worm out for a swim. The man leapt in a farcical skip, singing “I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee” and leering at his girl. She conducted business on her cell phone. We played the Irish standard The Silver Spear, and the first satirist to walk by kicked his feet in mock Riverdance. Later we played the swingy The Blarney Pilgrim, and a group of bros spun arm-in-arm for a minute then snapped out of it and resumed a swagger.

It might seem off-putting, and it might seem like mockery. Most people join in jest, dance in caricature. It may seem like a parody of enjoyment when they begin to bob and dart to our rhythm, they may smile as they twist and thrash to our rhythm, and roll their eyes as they circle. But with the barb of our music in their cheek they are ours for a moment, forgetting their plans and their intentions and, for a moment, dancing.

Maybe it’s him or maybe it’s her, but one of them usually grabs the others arm and pulls back into the current. Maybe we end a tune and drop them back into the streets. But one by one over the course of a night, our fiddle case fills with bills. I would have thought to empty the case about then, that a hungry case would bring in more bills. Some esoteric law of psychology will surely explain why a full fiddle case draws more donations than an empty one, but all I needed was for Tim to say ‘nah.’

All of the most valuable things we learned from Tim and he taught us everything we knew about busking. In almost every case the rule was temperance. When a drunken reveler wants to sit on your lap or lean over your shoulder, when someone threatens to run off with a handful of poached bills, when the twentieth person bellows about Freebird, the best answer is simply patient poise. Maintain composure, smile from your eyes, keep playing and use your feet.

Those rules apply to most situations. But when there’s a festival in town, when the streets have been closed to anything but pedestrians, and when the village-sized crowd drinking at the parade this morning becomes the village-sized mob drinking downtown, sometimes the rules can seem a little incomplete. In these times it’s best to hunker down and let Tim steer.

On this night our crowd grew a little too unruly. A pair of policemen herded the festgoers down the street and off the strip. They asked us to move up the street in an attempt to move our crowd, and like dolphins they pecked our school of dancers along the current of Pearl Street. At the top of the hill we sat in our chair and started again, without the cover of an awning nor the storefront at our backs. We were now completely exposed.

So we sat in the midst of this tempest, clinging to our little pieces of hollow wood and hoping at best to ride out the storm. Faster and faster we whipped the reels, played the jigs quicker than our fingers could enunciate, stomped through waltzes and barndances more recklessly than their traditions would prefer. The recently outcast patrons curled and whirled and spun. Those standing clapped like they were mushing their sled dogs. Those dancing sweated in quickening time. In the middle we sat in our little chairs like sinking ships, the air wet and salty and warm.

In the space of an hour the crowd would dissipate, scattering to obligations under the bars of our surrounding establishments. The ones who had come for the event, the thrill of the moment, to drink up the music and the chance to see people wrestling with commitments and curiosity, they would hang around for a while, silent, barely moving, leaning against a light post or street sign, or hovering over our shoulders, inspecting our unspoken conversations of countenance and meter. If these people were the ones that people would turn their backs to at their destinations, then the passers-by would hasten to those places and turn their backs to them here in the street. If those people were the ones who would draw eyes away from drinks or saddle you with primal intrigue as they squeezed next to you with an empty bottle, then those walking would feel a nagging in their heel, a tugging in their at their knees, and sweetened the music before it hit their ears.

At some point we’d slacken our bows and pack our instruments. We’d split the bills three ways, split the change if anyone cared to, then fold our chairs. We’d salute each other and maybe hug, and push off into the remainder of the night still humming something from a few hours ago.

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