Music On, And Beneath, The Streets: Buskers Of Boston
You see them on your daily commute, your Sunday stroll in the park. They work in the subways, on the streets, and in the Public Garden. Maybe you stop to listen; maybe you drop some change in the bucket. Now that it’s summer, many have emerged from the tunnels to ply their trade in the sunshine. The following is a collection of stories from just a few of the street musicians who make Boston their home and, often, busking their livelihood.
Who are your favorite street musicians? Leave us a comment!
Pianist Edward Rosser is a full-time performer and teacher. He first began playing his piano outside six years ago when he lived in Northampton. Back then it was easy: he lived on the first floor and simply rolled the piano out onto the sidewalk. Now, he keeps it locked up under a tarp in a Harvard Square alleyway all summer, pushing it out on sunny days to the corner of Brattle Street near Anthropologie. He can usually be spotted in the morning, playing Chopin in coattails and a bowtie.
“I remember that first time playing on the street, I was terrified of feeling like a fool, but as soon as I started playing people were just so grateful—to have real music, a real piano, and to have classical music, you know? That’s so unusual.”
“People give me money just for moving a piano onto the street, just for the effort involved. … One year, I really strained my arms [pushing the piano] so I couldn’t play for a month or two after.”
“The people I meet are so varied, and so amazing. One thing that’s really fun is that little kids are so entranced, because probably a lot of them have never seen a real piano—but certainly not on the street—and to them it’s like magic.”
Eric Royer aka Royer’s One Man Band
Eric Royer has been busking in his native city of Boston since 1995. He designed and built his “guitar machine,” a contraption that allows him to accompany himself on guitar, bass, percussion and banjo all at the same time. He also works as a carpenter, plays in several bands, and has appeared as a guest musician with a variety of artists, including singer-songwriters Kris Delmhorst and Alastair Moock. Catch him at Faneuil Hall in the summer, Sunday nights at The Burren in Somerville, and Mondays at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge.
“Busking has … really gotten slower in Boston. It’s slowed down a lot. Like Harvard Square used to be much more vibrant, or something, for that kind of thing. Now, there are still a few people doing it, but it’s not the same at all. Same with Faneuil Hall. It’s not nearly what it was 10 years ago.”
“I feel free to do whatever I want. … Which is how I kind of came up with this thing, this one-man band thing. Because when I first started doing it I couldn’t play it very well and it was very experimental, but when you play on the street it doesn’t really matter, you can do whatever you want. That’s the neat part of it, there’s no audition process, there’s no structure to it.”
“People say stupid shit to me, like, ‘get a real job.’ … Like one time I was getting out of a car with all my gear, or getting into a car or something, and these two guys were like, ‘Oh now the homeless get rides.’”
“Every time I play I get to some point where I get happy because I can see that somebody enjoys what I’m doing. And little kids, a lot of times, will just start dancing. … When people dance, that’s just awesome. I don’t know why, it just makes me really happy.”
Frankie J. (not to be confused with the Mexican-born R&B singer) has been busking in Boston for 12 years. Originally from the Caribbean, he can usually be spotted in Harvard Square singing Bob Marley songs, Top 40 covers, and his original compositions. Sometimes he brings his 6-year-old son, Sammy, with him.
“I do a lot of covers. Bob Marley. Bob Dylan. Adele. Rhianna. Alicia Keys. You name it. Lynyrd Skynard. Who would think I play Lynyrd Skynard?… I give it a little flavor. Like a little Regge-Carribean vibes into the music… I step it up, and everybody’s dancing, saying, ‘I like that, I never heard that like that.’”
Alàis Lucette (her stage name) began busking in Ithaca, New York, 6 years ago, then moved to New York City, and finally, a year and a half ago, to Boston. She has studied harp since the age of 9 and now makes a living performing on subway platforms and at special events. You can usually find her on the outbound Orange Line platform at State Street, playing her own compositions and, most recently, singing.
“For me, it’s something I love doing. I love playing music. I love performing for people. I like that it helps people, I like that it soothes people. I’m basically constantly learning and evolving the whole time. … The more you do something the more you improve at it. If I hadn’t been a street musician I don’t think I’d be nearly as developed as a musician at all.”
“There’s a lot of characters down there. … Yeah, you get harassed. You get hit on. … Mainly the most difficult thing I would say is there’s a lot of characters. [laughs] Some people can just be really annoying.”
“If it was really easy and it was all good all the time, everyone would be a street musician. But it’s just … it is like any job, with good and bad. But I think to persevere with it you gotta have really thick skin.”
“When I first started, I was just so shy. … Even when people talked to me and would say that they liked it I’d get nervous. … And I didn’t know how to make people leave. Some people, they just don’t have boundaries, and they don’t want to leave. … When you’re talking to so many people every day it just sort of goes away without even trying. ‘Til you’re like, I don’t think I’m that shy around people anymore!’”
Dan Friedman aka Ramblin’ Dan aka Professor World Band
Since the ‘70s, Dan Friedman has busked on streets the world over, building colorful and elaborate contraptions with which to accompany his songs. He has been based in Boston for the past 5 years. Follow his Twitter feed (@profworldband) to find out where he will be performing next; in the summertime, he favors the Public Garden, but can also be found in Harvard Square.
“For years and years [I was] just hitchhiking around the States and Mexico, Central America a little bit. And finally I went to Europe, and in Europe I got a Volkswagen bus and started building crazy machines, because I had to pay for repairs—instead of hitchhiking I had to pay gasoline and stuff. But it was kinda cool cause I had my place to sleep always, you know. Before I was just kind of homeless. I was young, so it didn’t matter, I was happy to sleep under a bridge or whatever.
“Each action causes a whole bunch of other actions, kind of everything is all wired together on my contraption. It’s fun.”
“I was playing in Switzerland one day … in Zurich. It’s against the law, and I was a little bit nervous that I was gonna get fined. … Anyway, I wasn’t doing that good, so I was about to quit, and this woman dropped a chocolate bar in my case. I didn’t think too much of it, but then I got home and it had her email address on it. So I wrote her an email to say thank you. And she invited me to dinner, and we fell madly in love, and travelled all around the world for eight years together. So, that’s why I do my chocolate song all the time. I always have a sign: ‘I love chocolate.’”
Ed Britt and Don Borchelt
Ed and Don have been playing together since 1998, and began busking in Harvard Square after Don, a city planner, retired three years ago. Though their instruments may look the same to the untrained eye, they in fact play two very distinct styles of five-string banjo: Ed plays what is known as “clawhammer,” using his bare fingers in a specialized strumming technique, while Don employs finger picks to play “Scruggs-style,” common among bluegrass musicians. In the banjo world such differences are the subject of much ire and suspicion, but such a taboo partnership plays just fine on the street.
Ed: “I come from Buffalo where nobody even knows how to play a five-string banjo. Seriously. I mean it took us almost a year to find someone that actually knew how to tune the damn thing.
Don: “I started out playing bluegrass banjo. I grew up in Cincinnati. But like right away I fell in with some old-time fiddlers … they were all old-time pickers in the real old-time sense, like they didn’t know they were.”
Ed: “The last thing I ever wanted to do in the world was busk. It was, like, give me a break, right? And the moment I did it it’s like, this is the best thing that’s happened to me in my life.”
Don: “We had a couple of mothers come by with a couple little kids. One mother was there, her little boy was about 4. And apparently, they had bought one of [our] CDs earlier … she said, ‘That’s his favorite CD! He’s almost worn it out! I had to hide it cause I got sick of it!’”
Amelia Mason is a writer and musician living in Cambridge. Those pesky “day jobs” she has to “make money” really aren’t worth mentioning. Naturally, she also has a blog: blog.ameliamason.com.