My first busking experience was near a public market in Seattle about two years ago. I had 30 minutes before a doctor’s appointment so I played at the edge of the park lawn overlooking Elliot Bay. Boy there were lots of people sitting and talking and enjoying the great weather. I was nervous about breaking the din of noise with my fiddle. What would they like? A waltz, hoedown, or a rag? Fast or slow – perhaps some classical? There must have have been a hundred people in this little patch of urban green, and over a thousand tourists in the nearby Pike Place Market. A mounted policeman in place to maintain order. I asked if I needed a license, he said only in the market. In the end, I made a buck, I think I will frame it like you see some small businesses do, it is somewhere in my violin case. I had a gentleman encourage me to come back again as I rushed to my appointment.
A year later, I planned to busk in my sleepy town of Auburn, population 65,000. I would hit the public market on Sunday, which might at best pull in a couple hundred people over the course of the day. But by the time I was ready to go, the market had closed at 2 pm, so I decided to enter what I call the heart of our ghost town’s central district, all three blocks of it. I dropped my wife off at Starbucks so she could work on her memoir. It was hot for Auburn, 74 degrees F or so, I parked near Safeway and decided to play in the shade of a concrete park between two brick buildings. A young man plucked a flower out of the city planter for his girlfriend as I pulled out my fiddle while I watched them stroll away arm in arm and he kissed her. Wait, I thought, I will play Lovers Waltz. I moved a piece of trash off of the bench where I would sit. Here is a safe and quite spot for me to practice. No reason to be nervous. Why do I get so nervous?
As I played, I saw no more than 25 people in the course of an hour plus. One man asked if I knew any Charlie Daniels The Devil Went Down to Georgia, and another asked for some western music. I did a little bit of each. I even improvised on a classical piece from the theme of Schindler’s List. The theme resonates with my inner being and plumbs a void that the folk music I play does not. I played Arkansas Traveller, Billy in the Low Ground , Red Haired Boy, Faded Love, Redwing and others. Gradually relaxing into my cozy little space, becoming one with this urban yet suburban space. I made mistakes and kept playing on, I tried to create new versions of my songs, reaching for new lines and notes. I looked at people and smiled. I observed everyone one. I asked for requests. They are now on my stage, I am watching them. Breath deep. Some stopped to ask questions. I need more practice, I have forgotten so much, I thought. When I told a man I did not play jazz, he asked if I played the blues. I said I can play I Don’t Love Nobody, and he thought a bit and sang, “I don’t love nobody, and nobody loves me, that will work”. So I slowed down my Texas Style contest version of I Don’t Love Nobody and he started dancing. He became my dancing metronome!
After awhile I noticed that most of the people were smoking, some appeared to be somber, others talkative, and generally walking about as if they were very relaxed on this Sunday afternoon. I began to suspect there was a bar around the corner. And indeed, before I left I took a peek and there is a pub. A local watering hole! I began to notice familiar faces and silhouettes coming back to smoke in the distance, and look over to watch me play. One woman pretended to be playing the fiddle. Then it began, at random moments they began to walk over and drop a dollar bill or two, even a five spot, and some change with an apology. The most heartwarming line I got was from a woman who was obviously enamored with my Fishers Hornpipe, as she placed a one dollar bill in my case she said, “You are really good, WHY are you in Auburn?” To which I replied, “because I live here!” thinking “somebody thinks I am ready for a bigger city!”
In the evening, I prepared myself for the work week by playing my fiddle down by the river while my black lab ace happily licked the empty BBQ clam shells from dinner . I do believe the way of the fiddle is teaching me about myself, my fears, my feelings, how I choose to live, how I can love others, and that deep down, I must play the fiddle to continue to discover my inner spirit.