A bit about Busking
The term busking was first noted in the English language around the middle 1860s in Great Britain. The verb to busk, from the word busker, comes from the Spanish root word buscar, with the meaning “to seek”. The Spanish word buscar in turn evolved from the Indo-European word *bhudh-skō (“to win, conquer”). It was used for many street acts, and was the title of a famous Spanish book about one of them, El Buscón. Today, the word is still used in Spanish but mostly reserved for female street sex workers, or mistresses of married men.
1855 painting of a street musician, O Pobre Rabequista (The Poor Rabeca Player), by José Rodrigues
An organ grinder in Paris, photographed by Eugène Atget, c. 1898–99
There have been performances in public places for gratuities in every major culture in the world, dating back to antiquity. For many musicians, street performance was the most common means of employment before the advent of recording and personal electronics. Prior to that, a person had to produce any music or entertainment, save for a few mechanical devices such as the barrel organ, the music box, and the piano roll. Organ grinders were commonly found busking in the old days.
Busking is common among some Romani people. Romantic mention of Romani music, dancers and fortune tellers are found in all forms of song poetry, prose and lore. The Roma brought the word busking to England by way of their travels along the Mediterranean coast to Spain and the Atlantic Ocean and then up north to England and the rest of Europe.
In medieval France, buskers were known by the terms troubadours and jongleurs. In northern France, they were known as trouveres. In old German, buskers were known as Minnesingers and Spielleute. In obsolete French, it evolved to busquer for “seek, prowl” and was generally used to describe prostitutes. In Russia, buskers are called skomorokh, and their first recorded history appears around the 11th century.
Around the mid-19th century Japanese Chindonya started to be seen using their skills for advertising, and these street performers are still occasionally seen in Japan. Another Japanese street performance form dating from the Edo period is Nankin Tamasudare, in which the performer creates large figures using a bamboo mat.
I Viggianesi, street musicians from Viggiano, Italy. Work by Filippo Palizzi, 1853
In the 19th century, Italian street musicians (mainly from Liguria, Emilia Romagna, Basilicata) began to roam worldwide in search of fortune. Musicians from Basilicata, especially the so-called Viggianesi, would later become professional instrumentalists in symphonic orchestras, especially in the United States. The street musicians from Basilicata are sometimes cited as an influence on Hector Malot’s Sans Famille.
In the United States, medicine shows proliferated in the 19th century. They were traveling vendors selling elixirs and potions to improve the health. They would often employ entertainment acts as a way of making the clients feel better. The people would often associate this feeling of well-being with the products sold. After these performances, they would “pass the hat”.
One-man bands have historically performed as buskers playing a variety of instruments simultaneously. One-man bands proliferated in urban areas in the 19th and early 20th centuries and still perform to this day. A current one-man band plays all their instruments acoustically usually combining a guitar, a harmonica, a drum and a tambourine. They may also include singing. Many still busk but some are booked to play at festivals and other events.
Folk music has always been an important part of the busking scene. Cafe, restaurant, bar and pub busking is a mainstay of this art form. Two of the more famous folk singers are Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez. The delta bluesmen were mostly itinerant musicians emanating from the Mississippi Delta region of the USA around the early 1940s and on. B.B. King is one famous example who came from these roots.
The counterculture of the hippies of the 1960s occasionally staged “be-ins”, which resembled some present-day buskers festivals. Bands and performers would gather at public places and perform for free, passing the hat to make money. The San Francisco Bay Area was at the epicenter of this movement – be-ins were staged at Golden Gate Park and San Jose’s Bee Stadium and other venues. Some of the bands that performed in this manner were Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, Moby Grape and Jimi Hendrix.
Christmas caroling can also be a form of busking, as wassailing included singing for alms, wassail or some other form of refreshment such as figgy pudding. In the Republic of Ireland, the traditional Wren Boys, and in England Morris Dancing can be considered part of the busking tradition.
In India and Pakistan’s Gujarati region, Bhavai is a form of street art where there are plays enacted in the village, the barot or the village singer also is part of the local entertainment scene.
In the 2000s, some performers have begun “Cyber Busking”. Artists post work or performances on the Internet for people to download or “stream” and if people like it they make a donation using PayPal.
Mariachis, Mexican bands that play a style of music by the same name, frequently busk when they perform while traveling through streets and plazas, as well as in restaurants and bars.