Busking: concerts on the sidewalk

Busking is an important—and often overlooked—part of the Philly music scene.

Angela GervasiThe Kimmel Center’s cello-shaped, crimson-curtained Verizon Hall boasts the talent of Philadelphia’s greatest musicians.

So do the gritty, underground corridors of Suburban Station.

As a city student, my travels to and from high school on the subway were always musical, even when I forgot to bring my iPod. The sounds of buskers—musicians who perform publicly in exchange for tips—echoed amid rushing passengers.  It felt faintly magical to walk through Suburban and hear the traces of a trumpet or the breath of a guitar floating through the air.

I never thought about the faces behind those instruments and voices until a friend and I, juniors in high school, met Calvin.

Calvin’s sparkling singing voice captured our attention as we wandered through a drafty hallway that led to City Hall. He sat, a baseball cap perched on his head, a keyboard balanced precariously on his lap. We stopped to talk to him—he didn’t seem much older than us. He made us laugh and wrote a song for us on the spot.

Weeks later, we ran into him again, as Philadelphia is often not as vast as it seems. This time, he was with his young daughter, Aaliyah—he’d named her after the late singer.

“I’m always going to be there for her,” I remember him saying about his daughter. A cluster of flowers he’d bought for Aaliyah sat next to the two of them.

Three years later, Calvin’s presence, voice and story still resonate with me. Whenever I pass a street corner of vibrantly noisy drummers, I can’t help but imagine the other stories of Philadelphia’s buskers.

One of those buskers is alumnus Julian Root, who began playing angry punk rock songs on his guitar in Suburban Station—not far from where Calvin often performed. Root, then 18 , would soon realize he had to play more uplifting music to capture the attention of his impromptu audience.

“The most important part of busking, as I see it, is to spread the joy that I feel playing music to the unsuspecting passersby,”  he said.

After starting in Suburban, Root expanded his stomping grounds when he moved several blocks over to Rittenhouse Square: this time, to play bluegrass music on a banjo. The instrument, charmingly outlandish against a dense urban backdrop, garnered attention and tips. Root said he received countless donations other than money in exchange for his music, like fruit, beer and women’s phone numbers.

Anthony Riley, a well-known Philadelphia busker who was once a contestant on The Voice, helped teach Root to overcome the challenges of street performance.

“As soon as you get through your first tune, and someone drops a buck in your case, or just walks by and smiles with a thumbs up, you feel like you belong,” Root said.

Root said a busker’s success doesn’t depend on perfect musical technique; playing with blatant bliss is more significant than executing a flawless falsetto. This rule, Root said, has been universal throughout the places where he’s busked—everywhere from Amsterdam and Copenhagen to Austin, Texas and New Orleans.

Currently, Root is continuing his musical pursuits as a professional banjo player in Guatemala. Busking out in the open has thickened his skin as an artist.

“As you get accustomed to people just walking by without a glance, it steels you for the reality that the majority of people simply don’t care—and that’s OK,” Root said.

While it’s easy to speed through the city past a busker, try lending a listening ear once in awhile. When Riley died last year, Root composed a song for his friend and mentor that outlined the mission of a busker:

“In the winter, when it was cold, he’d just sing in a sweater; His job was important, and he worked hard—making you folks feel better.”

And I hope stories of the city’s buskers continue to drift through Philadelphia, the way Calvin’s voice once brightened a dirty train station.

Angela Gervasi can be reached at angela.gervasi@temple.edu.

Editor’s note: Julian Root wrote for The Temple News during the 2007-08 academic year. He had no part in the editing process of this column.

1 Comment

  1. You captured one of the many unspoken advantages to living in a vibrant city and the characters that dot its landscape. Really enjoyable read.

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