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Busking:Who, What, Where and Why

Updated on February 9, 2013

A bit of history

There have been street performers from a multitude of performing arts category over the millennium. Street musicians, especially, have played a role in not just public entertainment but in relaying news from one place to another. The following is a hub related to Busking: Background and insights on the People and Places.

The word 'busker' goes back to the Italian word buscare "to seek, to prowl, to wander" and there are also references to the word buscar, which were heavy laced boots. It is commonly felt that minstrels of the middle ages are the first commonly known buskers, however, there was also one site that listed a Roman law in 451 BC that taxed traveling entertainers.

This law was part of the "Law of the Twelve Tables" which was the first organized code of law for the citizens of Rome. In the eight law, part one, the only reference found to a street musician or a busker states that is anyone sings a song that is considered an insult to the one whom the song is about then the singer "may be clubbed to death." Slander by virtue of song then, carried a heavy price, especially if the one whose reputation was slandered was a high citizen of Rome (a patrician) and the singer was a low citizen of Rome (a plebeian).

Henry the VIII also had a tax levied on street performers, not so surprising. It can be wondered then if Shakespeare's theatre was a way to get around the tax for common street performers? Though open air, the Globe Theatre could have been called a busking site, as the ones who watched from the audience did not have regular seats., rather only one Penny pit where you had to stand at the site of the five foot rise of the stage or the two Penny seats, which were still uncovered but at least had benches of a sort to sit on.

The Globe was actually located in the "bad" part of London and outside the reach of the police! So it is safe to say that Shakespeare was not only a brilliant, thought provoking author of his but a bit of a rebel as well! After all, he could have stayed safely at the Kings Men Theatre and continued to play for royalty, instead he chose to bring his art to the ordinary citizens of London.

Hmmmm, sounds like a champion busker, eh?

Rebecca Knight and Karen England, from the 2002 interview for the
Rebecca Knight and Karen England, from the 2002 interview for the

Want to know who started out busking?

My favorite buskers are The OperaBabes, Rebecca Knight and Karen England, soprano and mezzo soprano, friends and duo who,mainly acapella began to busk as a way to pay for more singing lessons! Singing lessons! Goodness, if these two need more lessons then Beethoven was only able to play chopsticks!

 As you can see from their picture, they are gorgeous and talented opera singers who were discovered by a talent scout while busking in Covent Gardens in the early 2000's. They are miles and years away from their first album and many performances away from 'singin in the streets' as it were. One interview in 2002 quoted them both as rather wistfully stating they missed busking and the same interview spoke of them turning down opera roles they would have never dreamed they would have turned down before they were "discovered." On the other hand, they have touched more people worldwide and opened the love of classical music to a multitude of people as popular artists than they would have ever reached in opera roles. Perhaps that is one reason that  early in their career they were slated by opera critics as being "sell outs" and "traitors" to their opera culture. If they think so, fine, as for myself, I am thrilled, along with millions of others, to be able to enjoy their music.

There are other now famous singers and performers who began their careers on the streets, singing or playing for the coins and bills tossed into their hat or instrument cases. Personally, I was amazed to learn of some of my favorites listed! To know that one of the singers I love ever had to struggle was surprising, though naive, I realize, as everyone has to hone their craft.

"How do I get to Carnegie Hall?"

It is rumored though not proven that before he changed his name Dylan, while still in college, earned his living singing on the streets. Others that are proven 'once upon a time buskers' were Woodie Guthrie, Blind Lemmon Jefferson (bluesman), Rick Roberts (Firewall), Jimmy Buffett, Tracy Chapman and Judy Collins.

Imagine what it would have been like to have heard Judy Collins on the streets of Greenwich Village in the 1960's only to realize she was the 13 year old they had seen perform Mozart at Carnegie Hall! Talk about culture shock in reverse!

 The culture of buskers and traveling artists is not the pickpockets of ickens' novels or the paranormal fey in modern novels. Buskers are an authentic group of talented musicians who are either living the life they prefer or are working their way up to another life of which they are dreaming.

Hats off and coins rain on all artists with the courage to stand on a corner and perform to an audience that may or may not even recognize their existence!

Have you ever?

Have you watched anyone busking?

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Brave enough to try?

If you were a new musician or performer would you busk?

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    • RNMSN profile image

      Barbara Bethard 8 years ago from Tucson, Az

      would loveto see those kids ply!! Yea...but the ones I would most like to see are are the Opera Babes and Dylan oh my!!!

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 8 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      You really do hear some amazing talent on the street, some of the best buskers I have come across were young kids in Dublin playing Irish music, amazing and hardly old enough to have cut teeth. Would have liked to run across Tracy Chapman as well.

    • RNMSN profile image

      Barbara Bethard 8 years ago from Tucson, Az

      cool! thak you James!!

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

      This is very interesting. I have stopped to listen to buskers countless times. Some are quite talented. I enjoyed learning more about this subject. Well written, too.

    • RNMSN profile image

      Barbara Bethard 8 years ago from Tucson, Az

      This was fun because I got to sing (ha) the praises of my favorite group! Thank you Princessa/Wendy for your comment and your support!

    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 8 years ago from France

      This is great. This morning when I was writing my hubmob post I looked into the category page to look for ideas for a hubmob on Performin Arts. Busking was one of the topics and I had to look up in the dictionary because I didn't know what it meant. Now, I know everything about busking! Thanks Barbara.