Monday, April 21, 2008

Street music

One of my ironclad rules of life is, always give some money to the street musician. Even if it's a bad street musician. It takes guts to stand out there and play your songs and have people instantly pass judgment on you. There's also the problem of, well, being out on the street. One time in New Orleans I saw a drunk guy come up to a sax player and holler, "I'll give you 20 bucks if you play 'Flight of the Bumblebee!'"

The sax player ignored him.

The drunk guy said, "I'll give you FIFTY bucks if you play 'Flight of the Bumblebee!'"

The sax guy glanced up, stopped his song and broke into a perfect version of "Flight of the Bumblebee." The crowd went nuts and the drunk guy dutifully tossed his 50 bucks in the jar.

I love a good street musician.

A couple of things lately made me think about this. Saturday morning we stopped by Nova's Bakery on Central Avenue and a kid was playing the violin inside. He was doing fine as it was, but then he took it over the top -- he busted out "Sweet Child of Mine."

Nothing like hearing a little Slash on the fiddle.

The other thing was that we're now just a few days away from the Bruce Springsteen concert at the arena (you can still get tickets!) and so I've been dredging YouTube for clips. Diehard Bruce fans will have seen this one, but it's still my favorite -- the Boss joining a street musician in Copenhagen for a version of "The River":

Wonder if Bruce made a few extra bucks that day.


Anonymous said...


Interesting column.

First, if I may play ex-copy editor for a moment, I feel that your second sentence ("Even if it's a bad street musician.") puts you in a position of "walking on your own column," as in "stepping on your own parade" or (baseball) "running yourself out of a rally."

This aside seems to set the tone that the potential quality of music played "on the street" is probably not going to be very good a lot of time time, but here we go anyway with a column on the more endearing aspects of street music.

I "play the street," as we say, because work opportunities in my former occupation have been limited by politics and in some cases academia. Some North Carolina press organizations, perhaps including McClatchy's Charlotte Observer, (Columbia) State and (Raleigh) News & Observer, apparently still participate in or condone the consigning of independent writers' work into being diverted away from publication in normal journalistic outlets and "transferred" instead to Democratic or Republican Party office-holders or political campaigns as part of some supposedly noble effort to "provide support" for the evaluation of issues of social justice in American politics.

But let everyone, including editors and artists, small business owners and family farmers, work for social justice in all their occupational capacities, not just relying only on the top directors of the Democratic and Republican parties at the national, state or local levels.

I was a Democratic candidate in North Carolina for the U.S. Senate (1978) and the U.S. House (1988, 1990) after having worked as an editorial writer at The Fayetteville Observer (1975-77). But when I was an editorial writer, I was not in the employ of a political party.

I believe that it is fine for newspapers to have a preferred point of view editorially in regard to traditional "liberal" or "conservative" philosophical principles and that newspapers can even gravitate toward a tendency to editorially support one of the major political parties over the other in many election contests if they wish to commit themselves editorially in such a fashion.

But I oppose the transformation of the newspaper journalism news-gathering process to benefit any political party, officeholder or political campaign and therefore have resisted pressure to agree to have my former or potential new employment in the area of newspaper journalism subjected to partisan political control, management or direction, which I also believe to be in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Rights of the N.C. Constitution.

Even in the field of music, which was always secondary to journalism for me in my earlier adult years, I have seen how strong partisan political organizations can try to control which performing artists can gain employment or engagements in certain venues in a number of areas involving various styles of music right here in North Carolina, especially in the politically charged urban corridors of Raleigh and Durham.

So I have had to "play the street" with a violin, mandolin or guitar because the same powerful political interests which would like to control newspaper journalism in the Carolinas can also make things quite difficult for you even if you give up your first profession to try to work in some other area of endeavor, such as being a musician and seeking to work in a band or a symphony orchestra for your livelihood. This isn't just some bygone 19th Century struggle between politics and the liberal arts.

So I place a high value on the historic and cultural role of street music, or what some of us like to refer to as "street-scene music" to try to make it sound more artistically refined, in shaping the careers of such French artists as the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli and the renowed singer Edith Pfaf ("La Vie en Rose") and many of our own American jazz and blues people who either chose to or pretty much had to include street music in their regular activities in order to advance to other music venues.

But in New Orleans, which you mentioned, I played the street entirely voluntarily in the French Quartet one and two blocks over from Bourbon Street on Royal and Chartres streets in order to enjoy participating in the joyful celebration of music, painting, dance and so many New Orelans arts forms right there in the Crescent City, often teaming up in violin-mandolin or violin-guitar duos to play traditional Italian melodies, favorite American standards and Irish dance tunes in Jackson Square there in the Quarter. This in turn led to a really fine house club gig on Bourbon Street to be able to play for all the visitors to New Orleans during the height of the "Urban Cowboy" craze when fiddle-playing was in especially strong demand. But even with that great gig, we also kept our street music groups going because at the drop of a hat, we would be invited to play for parties in those fabulous New Orleans hotels and restaurants.

There was also a time when I used to visit South Tryon Street in Charlotte to play weekday "street lunch sets" in certain approved sidewalk zones which seemed to win an approving nod from bankers passing by on their way to and from lunch outings. Yes, bankers deserve a few choice riffs on a guitar or runs on a flute as they make their daily rounds. But all street music performances need to be presented in situations and circumstances approved by or conducive to the adjacent business community because the businesses are "paying the freight" for rendering those sidewalks as enticing locations for commercial transactions and pedestrian shopping.

A responsible street musician frequenting a business district for music sets can also contribute to the improved safety of all by being alert to shady opportunists or violence-prone individuals looking to prey upon unsuspecting townsfolk. And after a Duke freshman co-ed died in a freak campus bus accident near the East Campus of Duke in the early 1990s, some of us practically made it a vigil to play music there and work for better safety at intersections and street crossings as well as more effective law enforcement measures against street drug dealers. The entire Ninth Street area of Durham was cleaned up and re-vitalized and has become a model for pedestrian-friendly business shopping, dining and entertainment in the Research Triangle region.

Just this weekend, I played my favorite twice-a-year event of all, which takes the form of a street concert for N.C. State's last-day-of-semester-classes tradition known as "The Hillsborough Hike" along the Hillsborough Street business district across from the State campus in Raleigh. In this setting, which can be monitored by campus security officials as they deem necessary, the students take the lead in choosing when to move door-to-door up and down the street to "pay their respects" at favorite local taverns and restaurants as they prepare to dig in for final exams. But the life of the party is along the sidewalk as they meet to chat, hug or sing cheers about coming graduation.

The students and the businesses support the musical street scenes because they feel that this helps create a festive mood for a jovial but safe college social experience emphasizing friendship and fellowship with their classmates. And this spring, organizers were able to add a live band performance to the lineup in the first part of the evening.

If you bring a fiddle or a guitar to share some songs along the street at State's Hillsborough Hike, you get an inspiring and yes, "educational" view of the great character and "esprit de corps" of State students which is rarely portrayed in news features, including stories from and impressions of their favorite hometown communities across the state of North Carolina. This weekend a group of students from Burke County held an impromptu discussion on the charm and character of such Burke cities and towns as Morganton, Glen Alpine, Drexel, Icard, Connelly Springs and Valdese, so this certainly bodes well for the next generation of North Carolina leadership.

I've played the street at Harvard Square and in downtown Boston as well as "on the main drag" along Guadelupe in Austin, Texas, adjacent to the campus of the University of Texas. I've played jazz in Minneapolis office buildings, polkas on Munich plazas, waltes in Vienna and folk music on storied Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

So, summarizing the views of this particular musician, many of the "street music sessions" have been entirely out of the joy of sharing music in inviting public settings, but of course some of them at favored street corners in North Carolina and elsewhere have been out of economic necessity.

We who play the songs of Cole Porter, George Gerschwin, Irving Berlin, Lerner & Lowe and Rodgers & Hammerstein "way, way off Broadway" can sympathize with hard-pressed arts organizations such as dance companies, theatrical troupes and symphony orchestras which are trying to attract sufficient funds to make their budgets and meet their payrolls.

Having to play the street through years of below-poverty living resulting from resisting unconstitutional, partisan congressional or legislative political control of newspaper journalism in the Carolinas has not only helped me to honor in some small way founder James Madison's constitutional views on freedom of expression under a republican form of representative government, it also has ("accidentally" perhaps) made me a better player of "violin/fiddle music."

But I cannot say that I recommend this as a way of life because of the likely across-the-board sacrifices in personal life dreams inherent in such artistic pursuits as these. And it's no way to build or maintain close relationships beyond casual friendship. (What do you call a fiddle player without a girlfriend? --Homeless.)

Still, street music can help musicians lasso "house club shows" as well as prepare for and pay for their next rounds of recording sessions, out of which some permanent representation of their work can be created and produced.

And just for fun, spur-of-the-moment street music shows in the right setting just can't be beat, either for the performer or the audience, as when the mimes, dancers and ragtime jug bands set up to entertain tourists and locals in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

The saxophone, which received a nice mention in your column, is perhaps the quintessential "street corner" instrument in the American jazz and blues tradition because the instrument by its very tone lends itself to trailing off nicely on a restaurant district street corner as folks stroll by on their way to dinner. Indeed, one of our favorite New Orleans jazz street artists was known simply as Hack the Sax.

So until newspapers like The Observer, The State and The News & Observer take a stand against partisan political or governmental "guiding" of journalism and free intellectual inquiry by resolving to inform liberal Democratic and conservative Republican command centers alike that effective constitutional government is best served when press organizations are not under the administrative control of the people who run political parties and serve in public offices, some of us who do not wish to compromise or un-do the journalistic achievements of the previous generation will have to keep on finding alternative ways to "pay for being a writer." And this even if it means playing the Rondo of Beethoven's Violin Concerto on a sidewalk with just the right rhythmic cadence to it so that folks can try a few courtyard dance steps of their own along their way to the boutique, the shoestore, the deli or the neighborhood cafe.

And remember this as well when coming upon a stand-alone musician or a band "playing the street" in some appropriate setting: they may be there that day because they want to, because they have to, or because of some irresistible combination of the two. After all, it need not be such a long walk to get from Paganini to pastrami.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, Mr. McKnight ... zzz! This isn't a pompous editorial page that people younger than 35 flip after a quick glance of the Kevin Siers cartoon. After reading the first four paragraphs of your inflated prose (bloated ego), I thought "what's next, the story about how you gave your grandson his first piece of Werthers Original?"

Welcome to the blogosphere. Keep your comments short and to the point. Add a dash of sarcasm. Perez Hilton sucks.

The Evil Q.

Anonymous said...

I wrote a response to the criticism of me posted on this blog, but The Observer's posting process was blocked. Perhaps it will show up later.

Anonymous said...

Mr. McKnight, I feel sad for you. You obviously need an audience. Perhaps the street corner?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the sympathy everyone. It's good to know that folks back in the ol' hometown are pulling for you when you are battling the Raleigh political machine to try to give people from the Piedmont and mountains a fair chance in politics in this state.

They got on Gov. Jim Martin for trying to take them on in difficult circumstances, but fortunately, he has had such a distinguished career in education, music and government that nobody in Charlotte is throwing brickbats in his direction.

All I tried to do was to make sure that people from Mecklenburg County had the same chance in state government and in the Research Triangle Universities around Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, as folks do from other parts of the state regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. And also work to improve the safety around the campuses of these universities which are attended by many students from the Charlotte area.

As for music, I am proud to have a collection of really fine CDs I have recorded with a number of different bands, and this made the street music gigs all worth the effort.

In fact, a guitar-violin duo I am in that plays once a month in one of Raleigh's finest downtown restaraunts has just completed recording a four-CD, 60-song collection of American folk, blues and jazz songs making use of a violin made right there in Charlotte by the violinmaker John Sipe. So I am very proud of that even though The Observer has refused to write a single line about this hometown Charlotte violin-violinist recording endeavor.

We've even recorded "The Mecklenburg Waltz," which I wrote with the Charlotte Folk Music Society back in the '80s.

So don't feel sorry for me because I'm on my way to the next gig. But make sure the young people of Charlotte have a fair chance to reach for their dreams, no matter what career or occupation they may choose coming out of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and the community college or university of their choice.

One of our friend's bands out in Texas where I spent some time playing music just got booked for the popular, crowd-pleasing "Fanfare" celebration in Nashville in June, so we're all looking forward to that. But I would never have had chance to play fiddle in Music City the first time if it hadn't been for the music programs and teachers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.