Busking, or street performing, is a centuries-old tradition going back to times when wandering minstrels and bards traveled from place to place and acted not only as entertainers but also as news reporters and message bearers. The term ‘sing for your supper’ could have originated at this time, when it was common practice for inns and stall holders to pay the busker with a meal and/or a bed for the night, instead of money.
There have been entertainers performing in public arenas for gratuities or tips in every major culture in the world, dating back to antiquity.
Despite its long history, busking cannot be traced back as easily as many other forms of entertainment, yet there have been some ancient and dusty records found with a few actual facts about when and how busking began.
The term busking was first noted in the English language around the middle 1860s. The word busk comes from the middle Spanish root word buskar, meaning “to seek or to wander” and was applied to wandering minstrels of the middle ages.
Historic records document the Roman practice of throwing coins to performers in general, which could have been where the concept of a busker receiving ‘tips’ originated. During the medieval times, local merchants in Europe would invite entertainers to perform in front of their stores. They also asked entertainers to perform in plazas and public squares to attract pedestrians and increase business. The entertainers were paid in exchange for their services. Merchants in other countries began similar methods and soon entertainment in the street became a popular attraction.
From the Renaissance to the early 1900s, busking was called minstrelsy in Europe and English-speaking lands. Before that, itinerant musicians were known by the French term troubadours. In old French the term jongleurs was also used to describe buskers. 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 Italian it evolved to buscare which meant “procure, gain’. Today, buskers in Italy are called buscarsi.
The Early Days
In Rome, some rebellious minstrels performed poems and songs that contained negative lyrics and criticized rulers. Consequently the first recorded street performance in western history was the result of a legislation passed in 451 BC, known as The Laws of the Twelve Tables. This law prohibited against the singing or composing of “Libelli Famosi” which put in lay terms means that singing about, or making parodies of the government or its officials in public places was a crime, with the penalty being death.
The next historical find is a reference to a law passed by Luis the Pious. Before this law, entertainers were granted the same justice as all citizens. Louis the Pious changed the law so that histriones (jesters) and scurrae (clowns) (basically all entertainers without Noble protection – the equivalent of not having a permit) be excluded from the privilege of justice.
In 1530, King Henry VIII of England ordered that beggars who could not work, pardoners, fortune-tellers, fencers, minstrels and players must be licensed. If they did not obey this order, they could be whipped for two consecutive days.
In 1887 British law stated street performers, who were regarded as, cripples, blind men, old men, women, children, sweepers, match girls, sham watermen, fishermen and gardeners, were people for the police force to ‘watch’. This could suggest that lawful harassment towards street performers was permitted and could possibly explain why British police frequently speak harshly to buskers to this day and still regard street performance as something that needs to be firmly controlled.
It is believed gypsies, also known as the Roma people brought busking to England. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, busking was a reliable and common form of income therefore this custom followed the Roma people on their travels along the Mediterranean coast to Spain and the Atlantic ocean and then up north to England and the rest of Europe.
Today, busking has spread throughout the world in its most modern format, yet when we look at its history, we can see that there are many examples of how music, art and even advertising, throughout the world has been greatly influenced by the traditional art of busking.
Around the middle 1800s Japanese Chindonya started to be seen using their skills for advertising, and these street performers are still occasionally seen in Japan.
Mariachis are Mexican street bands who wear ornate costumes with intricate embroidery, beaded designs, large brimmed sombreros, short charro jackets and play a specific style of music also known as Mariachi. To this day, these popular musicians perform for gratuities as strolling minstrels traveling through streets and plazas, as well as in restaurants and bars.
In the USA, street performance first penetrated the wider population as medicine shows proliferated in the 1800s. Traveling vendors selling elixirs and potions to improve health would often employ entertainment acts as a way of making the spectators feel better. After these performances they would ‘pass the hat’ to an ‘uplifted’ crowd of onlookers. Today it is very common to see buskers entertaining large groups of onlookers and then ‘passing the hat’ when their show is over.
It has also been said that the circus played its part in helping busking to evolve and spread throughout the world, in particular – America. In order to continue performing when not officially working, circus performers began tweaking their acts to suit street corners. As a result, modern styles of busking, became popular and more widely accepted.
Folk music has always been a dominant presence in 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 1920s and on. They spread the gospel of the blues to many.
Present-day busker festivals often resemble staged ‘be-ins’ once organized by the hippie movement in the 1960s. During this era, bands and performers would gather at public places and perform for free, passing the hat to make money. In the USA, San Francisco Bay was at the epicenter of this movement with be-ins staged at Golden Gate Park, San Jose’s Bee Stadium and other venues. Some of the bands that performed at be-ins 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. The controversial lifestyle of hippies, including free love and the use of illegal drugs unfortunately tainted the image of busking, especially amongst religious groups.
Although the essence of busking is very much the same as it was many years ago, modern technology has made life a lot easier for the busker.
Today, buskers can promote themselves and book employment on the internet. Buskers can choose holiday or travel destinations according to busking festivals or busking employment opportunities. Sound and musical equipment is better quality and affordable for most budgets.
One of the latest things to enter the busking scene is cyber busking. Performers are uploading their work onto the internet for others to download and make a donation via internet payment systems such as PayPal or snail mail.
Did You Know:
The term busk is also used in music when a musician has to play something quickly from scratch, by ear or at sight. eg I’ll just busk it.
Busking was the most widely used method of employment for entertainers before the introduction of recording and personal electronics.