This article consists of three women buskers' answers to a set of interview questions about the topic of busking. The interviewer, and author of this series, Kirsten Anderberg, has been a busker for over 30 years. This article is organized with the question being posed first, then all three of the women's answers follow each question. This organization allows the reader the most thorough means of comparison between the women's answers. There is so little documentation of women buskers' lives, throughout history, it is a void; I offer this article as one in a continuing series of women busker interview articles to try to at least leave a record of contemporary women street performers for future generations to enjoy.
The women buskers interviewed in this article are Yva Las Vegass, Pamela Suzanne Burdwell, and Christine Gunn. The interviewer (K. Anderberg) met all of these women as fellow buskers at the Pike Place Market in Seattle during the 1980's. The women buskers interviewed in this article answered the questions below in the winter of 2013. These women will be referred to by their initials in the answer sections of the questions. You will find other women buskers' answers to these same questions by visiting the Women Buskers Project Home Page.
1 - How long have you been a busker?
YLV: I was a full time busker from 1981 until 2008. I still busk but not regularly.
PSB: I started busking when I came to Seattle, in 1987.
CG: I started in 1988, and was consistent until 1990, then stopped and had a kid. I still did it, but not as much from 1993-1996. In those years, I played with Trillian Green, busking and also solo. Sometimes we had more stage shows than others, but I still busked festivals. In 1997, I had more kids. I didn't busk streets regularly any more, but did busk festivals sometimes. So maybe 2004 was the last time I busked. I think when I am an old lady I will be doing it. I used to call my cello my American Express card, as it is an identity you take with you everywhere you go and people know who you are immediately.
2 - How and where did you start street performing?
YLV: In 1979/80 I visited Seattle and encountered street musicians in the Pike Place Market (in Seattle, WA). It was love at first sight.
PSB:I had come, the summer before, to the Folklife Festival. We heard great things from the performers about playing for tips at the Pike Place Market, and on the Ferry boats. My then Husband/Partner and I moved over from Idaho, via California, in our reconditioned school bus, and parked outside of town. We'd drive to The Market every day in our Shuttle Craft, and make enough to survive on, doing something we were grateful to do! We got familiar with the options, and then started playing at small venues, around town, but we always came back to The Market!
CG: I began at the Pike Place Market in Seattle, WA. I made friends with buskers there, working at the Greek food place for long weekends. I would earn $100 pay, then the owner took $60 taxes in some kind of scam. I was just a kid then. I realized street performers made more money than I did and I had played cello since grade school. I thought, "This is easy." I brought my cello the next weekend, got a Market performing badge and got in line. I never had to play solo and always had someone to play with because everyone made more money with a cello in the group. A young girl with a classical instrument classed up other acts. Half see buskers as bums so to see classical performers seemed cultured to audiences so I found there was a demand for me to sit in from beginning. I would go with one group after another and take a cut. I got to the point that I saw I could make more money by myself, just making stuff up as I went along. I wrote things that way, playing moods, repeating what worked and what got attention. I put an album out, got musicians together for a CD to sell for better money. That led to the creation of Trillian Green. Trillian Green played as a band all over the Pacific Northwest after that. I wrote most of the Trillian Green music while improvising at Pike Place Market.
Yva Las Vegass
3 - What is your busking act?
YLV: Initially, I did pop and rock. I sang and played the guitar. soon after I started to play traditional Venezuelan music, that took me to composing my own traditional songs. As I established myself, I began to add/to have a socio/political discourse in my act.
PSB: I used to be known as "That Loud Chick" by many of the Local Denizens! We started out playing guitars and singing Modern Folk/Rock, with some actual Folk, and some Originals blended in. We were known mostly for our harmonies. I later switched to Mandolin, because it evoked more curiosity. If you can make people wonder about something, they may stop...if they stop, the chances of them tipping skyrockets!
CG: I play cello, sitting in with others, playing whatever they are playing, or I play solo cello, but it is all improvised and original material. I did not bother learning any classical pieces but still made like $20 an hour. Playing 5 sets solo is a lot of work. I did enjoy playing hour after hour at the Market and got better as a musician. I also got to be a good performer by paying attention to the audience and making subtle changes in what I was doing based on their responses.
4 - Do you think there is any difference between being a male or female street performer?
YLV: Like anything in this society, busking is plagued by sexism and its stereotypes.
PSB: In my experience, Street Performers are ALL different!!!
CG: The buskers I knew when down at thePike Place Market were about half women and I didn't notice a huge difference. In a way, the guys seemed more pathetic, like bums, where women seemed more like legitimate musicians. Women may have an advantage because they are less threatening and more romantic. Women seemed like musicians out there exposing what was in their souls while men could often appear as some bum that got a guitar. While women may have an advantage due to appearing less threatening, it is not a field where people say, "What's a woman doing making music?" Women are accepted as musicians and I felt I got a lot of respect and admiration as a musician/performer/busker at the Market. Maybe if I had been a man playing the cello, it would be the same, but not the same as a man on a guitar.
5 - Why do you think there are so few women street performers (as compared to men)?
YLV: For the same sexist reasons that fill our lives.
PSB: I would propose that most Female Performers might feel a bit "exposed", and possibly somewhat more vulnerable than the Males. EVERYBODY out there took some crap from a bad crowd, now and then, but as Women, we might take that sort of a thing as a threat, rather than just a challenge.
CG: I don't think that there are fewer women than male buskers. There are more women than men from my perspective. I met more women performers than men, so I can't answer because I don't agree with the question. I just didn't notice there being more men than women.
6 - What is the most inspirational busker act you have ever seen?
YLV: There were many. In Seattle, where I began, the very first band I saw ( a blues band) had a stand up bass and the whole picture is still ingrained in my mind. But as of lately, there is a woman tap dancer I saw in the NYC subway who left my jaw hanging.
PSB: Probably a tie between Annie O'Neal and Bananafish...both THRILLING to sing along with, and I never could shut up!!!
CG: I have seen some amazing street performances. The person I was most inspired by was Yva Las Vegass because that woman cracks open the border between spiritual and material world. She's a magician, a wizard, that pulls the tears out of your soul. I wanted to play with her right off the bat and wormed my way into Yva and Dee playing as "Dos Mundos." I got into the band and we became "Tres Mundos," and "Delusions of Grandeur" when we did rock songs. I get a lot out of just listening to Yva. With some performers and musicians, you can tell they are in touch with the source, the energy, the god-like ability to make you feel it if paying attention. I wanted that. I feel good about the fact that I can recognize it when I see it and Yva is definitely one who has it. The kind of music I write is nothing like what we played, but paying attention to what about Yva's performance moved me, made me more able to tap into that in my own work.
7 - What is the worst busking act you have ever seen?
YLV: There are soooo many, I could not even start.
PSB: There was this guy named Eric (I'm NOT going to advertise him by giving his last name!) who played the same cover tunes as everybody else, but had a harsh, angry tone to his voice that was a BIG CLUE to his "personality." I do NOT find anger entertaining, unless it's REALLY FUNNY, a la Lewis Black, George Carlin, a few others...
CG: The guy who blows the paper horn; that just seems a step above bumming. But there was this other guy at the Market at same time and he sat and sang all Beatles songs, all monotone. Every one sounded the same and after all the years busking, he never improved! How do you play 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, for years, and always have the same sickly monotone voice and plinkity plinkity guitar sound with one Beatles song running into the next? I can still hear him today!
8 - What is your favorite tip ever received?
YLV: Someone left a Dream Barbie Bicycle by my case (during those days, I had a war against the Barbie impossible dream)
PSB: I always remember this Little Girl, about 3 or 4 years old, all dressed up for Christmas, and being swept down the street by her Busy Mama. She heard/saw us from about a block away, and started struggling with her free hand to open her little sparkly purse, but Mama was moving with purpose as they passed us by. She broke free from Mom's grip about 20 yards past our case, ran back to us, and ceremoniously dropped in about 14 cents. She then beamed us a smile that I'll keep in my heart, FOREVER, while Mom watched from about 10 feet away, with her panic melting into pride! I'm particularly fond of the "Un-spendables!"
CG: My most poignant tip was from a fellow at Market, one of the guys from Alaska. I am not sure what tribal affiliation he was from but he was Native American. His name was Thurston but "Thirsty" was his nickname. He carved totem poles. I hung with him and his buddies a lot. Thurston had a crush on me and we went out on one date when he was sober; he was sweet and never pushed for it again. He was always on the periphery, carving totem poles. One time I was especially broke, and my cello strings were expensive. He tipped me with a whole set of cello strings and he was homeless. He had saved up enough from his totem pole sales to buy me a set of strings. I was very sad when he passed away. It is nice to think of him remembered in this article even.
Pamela Suzanne Burdwell
9 - Would you want your own children to busk? Why or why not?
YLV: I do not have children, so have no experience. But if I did I suppose I would be fine with it.
PSB: I gave My Daughter a Native American Flute when she went to Europe, in case she ran out of money, and couldn't wait for Me to send any! I believe busking is a series of valuable life lessons, and I'm grateful for my time, out there! It taught me that most people are more afraid of ME than I WAS of THEM...then it got FUNNY!!!
CG: Yes, both my sons know how to busk and play music. It gives them money and independence. They meet people and have freedom to travel places they couldn't go otherwise. I realize busking is not respected everywhere, but busking builds self-confidence and observation skills, teaching them to notice how they act and its effect on others. Busking could even help my kids pay for their college tuition.
10 - What is the hardest part of busking? Getting or holding a pitch due to aggressive fellow buskers? Hatting the crowd? Hecklers? Street people, store owners or craft booth vendors bothering you? City regulations oppressive?
YLV: All of the above plus the stigma of being on the street. I have had people smash/steal my instrument, split my head open, take my tips, spit on me, punch me on the face while I sang with my eyes closed. I have been arrested and abused, heckled by "fellow musicians," have had racist slurs thrown at me, etc. The laws vary from place to place, some places are worse than others. Have had the exceptionally bitter vendor complain and successfully removed me.
PSB: What is the hardest part of busking? Getting or holding a pitch due to aggressive fellow buskers? Hatting the crowd? Hecklers? Street people, store owners or craft booth vendors bothering you? City regulations oppressive? All of the Above!!! For me, the hardest part was being subject to EVERYBODY'S MOOD!!! You try to create a positive space for people to share, but whether it's jealousy, fear, or just plain misery-loving company, Some People just WON'T play well with others!!! When their bad vibes conquered my good ones, on occasion, I might be found crying all the way home, wondering why I bother!?!
CG: For me, finding a chair was a problem a lot of the time because I have to sit down. Sometimes I would carry a folding camp stool with my cello but it was a little low. I prefer to be seated a little higher up. The hardest thing is playing in the cold. My hands would hurt and I can't be expressive then. It is hard to be out in the cold and it is hard on the instrument. Finding a place where the sound doesn't get carried out, a place where traffic will stop enough but not block traffic…it is hard when you get to a place and there's no audience there. I had it easy as buskers go because of the instrument. I play, and being a woman, am treated with respect but it would be hard to be treated like a panhandler from the self-esteem perspective. I never really had that problem. Crafters usually like me. I get along with merchants and would go inside shops between sets and could hang out. Crafters and shops get sick of people doing the same songs over and over so they really enjoyed the cello.
11 - What advice would you give young women buskers just starting out?
YLV: Just do it!
PSB: Grandparents and Parents tip WAY better than Guys who think you're hot!!! Entertain the Kids! Dress in a colorful, eye-catching fashion, but DON'T rely on being "sexy", or you get the Wrong Crowd!
CG: Find your confidence and own it. If you're going to perform, imagine you are up on stage every time. You don't know who will see you and you can get gigs from it later, so project competence and confidence and be professional. Stop after each song and talk to your audience. You need to let them know they can tip, that tips are welcome. You need to encourage tipping rather than asking for tips. Let them know how it is done. Let them know it is a service. It is ok to talk to the audience. If do not talk and just play song after song and they do not know how to tip - if you don't tell them, it doesn't matter if you play song after song because they won't tip again, so you need to move the audience along to get new tips. And if you do not get your audience to tip money, they often think you are paid to be there, so make sure to tell them you are not paid to play here. Don't be afraid to share the joy.
12 - What differences have you experienced between different nationality busking acts (such as, are European buskers different than U.S. buskers, etc.? Have you noticed any differences between male and female busking acts?
YLV: There are more ridiculous and controlling laws in the states. In Europe, there is a busking tradition that is relatively new here. As for the genders, of course there is a difference, but not from them but towards them.
PSB: A few European Buskers I met were shocked at the lack of respect/money we would accept, here. Angry, even! Some Male Buskers might be slightly more territorial, but I wouldn't say that of ALL of them.
CG: No, all seem the same to me, no matter what nationality. Buskers seem to all have been cut from the same cloth. And yes, there is some craziness to busking. (Interviewer's Note: We joked for a moment about joining "Buskers Anonymous…" saying "I am 10 years sober from busking…" and "I am an enabler, I paid bad buskers this weekend…")
13 - Have you ever had to busk to be able to eat? Have you ever relied on busking for your rent? Did that make busking harder?
YLV: Yes, yes, and yes - for the most part. People seem to only want to tip those who do not desperately need it. They can smell your need and as a classist society, this means for that moment, you will remain as broke as you came.
PSB: For years, performing was my primary source of income, and I always found that it was more difficult when you were desperate! It's hard to create that relaxed, happy space when you're stressed out over getting enough money for food AND gas to get back, the next day...especially when you're also trying to feed Your Child!!!
CG: Well, when I was busking, both times, I was paying rent and food with it. The first period I was a free spirit, but still supporting myself. Later, I had a kid and got married. My husband left, and I had a 2 year old to support and went back to busking. I was paying for rent and took care of my child and self with it, but not very well. We were getting by, but there was nothing to compare it to, since busking was all I had done to support myself. I don't think I ever busked for fun. I remember one $5 Tuesday but most of the winter I usually didn't go home with less than $20, sometimes $100 a day. I did alright. When I played, my kid would sit in a stroller while I played and I got good tips, but then he went into the Pike Place Market daycare, for free, which was cool as I was there playing upstairs working, so that was pretty sweet.
14 - What is the weirdest place/time you have ever busked in?
YLV: In the middle of Pacific Coast Highway.
PSB: We were hired in many local malls at Christmas time, as well as harvest festivals and other promotions...malls are WEIRD!!! So are MOST of the People shopping there!
CG: I have played outside in weird places but not really busking. I played in a tree at Volunteer Park but just for fun. I like playing in parking garages at night, they have great acoustics but not busking while doing that, just playing. In Amsterdam, I was traveling for fun but had my cello, and I met a guy with old lady marionettes, I don't think he even spoke English. I played, he did his puppets to it. I did the voice of the puppet on the cello, sounding like Charlie Brown's teacher. We created a spontaneous act on spot and that was pretty good. I travelled to Amsterdam with a flight attendant friend who had a free ticket but I had no money for the trip, so I brought my cello to make money. Another unusual gig is playing at the sauna at the Oregon Country Fair, at the fire circle, because everyone is naked.
15 - Is there anything that would make you think of stopping busking?
YLV: Like I said earlier, I have slowed down. I do not have the fight I used to. The first time someone tried to grab my instrument in NYC, I realized I was not up to doing it anymore, at least full time.
PSB: I have mostly given up screaming for attention in the street, because I don't want to ONLY be able to scream! I felt I was losing a lot of subtlety and detail just putting everything I had into VOLUME...if they don't HEAR you, they won't PAY you!! I also am trying to record my original music, which will NEVER be heard, otherwise. It's hard to play your own stuff in the street and make any money, because people will pay a LOT more for their own memories than for anyone else's!
CG: It was a fun experience and I don't regret it, but it is not something I choose to do if I don't have to. I have amazing musician/busker friends, we are a family of buskers, and I needed that family. I was able to support myself busking in times when I had no other means. As a busker I could grow as person, an artist and an independent human being when otherwise, in other jobs, I was not able to, but still, I do not do it if I do not have to do it.
You can contact Yva Las Vegass via email at cachapa63ATgmail.com (replace the word AT with an @ sign). You can also visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/yvalasvegass. You can purchase Yva's wonderful music on Moniker Records at http://monikerrecordsss.bandcamp.com/track/yva-las-vegass-tonadas-y-cantos. You can listen to Yva's music at http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Yva_Las_Vegass/ and on NPR at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P19YL-fy3Vk as well.
You can visit Pamela Suzanne Burdwell on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pamelyna and you can find out more about her band, Emerald Fire, at http://www.reverbnation.com/emeraldfire. Pamela also sends this note: If anybody out there has old footage of me or my friends, I'd LOVE to see it!! THANKS !
Christine Gunn's music can be found at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/gunn and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Christine-Gunn/81991411448. You can also check out her music at http://www.reverbnation.com/musician/christinegunn and http://www.reverbnation.com/treehousesymphony. You can visit her newest musical project on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TreehouseSymphony. To find out more about her band "Trillian Green," visit http://www.omnivine.com/trillian.html.
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