Glass Harper Busks Across the USA
Ten years ago when my then soon-to-be-former wife kicked me out of the house
we had shared for twenty-five years I muddled around trying to figure out what
I wanted to be when I grew up. I had already had six careers (that's a whole
'nother story -- one that I tell on the street if it seems appropriate since
it is somewhat scatological) and didn't want to return to any of them!
A few years before that I had built a glass harmonica and, literally, learned
how to play it in front of audiences at the Ithaca, NY, farmer's market on
Saturdays during the summer and fall. My glass harp, by the way, is a twenty-seven
goblet water-tuned chromatic instrument spanning two octaves and a major second.
It is played by rubbing wet fingers around the rims of the glasses.
I soon discovered that the oddity of the instrument and its dulcet tones (Ben
Franklin, an enthusiastic glass musician, compared its tones to the sound of
an angel choir) drew large crowds very quickly. Soon thereafter I discovered
that most of those people don't really want to listen to the music, they want
to be entertained! Undaunted by the meager hats I as getting early on (in all
fairness I must admit it took me five or six years to learn how to entertain
people!) I hit the road with my Australian Shepherd, Sadie, and headed for
On the way I stopped in Ashville, NC. Don't.
The police made me purchase a $25.00 street performer's license. It took me
a day to negotiate the bureaucracy and two days to earn the fee back! On the
other hand the folks at the French Broad food coop allowed me to play at their
store, and one of the customers put me up for several nights while I rebuilt
my traveling funds. I promised myself I'd never buy a license again, a promise
I break once a year when I pay the Cambridge (MA) Arts Council $40.00 to play
on Harvard Square for a weekend. Irksome, but worthwhile.
Several stops in Florida proved fruitless and when I got to Key West I discovered
that the established performers on the old Mallory Dock had things so well
tied up that breaking in was difficult. They allowed me to enter the nightly
"lottery" last and found out-of-the way venues for me. At least Sadie and I
could eat regularly. One of the Mallory Dock performers suggested I should
try New Orleans.
Never been there. Left the next day. Long trip -- almost as far from Key West
as it is from my former home in Central New York. I've lived there ever since!
Although, as we all know, venues are in a continual state of flux, what I've
called "the hassle cycle," I soon found several pitches that suited my act.
Jackson Square in front of the St. Louis Cathedral is my favorite. It often
happens that it gets too loud there for the subtle tones of my unamplified
harp. At that point I'll head for Royal Street, which is blocked off as a pedestrian
mall seven hours a day. If it gets too loud there (weekends for example) I'll
head (believe it or not) to Bourbon Street! There I had to learn how to deal
with drunks, but often I have found drunks are the most generous of tippers.
Another favorite pitch for my particular act is Woldenberg Park hard by the
Mississippi River. There are times when tourists cram the pleasant walkways
by the river and even locals seem more generous in the sylvan attitude of the
park. As you might well imagine, come summer it is too hot and humid on the
streets of the French Quarter to earn a living as a street performer. I'll
stick around until after Jazz Fest in May at which point I'll usually head
for Harvard Square. When it gets too cold and crummy on the streets of New
England I'll head back to New Orleans, it's what I call a peripatetic life
My first West Coast tour a couple of years later took me to Venice Beach in
Los Angeles. I did enjoy that, but subsequent trips there have shown it (for
me at least) to be a degenerating pitch, largely because of gang activity.
It was there that someone suggested I stop in Santa Cruz on my way to San Francisco.
"Santa where?" was my first question. "Don't worry about it, just do it," I
was told. I got there on a Friday evening, found, with some difficulty, Pacific
Avenue and set up my glasses.
Now you've got to understand a couple of things about Santa Cruz. It is a most
propitious combination of sociological phenomena: a beach community that is
also an academic community. Indeed, one of the brochures for the University
of California unit there doesn't show any pictures of the campus -- just pictures
of surfing! Secondly Santa Cruz is the only city I have yet found that has
on its main street a full-sized bronze statue of a street performer, a saw
player who had passed on some years before. I had expected to stay just a couple
of days. I ended up spending a week there it was so much fun. I've been back
there several times since and have always found welcoming audiences, pleasant
weather, and generous tippers.
The Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco was, at least a few years ago,
a distressing place for me with street performers jealously fighting over even
crummy pitches. The good private pitches require "auditions." I'm not afraid
of auditions, but they tend to happen in the spring and then spaces are assigned
in hour-long segments. If you aren't a local you have no chance to compete.
I did have fun up on Union Square (where I may first have seen street performance
visiting there with my parents when I was a child), but again, that may be
because I'm used to dealing with drunks.
On that same trip I was hassled by a female cop on the Pearl Street Mall in
Boulder, CO. I think it was because one of the local buskers complained that
I was causing a disturbance. In actuality I suspect I had accidentally set
up on his favorite pitch. I haven't been back since.
This summer I paid the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry people a thousand dollars
to transport me and my van from Bellingham, WN, to Haines, AK. I also paid
them $1,000 in advance for the ticket back to the "lower 48," as they call
it, just in case the trip didn't prove profitable.
The trip did not turn out to be profitable, but that was offset by the spectacular
nature of the scenery and the opportunity to see the "last frontier." After
playing for cruise-ship passengers a few evenings in Haines I drove the rough
roads 700 miles north and west thru Canada to Anchorage where, several years
ago, the local Assembly passed an ordinance making street performance in the
city clearly legal. With one MAJOR exception, not noted in the newspaper article
I had read. The law specifically states that you must carry at all times all
of your props -- nothing other than your tip-collection box can be on the ground.
Unfortunately my instrument weighs 150 pounds when it is all tuned and sitting
on its stand. They shut me down before I even began!
The people who run the "Saturday Market" in a huge parking lot off Third Avenue,
however, were very cooperative and assigned me a pitch that worked handsomely
for my glass harp. One of the members of PERFORMERS.NET read that I was in
Anchorage and e-mailed me that he had a wedding to attend here and asked if
he should bring his rig with him. I told him "yes" and let the market people
know. They gave him a one-day pitch to set up his slack rope act and, I believe,
he had a great time!
Unfortunately the Saturday Market is just that. The other days of the week
I took my home-made hurdy gurdy up to the corner of 4th Avenue and F Street
by the Anchorage Visitor's Center. That barely paid enough to keep me going,
but at least I didn't starve!
And, as I said, it did allow me the opportunity to explore some of this magnificent
wilderness. I brought a kayak with me and got to run the Kissilof River on
the Kenai Peninsula and have gotten caught in a knock-down thunder storm in
the middle of Eklutna Lake north of Anchorage -- absolutely spectacular, but
that's yet another story.
By the way, the Alaska State Fair in Palmer (the week of the Labor Day holiday)
does bring in street performers "from the outside," much to the distress of
local buskers. I had tried to work with them by mail and internet for the six
months before my trip, but was unable to get a response. I had asked for a
guarantee and accommodations or camping space, and they apparently wrote me
off as a grasping n'er-do-well! It didn't appear to me that either of the two
buskers I saw there were doing very well the day I attended.
The odyssey continues and next week I'm off again -- although it grieves me
to leave this wondrously beautiful place. But ten years ago I told myself I
was through punching time clocks and there is no way for me to earn a living
here during the winter. So, after a couple of gigs in Seattle and New England
I'm headed south, my race is almost run. I'm going on back to New Orleans to
work at the Rising Sun.
"The Glassman" Bennett
Bennett has been street performing for 14 years, eight of which have been in
New Orleans. Some nights he can be seen playing a homemade hurdy gurdy instead
of his glasses.
Site : http://www.glassharper.com
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