Singing for loose change…or social change?
These early days of summer always make me feel so nostalgic. It was during similar types of warm, sunny afternoons in June ~ many years ago ~ that my unintentional career as a minstrel was born: outdoors, in the sun, sweating, strumming and whaling at the top of my lungs. Though I had “performed live” before ~ high school musicals, church choirs, community theatre, then onward to open-mic nights at cafes, backyard campfires and the pits of performance hell that are University pubs or sub-urban strip-mall bars ~ my true baptism into the life of a roving troubadour was in summer rain on King Street East, in my hometown of Kitchener, Canada.
When I began writing songs at the age of eighteen, though I was plagued with great anxiety over singing to others, I still felt the burning urge to share my songs with others.
Seeing my discontented face, however, after awkwardly descending from a small stage in a beer filled grill house to spatters of polite applause, a friend told me, “People just don’t want to hear you sing your journal. Not here.”
Then where? And, why even bother?
It has long been my confession that, the reason I write is because I cannot afford a counsellor. Songs and poems take seed from observations of the world around me and grow with my celebrations, questions and sometimes even frustrations surrounding those observations. So, why desire to share such melodically personal thoughts? Well, another saying I live by is: For every mouse in the kitchen, there are 50 more hiding in the walls. If one person is brave enough to share their expressions, ideas or hopes for a better world, they may find many others ~ too shy, weak or simply unable to express themselves in the same way ~ who are grateful, comforted or even empowered by the connection of hearts through song.
Crackenthorpe’s Teapot, the eccentric little folk quartet I helped form in January of 1991, auditioned for our downtown business association in the spring of that year and were officially “hired” as bona fide street performers. We were given the stamp of city approval to sing at scheduled times on various sidewalks of the city, were paid a modest hourly compensation, were free to sell our home-spun cassettes (precursors to CDs, for those of you old enough to remember them…or remember CDs for that matter!) and were also granted freedom to solicit for coins with our open guitar cases at our feet. (We’d always spike the cases with nickels, dimes and at least one $5.00 bill ~ in hopes of more to follow…and thankfully, they often did indeed!)
Crackenthorpe’s Teapot, busking in 1991. (R-L)Bill Kocher, Heather Chappell, Corey Schmidt and yours truly.
Suddenly there was an audience. People would either pass by uninterested or sincerely stop, listen and even toss in some quarters. Many would chat with us between songs or make requests. Some would actually get to know our schedule and make a point of seeking us out to sit for our whole gig ~ supporting us with hoots, whistles and applause that helped draw a larger audience. Using markers or fabric paints, friends made T-shirts sporting our band’s name above pictures of crudely drawn teapots, then showed up to each session ~ sitting on park benches or curbs to listen and tap their toes.
We began to see community grow around us through the side-walk cracks. The music did more than just bring us a case full of change to count and divide at the end of each day ~ the music actually seemed to bring about a change on people’s faces as well. It beckoned a stranger to stand next to a stranger, challenged shopping suburbanite to stand with homeless traveller and united youthful teens in audience with elderly couples out for summer evening strolls.
In some small way ~ with each self-penned song or cover tune by John Prine or Woody Guthrie ~ we were not just making loose change, we were making social change. For two summers, and one cold winter between them, our band (in various forms as a quartet, trio or duo) sang out on King Street. Often, when we were not booked as a band, I would muster up the guts to go downtown, open up my guitar case and start singing solo. The first minute and a half ~ the initial plunge into the public’s ears ~ was always the most difficult, with fears of being spit at or getting a pop can in the guitar case. But slowly, you would see a smile, a nod…you would eavesdrop on someone whispering to their friend as they passed, saying “I love that song!” or you would hear a small “thud” as your first quarter of support hit the case. With each new coin, I quickly learned how to say “Thank you” between song lyrics, and without losing my rhythm. Eventually, I even became adventurous enough to pack my guitar and head over to the UK for a soul and song searching busking trip ~ hitchhiking or sleeping on trains between the streets of Inverness and the beaches of Newquay. Oh ~ the stories from those journeys!
Kitchener-Waterloo Record, June 1993 ~ 20+ years later and I am still singing the same messages (see the last paragraphs).
With time, I began to receive invitations for indoor venues. First ~ folk festival tents and then small cafes, retirement homes, onward to community gatherings and schools, then upward to small theatres, prestigious theatres and then huge conference halls! The audience sizes grew, while my performance times became shorter to accommodate multiple acts or headlining stars [sic] with their contractual demands for specific amounts of stage time ~ a game I was never interested in playing. The audiences became further and further away ~ past the sound monitors, stage aprons, spot lights and VIP seats ~ just blurs in the balconies and back rows.
Somehow, I felt that my songs were drifting over the heads of crowds ~ they were not building the feeling of community I had once felt as a street performer.
In an effort to step back, I began taking on tours of smaller venues and over the past several years have found much more contentment in returning to my musical roots ~ singing with people and not just performing to them.
Counting the coins at the end of a show always felt odd and somehow dirty to me ~ up until last year I still felt that way whenever I cashed cheques for performances or chased down venue organizers who had not covered my expenses as promised. Seeking ways to share my songs as non commercially as possible has been no easy task over the years ~ especially within the proverbial “music biz”. One might think that venues within the peace & justice / inter-faith or religious communities are immune to the illnesses of commercialism and ruthless competition ~ but sadly that is not the case. These days, my haphazard business model is pretty simple: My family have set a basic stipend for ourselves to live on and once that has been met, all additional income from my shows and music sales goes toward a school in Pakistan started by my wife’s grandmother and still overseen by our family. With this approach ~ rolling the coins, depositing the cheques and chasing the delinquent payments after a tour does not make me feel so icky.
So ~ if you happen to pass through my town and venture down the main drag, will you ever see me out on King Street with my guitar, strumming in the sun this summer? Probably not. These days I am working on a new album between some other soundtrack projects and busily tending to my backyard bees, chickens and vegetables. But, if you hear a busker at the Kitchener Farmer’s Market, or one of the many other cultural festivals held locally, you may find me standing nearby with my wife and daughters ~ supporting the brave artists as they sing out to build community…and make a little change.