Busk A Move: Inside the World of NYC’s Buskers
By Molly Boigon
Voices (in order of appearance)
Molly Boigon (Host)
Aaron Gamman, guitar player, singer and harmonica player
Susie J. Tanenbaum, author of Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York
Azusa “SHESHE” Dance, singer
[Chatter, tuning sounds]
Molly Boigon [Narration] 00:01
In a warehouse building in Bushwick, Brooklyn, musicians are getting ready for a gig. This is the one night each year performers who play on the street and in the subway – sometimes called buskers – get together and put on a show. This is the New York City Buskerball.
[Venue sounds up]
Molly Boigon [Narration] 00:18
Aaron Gamman is not performing tonight. He’s working security, but he makes a living playing guitar and harmonica and singing in Washington Square Park.
Aaron Gamman 00:25
You know, I don’t really ever have jobs or anything, never have since high school. So that kind of gave me like a function in life. So I’m like, Okay, this is like, my operation. You know, I’m gonna bring some kind of joy to some people by playing a really sad Bob Dylan song. You know.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 00:41
Aaron is one of at least 150 buskers in New York City. They’re everywhere in New York, playing in the parks, subway stations and street corners of the city. But some buskers say life has gotten harder since the pandemic. The subway and other public spaces are now the talk of the town. Are they safe enough? Do we need more cops there? Less? New York City Mayor Eric Adams has vowed to put more police officers in the system.
[News montage: 01:08
You could imagine an attack like this during the height of the morning commute is every New Yorker’s worst nightmare… To double the amount of uniformed officers there…
He acknowledged that passengers and he included himself are worried about crime underground. This after a young woman was pushed to her death…]
Molly Boigon [Narration] 01:29
Aaron, who’s Black, says police unfairly target buskers of color. The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Aaron Gamman: 01:37
It’s a lot, but you know specifically because 2020 we had the whole you know, war on police and authority kind of thing. I think it’s now just their time to be super petty, super childish, super juvenile and it’d be like, f*ck it – all these little things that you like? Gone.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 01:55
On a sunny day in May I join Aaron at the West Fourth Street subway station. We walk together to the park
Aaron Gamman 02:02
I usually like to sit by the by the arch like right in front of the arch. So I can get in all the tourist shots. You know?
Molly Boigon [Scene] 02:11
Ah nice. Do you have like a sign or something?
Aaron Gamman 02:13
In my guitar case. Yeah, you’ll see it in a bit.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 02:17
We’re late, by Aaron standards. He usually tries to get here by 10. A block or so from the park, he hears some bad news
Aaron Gamman 02:24
I sense it would sense it could you know. And – son of a b*tch; I’m gonna shoot myself. My biggest problem is when I’m coming in here and I hear other musicians already. I’m like damn.
Molly Boigon [Scene] 2:35
Did you just hear them?
Aaron Gamman 2:36
I just heard a drum. One of the worst musicians.
Molly Boigon [Scene] 2:40
And why is that?
Aaron Gamman 2:41
Noise pollution. Drummers are very selfish and they try to have a monopoly on sound.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 02:46
We arrive at Aaron’s spot just in front of the Washington Square arch.
Molly Boigon [Scene] 2:50
Alright, so talk me through what you’re doing here.
Aaron Gamman 02:52
Oh, well, I always put down my case, usually have some honey in me. And I’d empty out my pockets into my guitar.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 02:58
He takes mace out of his pocket.
Aaron Gamman 03:01
You won’t know how to use mace by any chance right?
Molly Boigon [Scene] 03:05
No, thank goodness
Aaron Gamman 03:06
Somebody gave this to me. I’m gonna move this pocket knife somewhere or box cutter or whatever
Molly Boigon [Scene] 03:13
Wow you have like multiple weapons
Aaron Gamman 03:14
Got to. This park is crazy. I don’t I don’t do anything but play Bob Dylan and somehow people still find a way to threaten my existence here. It’s crazy.
Molly Boigon [Narration ] 03:27
Threats to buskers from other New Yorkers and from the cops are not new. Busking has been around since at least the Middle Ages. In New York, the late 1800s saw a huge influx of Italian and German immigrants who became buskers. By 1923, the city had 800 organ grinders and other musicians playing in public. In 1936, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned busking. Susie Tanenbaum is the author of a book about subway performers.
Susie Tanenbaum 03:58
I am the author of Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York. People have been playing music in the subways as long as the subways have existed
Molly Boigon [Narration] 04:10
By the 1960s street performance had resumed unofficially in parts of the city, including Greenwich Village. In 1970, the city lifted the street performance ban. Subway performances, though, were banned until 1985. That was when one guitarist won a case against him in Manhattan Criminal Court. The result? The court found that performance bands in the subway violated the first and 14th amendments of the Constitution.
Susie Tanenbaum 04:37
Clearly you know, the attempts to control or contain this spontaneous activity have never been fully successful, thankfully, because they are what make New York, you know, as wonderful as it is
Theo Eastwind 04:54
One, two. Hello everybody. Welcome to the buskerball. There’s only one in the world. The New York City Buskerball – it’s the one in New York City. We’re going to start the show…
Molly Boigon [Narration] 05:10
That’s Theo Eastwind, the creator of the buskerball. He’s no longer a full time busker, but he still plays guitar and sings in the subway. He’s also a real estate broker for his day job. We met at his office in Williamsburg
Theo Eastwind 05:23
Do you know how many inner city kids go into go into the subway and for the first time see a guitar, even, for the first time, see a Chinese violin or a hand a hand drum or, or you know, all kinds of– a saw being played, right? There’s all kinds of different music – a Korra you know – like to be introduced to all these different cultures which you never will these days. You go on your Instagram, all you see is what you wanted. It’s so narrow, it’s not even narrow. It’s narrower than narrow. For me, that is a very scary thing. So therefore, I created the New York City buskerball.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 05:57
Theo says that buskers protect our First Amendment rights. He says that the city and corporations want to stop busking because it’s a thorn in their sides. It’s mostly free. It’s spontaneous, and no one is mining your demographics for profit. It’s a human-to-human interaction in a world where screens increasingly vie for our attention.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 06:24
Claudi, a member of the band Pinc Louds, joins the stage at the buskerball. Pinc Louds plays at Tompkins Square Park.
It was me who put the stink bomb in the jazz drummers bucket but I have no regrets. The Girl from Ipanema has finally been set free to die, finally die. Now the bags under her eyes quiver, crack, break into manic tears of joy. As the drummer stops drumming to the beat, something reeks, watch her running down the street with her [unintelligible] add the yuppies with their puppies she’s a freak, she’s a freak. Watch her howl, watch her shriek. I’m no girl, motherf*cker, I’m a [unintelligible] punk rocker. I’m the punk from Ipanema, so bow down and call me Sheena.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 07:27
Back at Washington Square Park, Aaron is playing Dylan. Aaron says he considers 20 or 30 bucks in tips a pretty good day. The biggest tip he’s ever gotten is $100. The first person to give him a tip today is someone who appears to be homeless who tosses some change in his guitar case.
Aaron Gamman 07:58
Thank you so much.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 08:00
Many of the buskers in New York freelance, but there are other performers with the blessing of the MTA. That special status comes through an audition process with the department called Music Under New York. Buskers call it MUNY. MUNY and the MTA declined to comment for this story. Here’s Susie Tanenbaum again, the author of the book about subway musicians.
Susie Tanenbaum 08:22
So there are some great things about MUNY. First of all, it shows that transit officials recognized that buskers make the subway system more hospitable to riders, and maybe even makes the system feel safer. It also attracts musicians who might never otherwise consider performing in a subway station and it legitimates musicians in the eyes of police. Um, the downside is that MUNY creates a two-tier system. The top tier includes the official musicians who belong to MUNY, and the bottom tier includes freelance musicians. And in reality, all musicians have a constitutional right to perform underground. So MUNY really has the effect of rendering freelancers illegitimate in the eyes of many police officers.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 09:27
Azusa “SHESHE” Dance remembers her audition with Music Under New York. She busks in a few high profile locations, like the 34th Street-Sixth Avenue subway station.
Azusa “SHESHE” Dance 09:38
So it’s my turn to go on, and I can’t remember who the announcer was but the announcer was like, he said, “What are you gonna sing?” I said, “Well, I will never tell that.” I was like, “Do you ask Beyonce what they’re gonna sing?” No. I just feel it’s so rude when people ask that because I – you know, I wanted it to be a surprise. I was like, “Darling, I’m a package.” So he just laughed. He was like, fine, so I remember him going out and announcing me and he was like, “I don’t know what she’s gonna sing but she’s ready.” It was so funny. So you know, I dragged my little boombox out there with my microphone and I start singing “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog.” It’s Big Momma Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” who originally recorded the song before Elvis, but Elvis made it famous. So you know I start out with that song – girl the microphone gave out. This is me. I just keep on going – toss! Keep on moving. Keep on moving. Do my thing. Do my thing until you know my time is up. And then I finish and I take a bow. The judges, I mean, it’s tons of judges, they’re standing on their feet applauding, so I got a standing ovation, the announcer comes out, “I don’t think that’s ever happened in the Music Under New York history, a standing ovation.”
Molly Boigon [Narration] 10:49
SHESHE says she’s glad to have the backing of Music Under New York, and that the signage and exposure for MUNY have helped her make a career out of singing in the subway. The organization offered her direction when she was completely new to the city. SHESHE moved to New York from Chattanooga in 2016.
Azusa “SHESHE” Dance 11:05
Okay, I didn’t know anything about Music Under New York, like I said, when I came. So I’m glad to be a part of the program.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 11:12
SHESHE says that on her first day busking she made $400. The pandemic has changed things.
Azusa “SHESHE” Dance 11:18
You know, it’s been a couple of days I’ve been down there for three hours and not brought back $100. You know, but then I’m looking at it again. It’s making me feel good. It’s making a few people that’s out there feel good, so who cares? It still blows my mind. I feel like I still walk down the street pinching myself like, I live in New York City and I sing in the subway. It’s – I feel like it’s opened my eyes to one appreciate my talent. Appreciate me being me. And I don’t need to change. I’m good enough. I mean, how many people actually feel and know that they’re good enough?
Molly Boigon [Narration] 12:07
As the morning goes on, Washington Square Park gets more and more crowded. It’s May Day, which is all about honoring workers. So there are several union protests going on at once.
[Park sounds, music]
Aaron Gamman 12:17
I’m gonna move over there. There’s never happens.
Molly Boigon [Narration] 12:25
Aaron and I walk over to the other side of the park. He picks a sunny spot close to people resting on a marble bench.
Molly Boigon [Scene] 12:32
Are you looking more for attention or for like, people who look like they’re gonna tip?
Aaron Gamman 12:37
I feel like if I go looking for tips, it’s just a bad way to go about things. And I’m a nihilist. I’ve always got to assume that no one’s gonna give me sh*t. You know?
Molly Boigon [Narration]12:46
Being with Aaron in the park feels like being with a former prom king who came back to high school. Everyone is thrilled to see him. He’s very gracious with the people who want to chat.
Aaron Gamman 12:57
Good morning. How are you feeling? Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, of course. Thank you for listening.
Molly Boigon [Scene] 13:05
How do you know him?
Aaron Gamman 13:07
Molly Boigon [Narration] 13:09
Aaron’s voice is tired. A jazz band has started up nearby. He’s going to take a break and try to busk again later.
Aaron Gamman 13:16
I’m just gonna sit around and wait, really. You know and wait for my voice to heal in like 40 minutes or whatever. Find a little nice spot to be in and go for it, you know? That’s all I can do.