I suck at busking 

One man's quest to conquer the sidewalks with a banjo and a prayer

Our hero singing his little banjo-playing heart out in Marion Square

Jonathan Boncek

Our hero singing his little banjo-playing heart out in Marion Square

Busker's Log, Part 1: Suck City

Fri. Nov. 7, 5-6 p.m.
Marion Square fountain at King and Calhoun streets

I am the all-boring bummer of the world. I am the cruft of yesteryear, the rank amateur butchering an art form, the guy moping in the corner of your swanky house party begging for sympathy.

It's 5:30 p.m. on a Friday, and I'm posted up beside a fountain in Marion Square with a banjo and a stack of chord sheets for my favorite country songs. I've placed a cup on the sidewalk, hoping to collect a few tips from folks who appreciate hearing tunes about hard times while they're out on the town, and so far I'm eliciting a mix of pity and fear from the people who walk by.

In the midst of this sad reverie, I hear thumping bass behind me and assume it's a cranked-up car stereo. I finish my song and turn around to find that a breakdancing crew has laid out their cardboard on the other side of the fountain and is already drawing a crowd.

Since I'm new to the world of street performance, I don't know the etiquette for this situation. Is this the dancers' regular Friday night spot? Or did they invade my turf? Either way, they've clearly laid more of a claim on the crowd's attention than I have with my old high-and-lonesome act. One song in and they're already getting tips.

I make eye contact with one of the dancers between songs, and he gives me the nod, so I'm guessing we're OK. I move away toward Calhoun Street and resume playing. I'm trying to approximate Ernest Tubb's classic take on "Drivin' Nails in my Coffin," but by the end of it I'm sounding as rough as Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Not that anyone else would have noticed, but I'm finding that I sound much different on the street than I did in my living room this morning.

I have decided to try my hand at busking, a tradition of public performance that traces its roots at least as far back as the minstrels of Medieval Europe. Here in Charleston, the small but active busking community has had a rocky few years that included run-ins with police and a temporary ban from the lucrative City Market area. The American Civil Liberties Union even stepped in to defend the First Amendment rights of a one-man band who got a ticket for peddling on the Market, eventually convincing a judge to drop the case. I covered these developments extensively for the City Paper, mainly because I loved the idea of art in the public realm, anarchic and free.

Up until last year, you had to apply for a peddler's license before performing for tips anywhere in the city. The process involved a criminal background check, took weeks to complete, and cost $32 in fees plus a $7 annual renewal. But in March 2014, after a bit of lobbying by buskers, City Council changed the rules. Now there's no license required, making it feasible for hacks like me to try busking on a whim.

The new rules also include an 11 p.m. cutoff and a long list of places where busking is prohibited (see the complete rules at the bottom of the page). The street performers I've talked to give mixed reviews of how the rules have been enforced, so in the interest of testing out the legal boundaries, and looking to earn a few bucks on the side, here I am, crooning for strangers with an instrument I barely know how to play.

Finally, 45 minutes into my set, a kind woman crosses King Street and dances a little jig as she approaches. She pulls a dollar from her handbag, says, "Sorry, it's all I've got," and places it in the cup.

"Thank you, ma'am," I say. "It means a lot to me."

Earnings: $1
Did I Beat Minimum Wage?: Definitely not.

Kyle “K’Otic” Johnson

click to enlarge Kyle “K’Otic” Johnson - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Kyle “K’Otic” Johnson

The Act: Highly acrobatic breakdancing with two different crews, Dancing on Air and the Missing Links. Johnson’s biggest crowd-pleaser is front-flipping over a row of audience members; his personal record is 11.

When/Where: Saturday mornings at the Farmers Market in Marion Square. He also does weddings, bar mitzvahs, and parties.

Thoughts on the New Busking Rules: Johnson says he first tried to bring his breakdancing act to Waterfront Park four years ago, unaware that it was a restricted area at the time, and got shooed away by police. Last year, he says, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. brought his grandchildren out to see the show in Marion Square and “told us not to stop doing it.” Johnson was not aware of the new busking rules.

Busking Advice: “A great thing to do is get recorded doing what you do and watch people’s facial expressions around you — if they’re happy, if they’re enjoying it, if they’re making a mean face. Little things like that can help you change your act.”

Busker's Log, Part 2: Happy Xmas

Tues. Dec. 23, 1-2:30 p.m.
Northwest corner of Meeting and Market streets, in front of Charleston Place

I have a busker friend named Clarence McDonald who plays the xylophone on East Bay Street. A Charleston native, he traces his first musical encounter to 1958, when his mother took him out shopping and he saw a man playing an upright bass in Marion Square. At seven years old, he listened in awe and eventually convinced his parents to buy him his own bass.

McDonald says he played for a few years in the 1970s with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra before leaving for a stint in the Army. Back in the Holy City, he plays for the love of music as much as he does it for the money. When I tell him about the abject failure of my first outing, he tells me to keep trying.

click to enlarge Clarence McDonald - ASHLEY ROSE STANOL FILE PHOTO
  • Ashley Rose Stanol file photo
  • Clarence McDonald

"Don't get discouraged. The first time I played, I didn't make anything. I didn't have my act together that well," he says.

Part of my problem might be that I'm playing during the winter, the quietest part of the year for Charleston's tourism industry. But McDonald tells me there's one bright spot in the midst of the gloom. From Dec. 10 to New Year's, he dons flashy Christmas costumes and plays nothing but holiday hits — and he makes some of his best money of the year doing it.

One major factor has changed since my last outing in November: I am now a father of beautiful twin girls who have stolen my heart. As I set up at the corner of Meeting and Market streets, I consider putting out a cardboard sign that says "NEW DAD, NEED DIAPER $$$," which would be the truth, but I'm finding that goodwill is already in supply this holiday season, especially with parents.

There's this trick you learn as an adult, how to avert your eyes from panhandlers and street peddlers so they don't draw you in. Children have not learned this trick. Early on in my set, I get a toddler dancing to "Feliz Navidad," and her parents can't help but stop to watch. At the end of the song, the mother puts a dollar in her daughter's hand to place in my cup.

My other greatest hit today is "Blue Christmas," sung in my best Elvis baritone with my best Elvis hip gyrations. At least twice, I make solid eye contact with an older woman on the sidewalk and reel her in for a generous tip. I am shameless, I am corny, I am actually making money.

Earnings: $24.02 + 25¢ Canadian
Did I Beat Minimum Wage?: Yep.

Samantha Church

click to enlarge Church - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Church

The Act: Soul, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll on a banjo in the three-finger picking style. “When people are requesting ‘Dueling Banjos,’ I don’t know how to play that,” Church says.

When/Where: Afternoons and evenings on East Bay Street, the City Market, and King Street by the Riviera Theater.

Thoughts on the New Busking Rules: “Mostly I find those to be pretty common-sense laws, and they align with the rules I follow myself as a busker. You don’t want to perform near open-air cafes because those people are trapped and they have to listen to you. It’s rude.”

Busking Advice: “I think the best thing you can do is to feel like a guest in somebody else’s house. They didn’t ask to hear you perform, so give them a reason to want to hear you perform. Don’t feel entitled.”

Busker's Log, Part 3: Haters Gonna Hate

Wed. Feb. 4, 12-1 p.m.
236 King St.

If there's one common-sense rule in busking, it's this: Give the people what they want. And what could they want more than songs from the No. 1 best-selling album in America?

So here I am with my banjo in the alcove across from Starbucks on lower King Street, belting out Taylor Swift songs with all the sass I can muster. I am joined today by Sadie Wright, an eighth-grader who asked to job shadow me and had no idea what she was getting into. She stays quiet at first, but on my second time through "Blank Space," she starts to sing along beautifully. We have agreed to split whatever tips we earn.

I don't have a particularly impressive vocal range, but I've always prided myself on being able to carry a room with sheer volume. Things are different out here. Every time I play on the street, competing with the ambient roar of traffic, I end up losing my voice within an hour. I picked this spot today because the recessed wall and the buildings on the other side of the street form a sort of amphitheater. I used to see a man out here singing opera from time to time, and the acoustics were perfect.

So I sound better than ever, but I'm getting the looks you'd expect to get if you were a 26-year-old man singing Taylor Swift songs with a teenage girl. A man in designer jeans stares me down with a furrowed brow. A gaggle of college students rocks to the beat for a minute on "Shake It Off," and one of the girls in the group turns to say, "I love this song!"

I've also been seeing a gesture that seems unique to the busking world. Here's what it looks like: A man walks by and makes eye contact. He nods in appreciation of the song, maybe smiles a little bit, and then pats the back pockets of his pants. "No money," he seems to be saying apologetically, and he's probably telling the truth. Who carries cash anymore?

Before coming down here, we stopped to talk with Glenn Orange, a guitarist who's been playing on the Market for years and a bit of an agitator for buskers' rights in Charleston. He has met with city officials about the issue several times over the years, and he posts news about the state of the industry on a Facebook page called Glenn the Busker.

On Oct. 10, seven months after the city dropped its permit requirement for buskers, a code enforcement officer approached Orange on the sidewalk and demanded to see his permit. In a recording of the incident, Orange can be heard asking to speak with the officer's supervisor. "I can get him on the phone, but he ain't coming," the officer says.

Finally, another officer comes along and explains the updated rules to his colleague. Orange says he recorded the incident because he was tired of having these sorts of run-ins.

I ask him about my etiquette dilemma with the breakdancers in Marion Square. "It's your spot if you're standing on it," Orange says. I wonder if this rule is universally accepted.

Anyway, by the time Sadie and I have exhausted my catalogue of T. Swift covers and decided to come in from the cold, my voice is raspy and ruined, and my numb fingers have sprayed a little blood on the banjo head. Even with the amphitheater effect, I am fighting to be heard.

Earnings: $2 + 2 cups of coffee (split two ways)
Did I Beat Minimum Wage?: Nope.

Will Schutze & Mr. Bonetangles

The Act: Schutze commands a small army of hand puppets and marionettes, but the star of the show is Mr. Bonetangles, a dancing skeleton who croons to prerecorded music on a tiny stage that Schutze built in an antique suitcase.

Mr. Bonetangles - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Mr. Bonetangles

When/Where: Up to eight hours a day all over downtown, plus weekend nights during the Night Market program at the City Market.

Thoughts on the New Busking Rules: Schutze says it took a little while for police to learn the new ordinances and stop questioning him when they saw him on the sidewalk. He opposes the 11 p.m. cutoff. “People are out until 2 [a.m.] making so much more noise than a busker could,” he says.

Busking Advice: “I really wouldn’t judge it by just one day because it changes so much from spot to spot, minute to minute, day to day. You can have the best and possibly worst experiences of your life, back to back even.”

Busker's Log, Part 4: Society of the Spectacle

Thurs. Feb. 12, 11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
343 King St.

In the interest of not blocking pedestrian traffic and running afoul of the law, I have tucked myself into the alcove in front of the former Yogurt Mountain, which is currently vacant. The reverb in here is just gorgeous.

I have also switched instruments from banjo to guitar. I'm not a particularly adept banjoist, and I had been playing it mainly for novelty's sake. With the guitar, I have an expanded repertoire and can pull off some fancy fingerpicking that might win me a few bucks.

I have also abandoned my populist philosophy from the last session and am only playing songs that interest me. I am thinking of Mike Collins Jr., a globetrotting busker who has passed through Charleston a few times with a banjo on his back. Often seated on a suitcase that he bangs with a kick drum pedal, he plays what he wants: country and ragtime classics, plus original songs about hard traveling.

Collins roots his street show in the Situationist philosophy of Guy Debord, who lamented in his 1967 manifesto Society of the Spectacle, "Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." Debord comes to mind today as I see Facebook and Twitter glowing on the smartphone screen of every other college student who walks by. For Collins, who abhors social media and everything it represents, busking is as much about money as it is about breaking up the meaningless spectacles of modern life.

"The situation that I like to think I'm creating is one that snaps people out of the daily grind for a second to remember that creativity and living and life is beautiful," Collins says. I can dig it.

Since I know a lot of songs by heart on the guitar, I can venture out from behind my music stand and engage the crowds. As I'm playing Damien Jurado's "Arkansas," a tune rooted in '50s rock 'n' roll, a group of women in nursing scrubs slows down beside me, and one of them claps and shakes her hips to the beat. Later I'm playing a fast-talking folk ditty by Josh Ritter when a man with his name stitched on his work uniform parks at the broken meter in front of me. He steps out to listen and throws a few quarters in my case when I finish.

"Sorry, I don't have much," he says. "I'm a musician, so I give when I can." He tells me his name is Julio, that he's a window washer by trade, and that he's been playing the congas since age 13. He says we should play together sometime, and I give him my card and say I'd like that very much.

My take for the day is $6.60. Combined with some change I have in my pocket, it's enough to buy a bowl of vegetable ramen around the corner at Menkoi. The briny broth soothes my throat on the way down, and I am warm and whole and satisfied.

Earnings: $6.60
Did I Beat Minimum Wage?: No, but it's OK.

Austin Fitzhenry

click to enlarge Fitzhenry - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Fitzhenry

The Act: Fitzhenry, a College of Charleston biology student, plays classical and pop tunes on a cello. His greatest hits include Pachelbel’s Canon, the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.”

When/Where: Second Sundays on King Street, summer weekend nights on the City Market.

Thoughts on the New Busking Rules: Until 2014, Fitzhenry was a fixture outside of the Dock Street Theatre during the Spoleto Festival. But under the new ordinances, which ban busking near performance venues, a police officer told him to move along or face a $1,100 fine. In protest, he sat by the theater with a padlocked chain around his neck and collected 150 petition signatures from people who wanted to hear him play.

Busking Advice: “If a business owner says, ‘We’d rather not have you be there in front of our business,’ even though it’s public property, just find yourself another place ... Just go where people love you, and if you’re willing to work with people like that, then you’re not going to have anybody see the necessity for this new heavy-handed city interference.”

Busker's Log, Part 5: Night Life is the Good Life

Fri. Feb. 13, 10 p.m.-midnight
501 King St.

As I hunt for a busking spot on Upper King, I realize that this street has all the music it wants. The band on the patio at Republic is rocking a perfect rendition of "One Love," and another band is warming up at Silver Dollar. Some crust punks stomp their way past me on the sidewalk, and one of them is thrashing away at an acoustic guitar while the others shout along to something that sounds like Rancid.

I struggle for a moment to find a spot where I'm not competing with other musicians or the sound systems from bars and restaurants. Finally, I open my guitar case by the gleaming copper storefront of the Charleston Distilling Co., which has already closed for the evening. It's next door to Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, and although the temperature is below freezing, I'm hoping to catch a few couples stopping in for dessert.

Before leaving the house tonight, I bathed my daughters and wrapped them in fleece pajamas, laying them in their crib and kissing their downy heads. I'm getting a late start, and I know I'll be running up against the 11 p.m. busking cutoff, but I think tonight will be worth my time.

Since it's the night before Valentine's Day, I will play nothing but love songs.

Early on, a man and woman stop to listen, and as my fingers fly to keep warm, I ask if they're on a date. The man says they are, and I say, "Good for y'all." I'm finally doing it. I'm working the crowd.

"Tell you what," he says, sliding his hand around his girlfriend's waist, "If you sound good, I'll give you money." It occurs to me that this is the implicit proposition I've already made by playing here tonight, but I say "Deal" and launch back into singing. He grins after a minute and throws $2 in the case.

I have become a part of the cityscape now, a moving curiosity that pumps out songs and visible breath. A handsome white-haired gentleman stops to listen, and his wife, wrapped in a shawl, starts edging toward me. Eventually, the man snaps a picture with his phone, and I realize I am the literal background for someone's night on the town. Later, a tall man walks by with a woman on each arm wearing skin-tight leather pants. All three pause and lean toward me for a moment, then they break out laughing all at once, privy to some joke that might be me.

For one reason or another, all the love songs that I know are downers. I've only got one in my pocket with positive lyrics, "Sea of Love," and even that one I play in the doleful style of Cat Power instead of Phil Phillips' 1959 R&B original. I don't know why I am this way, but I've never been able to sing peppy love songs convincingly. Pharrell Williams' "Happy" makes me break out in hives.

Still, if I am dragging down anyone's spirits, I can't see it in their faces. As I'm singing Josh Tillman's "When I Light Your Darkened Door," I launch into a part where I'm bellowing at the top of my lungs — just "Whoa-o-oho-o-oooooho" over and over again — and a whole bachelorette party starts grinding on each other and singing along. No tips, but I count it as an accomplishment unto itself.

The night wends on past 11 o' clock, and I know I'm pushing my luck, but the money is flowing now. There's a rush of pedestrians around 11:30. Three cops pass me by without incident.

The money is good, but the people-watching is better: A guy in a button-up shirt explaining particle physics to a homeless man. A drunken Cougarbro crashing into strangers on the sidewalk, with his friends following 10 steps behind and laughing.

Finally, just before the stroke of midnight, two police officers cut me off. "Hey man, you've got to wrap it up," one of them says. He's courteous, and I'm playing dumb.

"Oh, I'm sorry, am I not allowed to be here?" I say.

"You can't do it after 11. You can't busk. If the sergeant was around, he'd take you to jail."

"Well, thanks for the warning." I unstrap my guitar and start to pack it in.

Tomorrow I will use the money I've earned to take my girls on a Valentine's date at Magnolia Gardens, where the camellias are in bloom. My domestic life is serene and I am blessed beyond all reason.

But tonight on Upper King, I'm a different sort of man. I am mysterious, I am ragged-voiced, I am earning my place. As I latch my case and cram a fistful of dollar bills in my pocket, one of the crust punks from earlier in the night walks by, resplendent in a black hoodie with a quilt-work of patches.

"Hey, busker," he barks, throwing up his pointer and pinkie fingers in a metal salute. "Get a job."

Earnings: $36.50 + 1 miniature cupcake
Did I Beat Minimum Wage?: Cha-ching.

Know the Rules

In Charleston, a busker is defined as "a person who plays music or performs for entertainment on the public rights of way and other publicly owned places." Here are the rules for buskers:

• No busking between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m.
• No busking by the Charleston Visitor Center or within 50 feet of an ATM, church grounds (while in session), school grounds (while in session), a library, a hospital, a funeral home, a bank, a hotel, an outdoor dining area, an entrance or exit of a performance venue, or a special event.
• No busking within 20 feet of a fire hydrant, fire department connection, or fire alarm.
• Do not block roadways, sidewalks, crosswalks, driveways, doors, stairways, curb cuts, handicapped access ramps, or fire apparatus access roads.
• Do not approach a moving vehicle.
• Do not attract a crowd sufficient to obstruct the public right-of-way.

Police officers can decide whether to issue a courtesy summons or arrest a busker on the spot. If you're found guilty, you can face up to 30 days in jail or $1,092 in fines.

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