A History of Busking

Street performing has been around since, well, ever! It is likely that it has occurred since recorded history began, though there has been a notable evolution throughout the decades.

Whilst it is impossible to know what the first ever street-performing acts entailed (anything from banging on a rock to dancing), it is likely that it was performed to get attention, mating purposes or to receive goods/services.

Minstrels would perform songs with lyrics telling stories of real and imaginary events and places, however these became less popular as courts became more sophisticated, forcing these minstrels into the streets, becoming wandering minstrels. This remained popular until the 20th century, when it became similar to modern busking.

So when did it start becoming recognised as a potentially lucrative venture?

There is no set date, but it is likely that it was a common mean of securing employment for entertainers, musicians and singers, before recording devices had been established. As there was no music device, except for organ grinders, piano rolls and music boxes, music existed mostly in their live form – thus creating a high demand for performers.

Organ grinders were found performing on the streets on a regular basis – providing a simple yet steady job and income for unskilled workers. Unfortunately, the stereotypical image of an organ grinder and a dancing monkey is true, as these provided a means of visual entertainment, ensuring that passers-by were captivated in the spectacle. This was stopped with the introduction of animal rights, increased use of audio devices and a dwindling audience.

In the 1800s street performers were seen advertising their products and wares, as well as medicine shows selling ‘magical elixirs and potions’ that would improve their health. Towards the end of this century, one man bands began to appear, using an array of instruments attached to parts of the body. This tradition is carried on even today, however now uses MIDI instruments or samples to achieve the effect.

In the 20th Century busking saw a major rise, as well as the number of buskers who later became famous from it, such as Edith Piaf, The Blue Man Group, Robbie Williams, Joan Baez and even Bob Dylan. This led to a counterculture where bands and performers would gather at a public place and perform for free – akin to a busking festival, attracting names such as the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. This is still continued today but is generally more organised and official.

One of the most popular places for buskers is London, thanks to heavy foot traffic and a glut of tourists visiting, most notably in Covent Garden. Often, businesspeople are able to look out of their offices in Covent Garden and see an ‘army’ of buskers – such as jugglers, magicians, puppetry, performers, living statues and singers.

Busking is not a glamorous profession, however it is not exclusively for the homeless or unemployed, as the stereotype might imply. Subjected to the public, buskers might receive abuse from passers-by or competition from other buskers, as well as thieving from their donation pot.

Busking is likely to continue forever, evolving even further (some artists now cyber-busk – which is posting their music/performing for free online) and, whilst not universally appreciated, can really help to brighten a day and add some life to an otherwise dull street.