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August 22, 2013

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Street performers have been getting kicked out and off of places as long as there have been places to get kicked out and off of.  There’s always been more than a touch of flouting authority in the audacious artists who simply plop themselves down and begin playing music, dancing, juggling, sword-swallowing or turning into living statues.

So it was local musician Lon Eldridge’s Facebook post about being asked to stop playing on the Walnut Street Bridge that inspired Chattanooga Presents’ Jonathan Susman, himself a member of a few local bands, to come up with a new way to legitimize the street performers’ natural inclination to ply their arts in public.

“It’s not a new thing even in Chattanooga,” said Susman. “[Chattanooga Presents Director] Carla Pritchard did a trial run with it in 1992. And Dr. Clark White [aka Deacon Bluz] created what he called the ‘Tapestry’ program for performers.”

According to the much-despised but highly convenient Wikipedia, “The term ‘busking’ was first noted in the English language around the middle 1860s in Great Britain. Up until the 20th century, buskers were commonly called minstrels in the United States, Europe, and other English-speaking lands.

“The word ‘busk’ comes from the Spanish root word ‘buscar.’ meaning ‘to seek’—buskers are literally seeking fame and fortune...’buscar’ in turn evolved from the Indo-European word ‘bhudh-skō’ (to win, conquer) via the Celtic word ‘boudi’ (victory).”

Thank us for now being able to run the “So You Wanna Be A Busker” category on “Jeopardy.”

Susman turned to River City Co. and asked for permission to place buskers on its properties in downtown Chattanooga: Center Park, Miller Plaza, the Majestic 12 and the IMAX, where, since they had permission, they would not be asked to “move along” by a kindly passing bobby.

“The McKenzie Foundation matched the cost with River City,” Susman said, “and both organizations recognized the importance of street performance in the urban streetscape. It’s just as much a part of ‘public art’ as the murals, sculptures and installations are.”

The next step was putting together a list of performers, which Susman did using his own community contacts. Now, as word of the program has spread, artists are submitting videos of their work to him for consideration. “There are issues about anything with fire,” he said, “and of course we don’t want anything offensive.” But somewhere around 24 musicians, magicians, jugglers, hula-hoopers and others are now on the working list, and Susman said, “We definitely want more.”

Each can request two-hour gigs at the four places listed above, and each is paid $25 a gig, plus, of course, whatever they make in tips. Local woodworker Haskell Sears created the cedar boxes that mark the buskers’ performances as part of the program. “I have been running boxes all over the place,” said Susman. “But it’s well worth it.”

He points to the long-standing and much-loved tradition of busking in the London Tube, as well as a successful program closer to home in Greenville, SC. “A lot of these performers would not have a lot of other natural performance outlets,” he said. “That’s why it’s fun to see them.” And buskers have found, he noted, that passers-by can become sources of future gigs, at events and parties.

The city currently has no actual permitting process for buskers, but that too may change soon, as the attitude toward street performances has changed. “The downtown culture is different even than it was a couple of years ago,” Susman pointed out.  

Those folks who want to support the busking program can help in several ways, he said. “First, give them something when you see them out, even if it’s just the change in your pocket,” he said. “And take pictures, post them, and ‘like’ the Chattanooga Busking Facebook page.”

It’s a good bet you’ll be spotting living statue The Red Girl, viola player Jessica Nunn, hula hoop artist Jessi Harris Armstrong, magician Charles Wright and their busking brethren a lot in the near future. Bang on, say we.

For more information on the busking program, contact Jonathan Susman at jonathan@chattanoogapresents.com

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