August 28, 2006

Pure employment

Yesterday we happened upon the Toronto International Busking Festival, a three-day event held downtown on Front Street at St. Lawrence Market. It was loads of fun and brought back memories of busking on Princes Street in Edinburgh for a few years in the late 1980s.

What a good time that was. Any piper who hasn’t at some point put out the box and played is missing the experience of pure employment. I used to say back then that it’s the most honest form of work. You play, and people pay you what they think it was worth. If they didn’t like it, they move on. If they stop to listen, they pay you something if they can. If they don’t have any money, then at least they clap or tell you how much they liked it.

One busker yesterday – a contortionist who, after squeezing himself through a flaming, unstrung squash racket, balanced a running lawnmower on his chin while the audience threw heads of lettuce at the whirring blades – said as much during his act. Contrary to what many may believe, buskers are very proud people who busk because they choose to. People who enjoy their act but then just walk away are rude, and have the full contempt of the busker. We gave him $10.

But I remember the summer of 1987 when I was in full busking mode, usually working with a great piper who is now the pipe-major of a very good Grade 1 band. I was seeing Captain John MacLellan weekly for light music lessons, and Mrs. MacLellan would often pass us on Princes Street and place a pound coin or two in the box, saying, “Don’t tell the Captain I’m giving you the house-keeping money.”

As it turned out, John MacLellan was one of the judges on the Gold Medal at Inverness. When I approached the bench to compete he said with a wink, “I hope you brought your pipe box,” which of course was going through my head during the whole tune.

I didn’t mind then and I don’t mind now. As with this blog entry, I talk freely of my time as a busker – getting paid basically to practice – and stress the honesty of the job to anyone who cares. And I always, but always, pay buskers what I think their work is worth, pure and simple.





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