Celebrating self-expression as a basic human right essential for the

healthy growth of youth, individuals and communities


Stephen H. Baird, Founder and Executive Director

39 Robeson Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130

Email: info@BuskersAdvocates.org

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Avenues of Self Expression

by Stephen Baird

Stephen Baird 2000-2021

Article appeared in New England Performer Magazine in 2000

From Ben Franklin to Tracy Chapman, Louis Armstrong to the Violent Femmes, the streets of this country have been the avenues of self expression for emerging artists and musicians. Entire art forms such as tap dancing to break dancing, jazz to blues, rock n' roll to rap singing have risen from the fusion of diverse artists who have performed on the streets of New York City, Boston, Chicago and New Orleans. The history of popular culture has direct roots in the history of street performances. Today the streets are still a dynamic stew of sounds and rhythms from around the world.

The emancipation of the slaves after the Civil War resulted in a flood of new artistic expression on the streets. The blues migrated up the Mississippi from Memphis to Chicago. Jazz migrated from Saint Louis to New Orleans. Eubie Blake performed on the streets of Baltimore and New York City. The legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson toured picnics and fairs from Texas to North Carolina. For details see: Historical References

Waves of immigrants from 1870 to the present day have found their voices and audiences on the streets and subway platforms. Irving Berlin and Eddie Cantor are the forebearers of the recent multitude of artists arriving from Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Musicians from Central and South America can be found on the streets of New York City, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco filling the air with the lilt of pan pipes. For details see: Historical References

Contemporary jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan who developed the "touch-technique-playing-style" performed on the streets of Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin before moving on to the streets of Boston and New York and greater recognition. Both Martin Sexton and Tracy Chapman performed on the street corners of Cambridge's Harvard Square, much like Joan Baez did three decades earlier. Paul Simon and James Taylor plied the street of London with their songs to earn cash for demo tapes.

For a deeper look at the opportunities and challenges for street performers read Passing the Hat - Street Performers in America (Delacorte Press) by Patricia J. Campbell and Underground Harmonies - Music & Politics in the Subways of New York (Cornell University Press) by Susie J. Tanenbaum. See: Books and References

Web sites to scan include <www.openair.org> (Street Festivals, Street Vendors, Street Performers, Maxwell Street in Chicago, etc), <www.flatworld.net> (Story on Santa Monica legal battle), <www.performers.net> (Stories by Rex Boyd on performing in Europe, plus David Cassel on performances in Australia and tips on how to start out). These professional vaudeville organization sites will lead to many individual site links to noted street performers around the world <www.juggling.org>, <www.magicians.org>, <www.mimes.com>, <www.performingarts.net>. For hot links and more details see: Links and References

Boston was called the "Emerald City" of street performing by Patricia Campbell. Artists can perform in Downtown Crossing, Faneuil Hall Marketplace (Auditioned in March and scheduled April-October), There is no permit currently required in Boston (See this page for details on the 2004 Federal Court case: Boston Legal Battle 1972-2004. The MBTA issue permits for $25. A picture ID is required. It is a first-come, first-serve basis except for Harvard station. Meet at 7 am for a flip to cover the 7 am-12 noon shift, 12 noon-6 pm and 6 pm to closing shift. Amplification is allowed at 80db at low levels and you can sell your own CDs. See this page for links to subway sites around the world plus details on the MBTA permit: Subway Transit Artists

Harvard Square has been one of the country's hottest spots for over two decades. The permit to perform in Cambridge is available at the Cambridge Arts Council, City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139. The permit costs $40/person for one year (January 1st - December 31st), and covers all forms of street performing. It is valid for all public streets and parks of Cambridge between the hours of 7 am-11 pm (till 12 midnight Fri & Sat). Call 617/349-4380 for more information. Amplification is allowed at 80db at 25 feet and you can sell your own CDs. http://www.cambridgeartscouncil.org See: Cambridge Legal Battle 1973-2003

Washington Square Park, Central Park, Broadway show lines, farmers markets and subways all have been stages for artists in the Big Apple. New York City has been in the middle of legal battles for the past 10 years over amplification and performance restrictions in Central Park. For additional detail contact the NYC Street Performers Alliance & Coalition of Artists United for Self Expression (CAUSE) at 212-802-7549. See: New York City Street Entertainers 1700 - 2005

Federal court cases have given street performances First Amendment protection since Goldstein v. Town of Nantucket, 477 F. Supp., 606, (1979). Additional court cases include Davenport v Alexandria, VA 683 F2d 853 (1983), 710 F2d 148 (1983), 748 F2d 208 (1984); and Friedrich v. Chicago 619 F. Supp., 1129. (D.C. Ill 1985). The recent case of Robert Turley versus New York City confirmed this protection and argues only the limits of the city to regulate amplification. See: Legal Court Citations

Many cities in the northeast from Portland, Maine to Worcester, Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut, to Burlington, Vermont, to Ithaca New York embrace street performances. Street scenes are more active in the summer months and each city has their own regulations. For details contact local city clerks for the current legal status. See: Model Regulations

Cities across the country known for street performances include Philadelphia, Miami, Key West, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Madison, Boulder, Austin, Denver, Seattle, Eugene. Portland, San Francisco, Venice Beach (LA), Santa Monica and San Diego. College towns are often open for the impromptu spontaneous performance with a supportive young audience willing to take chances on new artists and art forms. See: Performance Locations World Wide

The opportunities are boundless. With a little fearless ambition and reckless faith in the moment of surprise the next street corner can become a Carnigie Hall where the most profound artistic experience can change the inner and outer landscapes.


Stephen Baird is founder of the Street Arts and Buskers Advocates and has performed on the streets of the United States, Canada and Europe since 1972. He also founded the Folk Arts Network and Club Passim. Currently he is the Founder and Executive Director for the Community Arts Advocates, Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts. For additional information write or call the Street Arts Advocates, PO Box 300112, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130-0030 USA  Email: info@communityartsadvocates.org Web site: http://www.communityartsadvocates.org


Street Arts and Buskers Advocates