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

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The History and Cultural Impact

of Street Performing in America

by Stephen Baird Stephen Baird 2000-2021


The following little historical references are just a glimpse of the depth and breadth of the creative spirit of the human race that blossoms on the street corners, market places, subway platforms and any other place people gather.

For a deeper look at the opportunities and challenges for street performers read (See the Books & References and Street Artists in Fine Arts Paintings, Photographs and Films pages for additional sources and details):


Ben Franklin on the Streets of Boston in 1718

Excerpt from Autobiography

... I was yet but 12 years old. I was to serve as an Apprentice till I was 21 years of age, only I was to be allow'd Journeyman's wages during the last year. I made great proficiency in the business, and became a useful hand to my brother. I now had access to better books. An acquaintance with the apprentices of booksellers, enabled me sometimes to borrow a small one, which I was careful to return soon & clean. ... And after some time an ingenious Tradesman Mr. Matthew Adams who had a pretty collection of books, & who frequented our printinghouse, took notice of me, invited me to his library, & very kindly lent me such books as I chose to read.

I now took fancy to poetry, and made some little pieces. My brother, thinking it might turn to account encourag'd me, & put me on composing two occasional ballads. One was called the Light House Tragedy, & containe'd an account of the drowning of Capt.. Worthilake with his two daughters; the other was a sailor song on the taking of Teach or Blackbeard the Pirate. They were wretched stuff, in the grub-street ballad style, and when they were printed he sent me about the town to sell them. The first sold wonderfully, the event being recent, having made a great noise. This flatter'd my vanity. But my father discourag'd me. Verse-makers were always beggars; so I escap'd being a poet, most probably a very bad one.

Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790: The Autobiography and Other Writings

Edited by Kenneth Silverman, Penguin Books, NY, NY 1986

Before the printing press was invented, books were extremely rare and expensive. History and current events were communicated by minstrels and troubadours or the community griots and storytellers.

When the printing press was invented the majority of the population could not read and many of the early news events were put in to printed verse on broadsides and sung and then sold as this account by Ben Franklin humorously exhibits.

Street performances and the free press are historically connected and intertwined.

"Those who would give up essentail liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." -- Ben Franklin


Stephen Baird & Ben Franklin


Busking in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1738


On the day after Christmas in 1985, I drove to Colonial Williamsburg to research early American street performances in the foundation library. I arrived early in the morning and quickly became immersed in reading the collection of diaries, journals and newspapers.

One of the joys of this kind of root-level research is reading the first hand accounts of life as the writers are experiencing it. The immediacy, the rythem and cadence of the language is like a time capsule.

I emerged from 10 hours in the research library in to a Colonial Williamsburg lit-up by candle light. For a moment I thought I had traveled 200 years back in time.

Williamsburg, April 21

There lately arrived here, a Man and his Wife, and with them two Children . who perform the Agility of Body, by various Sorts of Postures, Tumbling, and Sword Dancing, to greater Perfection than has been known in these Parts for many Years, if ever.

The Virginia Gazette, April 14-21, 1738, page 4, column 1


Sliding a Rope Tied to a Church Steeple In Boston 1757

John Childs has flown off of most of the high steeples of Old England, and off of the Monument of Duke of Cumberlands' Desire, and does intend this Day, and two Days following to fly off Dr. Cutler's Church, where he hopes to give full Satisfaction to all spectators.

Boston Gazette, Sept. 12, 1757

The next issue of the newspaper states that he performed the feat to the satisfaction of a great Number of Spectators. It is supported from the steeple to place where the Rope was fix'd was about 700 Feet upon a slope, and that he was about 16 or 18 seconds performing each Time. As these performances led many People from their Business, he is forbid flying more in the Town.

Everyday Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony by George Dow, Benjamin Blom, NY.1935. 1967, page 117.

On line blog by J.L. Bell that details the Rope Sliding trick: http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2007/04/john-childs-rope-flyer.html

On line blog by J.L. Bell about John Childs http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2007/04/mysteries-of-john-childs.html


Patrick Henry and Sam Adams on the Revolutionary Streets

Street performances were a part of colonial American life, as evidenced by these observations about Hanover and Williamsburg, Virginia and Boston, Massachusetts. (NOTE: There is some evidence that Patrick Henry, who was an avid fiddle player, performed on the streets during the Quarter court sessions. Also see: Street Crys of New York, printed by S. Wood, 1809.)


But the big times came when the country courts held their Quarter Sessions in March, June, September, and December, when the more important cases were heard. . . . Besides, there were many special amusements and entertainments. . . . All Court days, but particularly Quarter sessions, had the Carnival air of a county fair. . . . Traveling troups of acrobats and jugglers put on performances several times a day . . . when the General Court was in session including the House of Burgesses . . . Punch and Judy shows, acrobatic acts and other performances by itinerant troups . . . more than one English visitor observed.
Patrick Henry and His World, by George F. Willison,

Doubleday, Inc., Garden City, NY 1969, pp. 31 and 44.


A large crowd paraded through town, then gathered for a band concert, everyone sang the "American Song of Liberty," to the tune of "God Save the King," the new lyrics being provided for the occasion by none other than Sam Adams.
The Grand Incendiary, by Paul Lewis, Dial Press, NY, 1973, p. 91.

When the Constitution was first sent to the individual states to be ratified it was rejected until the Bill of Rights Amendments were added. Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and the general population wanted the right to protest governmental policy through public demonstration, songs and printed phamplets on the street and public parks.


Sam Adams Park (Dock Square) -- I was stopped by Boston Municipal Police from doing a documentary film interview in 1998 and from a photographic shoot for an article in the Boston Phoenix in 2004. This abuse caused me to seek attorneys to file a Federal Law Suit to stop the curtailment of First Amendment Rights in this historic park. See this web page for details: Boston Legal Battle 1972-2004

Nathaniel Hawthorne

"All vagrants are interesting -- people who cast themselves on fortune,

and take whatever she gives without certainty of anything."


Nathaniel Hawthorne kept extensive journals of his travels both here in America and in Europe. The journals include many richly detailed passages of encounters of itinerant performers on the road and at fairs.
North Adams, August 23d-- (1838)

After supper, as the sun was setting, a man passed by the door (of the tavern) with a hand-organ, connected with which was a row of figures, such as dancers, pirouetting and twining, a lady playing on a piano, a negro wench dancing and opening and shutting a huge red mouth--all these keeping time to the lively or slow tunes of the organ. The man had a pleasant, but sly, dark face; he carried his whole establishment on his shoulder, it being fastened to a staff which he rested on the ground when he performed. A little crowd of people gathered about him on the stoop, peeping over each other's heads with huge admiration,-- fat Otis Hodge, and the tall stage-driver, and the little boys all declaring that it was the masterpiece of sights. Some few coppers did the man obtain, as well as much praise. He had come over the high, solitary mountains where for miles there could hardly be a soul to hear his music.

Passages From the American Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne Works Vol IX,, page 173-174, Houghton, Mifflin and Co.., Boston and New York, 1868 and 1883

London, (1855)

There is a woman who has several times passed through this Hanover Street, in which we live, stopping occasionally to sing songs under the windows; and last evening, between nine and ten o'clock, she came and sang "Kathleen O'Moore" richly and sweetly. Her voice rose up out of the dim, chill street, and made our hearts throb in unison with it as we sat in our comfortable drawing-room. I never heard a voice that touched me more deeply. Somebody told her to go away, and she stopped like a nightingale suddenly shot; but, finding, that S_____ wished to know something about her, Fanny and one of the maids ran after her, and brought her into the hall. It seems she was educated to sing at the opera, and married an Italian opera-singer, who is now dead; lodging in a model lodging-house at three-pence a night, and being a penny short to-night, she tried this method, in hope of getting this penny. She takes in plain sewing when she can get any, and picks up a trifle about the street by means of her voice, which she says, was once sweet, but has now been injured by the poorness of her living....It seems strange, that with such a gift of Heaven, so cultivated, too, as her voice is, making even an unsusceptible heart vibrate like a harp-string, she should not have had an engagement among the hundred theatres and singing-rooms of London; that she should throw away her melody in the streets for the mere chance of a penny, when sounds not a hundredth part so sweet are worth from other lips purses of gold.

Our Old Home and English Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne Works Vol I and II,, page 158-159, Houghton, Mifflin and Co.., Boston and New York, 1868 and 1891


Boston Street Music 1869

Folio July 1869 by Effie Bailey

The extent which street music attains in Boston excites the wonders of visitors, and it is often remarked that its "wandering minstrels" would alone prove the musical superiority of the Hub!

....A little farther on, three young girls, with violins and harp, were singing the song and chorus of "Little Em'ly," whose sad story appeared to deeply affect the listeners. The pathetic romance, however, gave way to "Shoo, Fly" before I was out of hearing!

Then I encountered the band of seven or eight pieces, composed of Germans, who give us the airs of "Faderland" interspersed with melodies of their adopted country....

The generosity of the people of Boston towards street musicians is proverbial, and seldom does a performer doff his hat or extend his tambourine without receiving something.

A law has recently been passed by the City Government forbidding street musicians to perform after ten o'clock, P.M. or more than ten minutes in one place, and they must always be prepared to show their license. Upwards of seventy-five men. women and children were licensed. per day during the Spring months.

Folio, July 1869, by Effie Bailey

The new law referred to here was passed in 1858 and was still in effect when I started to perform in Boston in 1972. The Itinerant Musicians License (Police Rule 75) require every woman street musicians to be accompanied by a male street musician. The police also stated if you received donations they would arrest you for begging. I challenged the Constitutionality of the law in May 1973. The City of Boston Law Department issued some clarification on accepting donations, but many other aspects, not ordinarily enforced, still need to be challenged. Old laws never die. It is still technically illegal to hold hands in public according to the laws of Boston.

Irving Berlin to George Burns--Immigrants Fill The Streets With Music
Waves of immigrants from 1700 to the present day have found their voices and audiences on the streets. Irving Berlin and George Burns are the forebears 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.
The Siberian born Jew who was to become to popular song writing what Heinz was to pickles arrived on the Lower East Side before his fifth birthday. Four years latter his father, a part-time cantor. died, and the boy went to work on the streets, singing for pennies. (Irving Berlin original name Isidore Baline)

Burns began his performing career at age seven as the tenor in a street singing group called the Peewee Quartet which performed in virtually every Lower East Side bar and cafe, and on occasion on the decks of the Staton Island ferry. (George Burns original name Nathan Birnbaum)

Live & Be Well: A Celebration of Yiddish Culture in America - From the First Immigrants to the Second World War, by Richard F. Shepard & Vicki Gold Levi, Ballantine Books, NY, 1982, pages 24 and 33.


Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Eubie Blake, Reverend Gary Davis, Professor Longhair, Louis Armstrong and the African American Diaspora on the Streets
The impact of the African American diaspora on the cultural landscape of America can not be overstated. As forced and imprisoned immigrants to this continent, the African American artists took enormous risks of brutal beatings and even death by lynching to express themselves with music, dance and voice. There are numerous newspaper accounts of beatings and lashings of African Americans for playing drums. However, there are many diary accounts of African Americans performing with banjos on the streets of New York before the Revolutionary War as well as descriptions of African American street performances in Congo aka Circus Square, New Orleans as far back as 1800. Emancipated slaves filled the streets with dance and music. Entire genres of art were invented and refined from tap-dancing to break-dancing, a cappella rock n' roll to rap singing, blues to jazz.
...The music consisted of two drums and a stringed instrument...which no doubt was imported from Africa. On top of the finger board was the rude figure of a Man in a sitting posture, and two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a Calabash.

Diary and letters of Benjamin Henry Latrobe on visit to New Orleans, 1819

Immediately following the Civil War, bands of newly emancipated street musicians appeared throughout the south. They sang, danced, and performed generally to the accompaniment of banjo, guitar, and bones, together with the "skat" band--the traditional instruments of the black musician in the south. Many of these street musicians, attracted by the life of the city, made their way to New Orleans, where their musical horizons were broadened.

Black Music, by John Rublowsky; p. 122

The biographies of African American artists who have performed on the street is a Who'sWho of American culture from Bessie Smith to Eubie Blake, Reverend Gary Davis to Louis Armstrong.

Eubie and three young friends got together a singing quartet that sang outside of the local bars for change - he was twelve then, in short pants, and not allowed inside. "We sang 'Two Little Girls in Blue,' 'Daisy,' songs like that - not ragtime."

Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake by Robert Kimball and William Besleom, Viking Press, NY 1973, page 39.

Blind Lemon Jefferson is arguably the most influential performer ever to grace a street corner. From his home town of Dallas, Texas all the way to Atlanta, Georgia, Blind Lemon Jefferson performed on street corners, cross-roads, picnics and flop houses. He was legendary and when he started recording his music in the 1920's he was an instant success selling thousands of records which contributed to the development of the music recording industry. The entire blues genre was influenced by his performances and recordings, as well as by the apprentice lead-guides who accompanied Blind Lemon Jefferson on his tours.

Professor Longhair in New Orleans in the 1930s:

"He taught himself to play piano on a battered upright some neighbors had abandoned in an ally. At the same time, he was tap-dancing in the streets for spare change and making occasional appearances as an orange crate drummer with a children's band."

Big Apple Grapevine: Professor Longhair's Legacy by Robert Palmer, Real Paper, February 23, 1980

Reverend Gary Davis performed on the street of New York for over a decade. He was a most remarkable and inventive guitar player. Tony Schwartz recorded a live street performance by Rev Gary Davis on the 1957 Folkways (FD 5581) record "New York Street Music," which still shines as a brilliant virtuoso guitar work. Notes on a later Biograph recording by Rev. Gary Davis speak on the harsh realities of street performing.

1944 he began playing for street audiences. "Not so much that I liked it, but that's the best I could do. I was glad to get away from it (street singing). Cause there's too many different kinds of people you meet up with in the street, and it its not recognized, too... They call it beggin', pan handlin'."

Rev Gary Davis, Blues and Gospel Vol 1, Biograph Record BLP 12030 reviewed by Stephen Cult.

For additional information on Rev. Gary Davis visit Andy Cohen's web site. Andy traveled with many of the old blues artists and has set up a museum and resource center with a special emphasis on Rev Gary Davis. It is located in the home of the blues, Memphis, Tenn. Web site: www.riverlark.com. Also check out the web site for historic Maxwell Street in Chicago where many of the most important blues players performed at the street market. Web site: http://www.openair.org/maxwell/maxblu.html.


Mayor La Guardia Bans Street Music in New York City in 1935
During the winters of 1978 and 1979, I spent the majority of my time in the Boston Public Library reading court cases as far back as the 1790s and reading the old newspapers on micro film. There was only rudementary indexing at the time and street music was not even a catagory, but I was able to discover hundreds of references to street performers under noise complaints in letters to the editors and annul license reports by city officials. The New York Times reported on Aug. 27, 1922 that the Social Welfare Association estimated over $150,000 was made by street performes and reported on July 1, 1923, that eight hundred hand organs and as many more itinerant musicians were licensed. An August 28, 1927, New York Times article reviews street performances all over the city including a team of African-American street artists who strapped a piano to an old Ford station wagon and sang to large crowds through a megaphone and were rewarded with a "rain of pennies."

This April 28, 1935, New York Times article was only the first of many articles on the street music ban by Mayor La Guardia.

The New York Times published a series of articles and editorials against the street music ban when the ban went in full effect on Janauary 1, 1936. NBC Radio had a live broadcast with members of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company and collected over 5,000 signatures on petitions to protest the ban it was reported on January 26, 1936, but all the protest fell on deaf ears. The ban remained in effect until Mayor Lindsey lifted the ban on May 20, 1970. People still performed on the street in New York City, but artists were often harrassed, as the above reference by Rev. Gary Davis attests, The fight for street music rights was long and hard and included "The Washington Square Riot" and Beat Poets Alan Ginzberg court challenges for First Amendment protection in the 1960s.

Street Arts and Buskers Advocates