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

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FLASH NEWS: Federal Law Suit to protect rights of street artists in Boston served on August 3, 2004

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The History and Cultural Impact

of Street Performing in America

by Stephen Baird © Stephen Baird 2003


NOTE: I wrote this short historical review for the attorneys and street artists for both the court case and for media advocacy. I supplied specific local historical references to provide additional evidence of street performing as an intregal part of Virginia's cultural heritage. SB


Historical Statement for Davenport v. Alexandria


Almost every form of contemporary culture has its roots in street performances. Troubadors, mimes, minstrels, jongleurs, scops, ballad singers, broadside performers, etc., would develop into today's historians, poets, musicians, dancers, writers, actors, etc. See: The History of the Mediaeval Stage, E. K. Chambers, Oxford University Press, 1903; Street Magic, E. Claflin and J. Sheridan, Doubleday, 1977; Clowns, J. H. Townsen, Hawthorn, 1976; etc.

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. from
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.


The streets were often the only performance space for black artists and immigrant artists in the United States. Their street performances were the beginnings of jazz, blues, vaudeville, broadway and rock music. See They All Sang on the Corner, by Philip Groia, Edmond Publishing Co., NY 1973; Eubie Blake, by A1 Rose, Schirmer Books, NY, 1979; Five Women in Black Music, by Hettie Jones; Louis Armstrong, by Hughes Panassie, C. Scribner's Sons, NY, 1971; Folk Music More Than a Song, by K. Baggelaar and D. Milton; Irish Emigrant Ballads and Songs, by Robert L. Wright, Bowling Green Univ. Popular Press, Ohio, 1975; Black Music, by John Rublowsky; etc. On p. 122 of the last-mentioned book, Black Music by J. Rublowsky:

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.


There are hundreds of hours of tapes and records recorded on the streets of this country in the Library of Congress Folk Archives. See: "The Music of New Orleans," FA 2461-2465; "Street Cries and Creole Songs of New Orleans," MR Z9F-W546, 1956; ''Rev. Gary David," BLP 12030; "Blind Lemon Jefferson," RLP 12-125; "Blues Roots," G 6576a; "New York Street Music,' recorded by Tony Schwartz, Folkways, FD 5581, 1957; etc.

Newspapers and magazines have often printed articles concerning street performing. These are but four examples from the thousands of listings in the Readers Guide and New York Times Index: "The Regulation of Street Music," by J. C. Hadden, in The Nineteenth Century, June 1896, pp. 950-956; "Comic and Queer and Old Ordinances of NYC," New York Times, July 1, 1923, section VII (notes: 1,600 licensed street performers); "The Bands of Summer"--''Street Minstrels fill American cities with a Joyful Noise," Time, August 27, 1979, pp. 66-69; "Are Silly Laws Taking the Fun Out of Your City," John Woytash, American Bar Association Journal, March 1977, p. 298. In the last:

". . . in many cities, stifling, archaic and decidedly short-sighted laws help drain simple but colorful activity from the public ways, making city life far less than the showcase of human-ness than it ought to be."

The often quoted principle from Schneider v. State should prevail:

One is not to have the exercise of his liberty of expression in appropriate places abridged on the plea that it may be exercised some other place.
Schneider v. State 308 US 147, 163 (1939)


Justice Marshall touched on many of the issues involved here in his dissenting opinion of Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner:

For many persons who do not have easy access to television, radio, the major newspapers, and other forms of mass media, the only way they can express themselves to a broad range of citizens on issues of general public concern is to picket or to handbill or to utilize other free or relatively inexpensive means of communication. The only hope that these people have to :` be able to communicate effectively is to be permitted to speak in those areas in which most of their fellow citizens can be found. One such area is the business district of a city or town or its functional equivalent.
Lloyd v. Tanner 407-US 551, 570-586 (Justice Marshall dissenting opinion)

Street performances are a crucial First Amendment Right. It is one of the relatively inexpensive means of communications that has historically figured in the exposure of new ideas, political, religious, social and artistic to the entire world community. To strip away the associated First Amendment protections to have listeners and supporters (including financial supporters) by limiting access to the public through a ban of the use of the sidewalks in the central business district of Alexandria, Virginia, or any other town; street performances would become an extinct communication tool. This would be a serious blow to the growth of culture and the future of humanity.

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