Street music from antiquity to now

BuskersIn many places in many cities all over the world, pedestrians are treated to live music.

Pop singers, jazz musicians, gospel singers, even classical musicians perform for whomever passes by, most often with instrument cases or some other container open in order to solicit donations.

Collectively, these entertainers are known as buskers. They represent an ancient tradition. I say all over the world, and I’m sure that’s no exaggeration, but this post concerns only street entertainments that can be traced back to the Roman Empire.

Reaction to the buskers varies. Some people rush past. Others pause for a while and toss some money in the case. Not infrequently, some people will hang around and listen long enough to hear at least several selections.

The quality of the music varies. Some performers have a lot of talent; others have very little. By the way, it’s not all music. You can find mimes, puppet shows, and all manner of other entertainment on city streets and other public places.

The performers include people with ordinary jobs who want to do something a little different in their spare time. There are students learning how to attract and play for an audience. There are even some who make a living busking.

A man in Seattle named Eldo is homeless. He plays for no more than five hours a day, and on good days makes $50. He also has a website that catalogs over a thousand paintings and drawings and ten albums of songs. (I couldn’t locate it, but I imagine he gives visitors the opportunity to buy his works.)

“I have people say to me, ‘Why don’t you get a real job?'” he says. “I think I have a real job.”

Busking and the law

No one can simply pick a street corner and start playing. Every city has regulations. Busking is considered a First Amendment right in the United States, but Chicago now has licensing requirements that make busking nearly impossible.

That’s a change from when I lived there. I recall many buskers I heard on the streets and in the subways of Chicago with great pleasure.

Seattle requires an annual permit and has 15 approved places at the Pike Street Market. Its regulations forbid amplified instruments or brass instruments. It does not require buskers to audition.

Several other cities do. Melbourne, Australia even requires a YouTube or Facebook account to demonstrate professionalism. Legal requirements vary widely (can you imagine New Orleans, the home of jazz, to forbid its buskers to play brass instruments?) and are always subject to change.

The city of Camden in England recently tightened its licensing requirements—over the vigorous protests of local buskers. A member of the town council commented,

By introducing this policy, we’re able to strike a balance between the rights of performers to use public spaces and the rights of our residents to a quality of life free from noise nuisance, often late at night.

We have purposely set the costs of licences at a level that is affordable, clearly showing we do not wish to discourage music or street performances, but to find a way that works for all.

As that comment clearly demonstrates, not everyone in the public loves street performances. Some people regard them as a nuisance.

So are the stringent licensing requirements and other barriers a sign of modern over-regulation and intrusive government?


Suspicion of street entertainers and official attempts to keep them under control has been going on for thousands of years.

Popular entertainment in ancient and medieval times

The Roman government—both during the Republic and the Empire–sought to control the general population by offering free entertainment. The gladiator fights and other exhibitions of violence might be the most notorious nowadays, but the populace could also enjoy all manner of musical and theatrical performances.

The Roman nobility despised the entertainers and the general public equally. The performers all came from the slave classes and therefore had very low social status, even among the general populace. Many of the entertainments made their appeal through bawdy sexual humor. As the Christian church grew in influence, it vigorously condemned them.

When the Western portion of the Empire collapsed, the church became the main factor in social unity. The population still wanted entertainment. If the government couldn’t supply it and the church wouldn’t, itinerant bands of performers did.

By the 13th century, secular musicians, called minstrels in modern scholarship,  began to have opportunity to settle down in one place. Some found employment as town watchmen. Others joined the households of nobles. Social and economic pressure against vagrancy began about the same time.

Even so, many minstrels remained homeless. Some were itinerant only for a short time. Catastrophes like war or famine often drove poor people from their homes. Other minstrels never had a home for their entire lives. Itinerancy was forced on some. Others, like Seattle’s Eldo chose that lifestyle.

The itinerants were like the journalist of the day. As they traveled from place to place, they carried gossip and news. They also transmitted musical styles and standards from one place to another.

These performers had no legal rights and low social status. They were not eligible for military service. They were not permitted to take any oath or serve as witnesses. Inheritance laws excluded their children. Murdering an itinerant entertainer or doing serious bodily harm brought no penalty.

Even as late as 1537, someone wrote, “The entertainer and the juggler are not people like other men, but have only a semblance of humanity, and are almost comparable to the dead.”

Minstrels with pipe and tabor

Illustration from Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript. The Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs to the Virgin Mary) are manuscripts written in Galician-Portuguese, with music notation, during the reign of Alfonso X El Sabio (1221-1284)

As much as society despised secular entertainers, it could not function without them. Weddings required music. The numerous processions and fairs required music. Music appropriate for one function would not be appropriate for another.

Therefore minstrelsy demanded training and discipline. Minstrels had to play many kinds and styles of music.

Since they could not read musical notation before the Renaissance, they had to learn it all by rote and play it from memory.

Some minstrels must have been extraordinary musicians. Probably others had little if any talent.

Settled musicians probably provided most of the music in towns, cities, and courts. On the other hand, there were plenty of special occasions when there were not enough local musicians to supply the need. Organizers hired musicians from other towns. But the vagrants may have had opportunity to participate as well.

Since society didn’t consider these entertainers important, they show up very seldom in the written record. Modern musicologists have only recently turned their attention to music of the common people.

We don’t know much in particular about Medieval musicians, and certainly not about the itinerants.

But it is probably quite accurate to imagine that they set their hats down anywhere where they could find a large crowd, hoping for a little money. They may have received some, or they may have been chased away by local authorities.

After all, that still describes conditions for buskers to this day.

The buskers’ life: The street’s their stage, our attention their reward / Seattle Times
9 things you didn’t’ know about busking / Buzzfeed
Camden busking laws to be enforced after judge rejects High Court challenge / Hampstead and Highgate Express
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians  entry for Rome.
Walter Salmen. “The Social Status of the Musician in the Middle Ages” in The Social Status of Professional Musicians from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century, edited by Walter Salmen , pp. 1-29. Translated by Herbert Kaufman and Barbara Reisner.

Photo credits:
Buskers. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Pipe and tabor.
Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

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