Busking on Grafton Street
This is partly inspired by a recent post by Nimue Brown, which had some excellent points to make about the quality of the audience and its effect on a performance, but mainly it’s about the fact that I’ve just come off Grafton Street in Dublin, having barely made the price of a pint. I’m in Farrington’s now, a place that serves Irish craft beers and good food. And has free wireless. It may be the last chance I ever get to be here, so I’m taking it.
I’ve played Grafton Street the last two days, as well as a pretty amazing session in a pub on Monday night. Both days on the street I’ve done a whole lot better monetarily, but really, no time spent on the street is ever wasted.
It never depends on your audience. I always, always look in the mirror first. The reason I did crap today was that I broke one of my cardinal rules. I played for tips. I did not play for the love of it, and I deserved to make shite. Yet I did catch ears. It’s funny, people on the street often don’t want to be caught listening, at least at first. It’s kind of like hooking a salmon. Let them stand off to the side if they like, and keep feeding them beauty. They’ll often come around. Sometimes all you get is a tip, sometimes you get conversation. Sometimes even a chance to pass on a bit of knowledge.
Audiences and performers are two halves of a whole. The ancient Irish knew that. There was a blessing on the teller of the tale, who told it fully and completely, and on those who listened completely, to the end. This was, and is, how the knowledge moves forward in time.
I played at Emain Macha earlier this week. I stood up there completely alone and played “The Pangs of Macha” to the land it was tied to, the sky, and the sea surrounding the island of Ireland. It was good, but it wasn’t enough. When a gaggle of kids and parents came up to the hill, I asked them if they wanted to hear the story of the hill. It seemed no one heard me, and I was willing to let it go. They didn’t come there to hear me. I offered an opportunity, no more, no less. But one man in that group heard me. He wanted to hear the tale and he spoke right up, made the kids sit down and listen.
After I was done, the kids got up and kept rolling down the hill. But some of the adults thanked me. They got it. I also found out that rolling down the hill was a tradition, later when I no longer had the chance. All I knew at the time was when I saw fathers and their children rolling down Emain Macha, laughing their joy, that the curse was over at last. I didn’t need to catch every ear, after all, only the ones who needed to hear the story. If busking hadn’t made me fearless, I, an American, would never have dared to approach a group of Irish people and offer to tell them their history. The very idea!
The session was another gift from the street. The man on the street, as it were, showed his worth again. I asked for directions near the bus station and he saw the bodhran on my back and pointed me not only to Grafton Street, but to O’Donoghue’s, and the Monday night session. On the way down, I told myself that if they didn’t like what I was doing, I knew the way back to the hostel. I’d already been given the brush-off in Inverness, I was prepared to get the same here, but I was going to try, at least.
Tommy was in the back with a guitar and he was welcoming from the start. His mates, who arrived later, were the same. I was a little rusty and uncertain at first, but they made me welcome and I was soon in the swing of things. The other American there, who had a fiddle and was invited to play, wouldn’t, till almost the end. These guys really wanted the Americans to jump in. The pub was full of us and they did the best they could to even get people to sing choruses, which they wouldn’t. We have lost our voices, sticking plugs in our ears and being intimidated by skill instead of inspired by it.
That night was magic for me. Yes, the happiness of the audience was part of it, as well as the easy acceptance of the regulars, but it was busking that made it possible. Tommy told me, when I was first called on to sing, that I wouldn’t get silence, just to jump in. I hadn’t expected it. I didn’t even want it. I wanted to catch ears, and catch them I did. I don’t even remember what I sang first, but the second tune was General Guinness, and it got me a free pint of same. I didn’t pay for drinks the rest of the night. And we got the other American to take out her fiddle in the end. You could tell she was thrilled and so was I. I hope she got hooked. We all can and should make our own music.
And I am going to finish this pint and see if Temple Bar is kinder than Grafton Street was. I will not be playing for tips this time