Busk’er n. (perhaps from the obsolete French “busquer,” meaning “to prowl”): “to play music or perform entertainment in a public space, usually while soliciting money” — thefreedictionary.com
We at Mountain Xpress are subjected to more than our share of street performances. The statue of an iron, next to the Miles Building where our offices are located, seems to have a magnetic effect on street performers. There, where Wall Street meets Battery Park, the pinch point between the Miles Building, Haywood Park Hotel and the Flatiron Building serves as a passive amplifier, directing much of the sound — too much, on some days — into the building.
Sometimes the music we hear is reggae, or gypsy swing, or a spot-on impersonation of Bob Dylan. Occasionally it is Irish reels and jigs. More often it is bluegrass or old-time.
A few of the musicians are regulars. Awful Man (a name given him by an old-time fiddler I know) is a tall, rail-thin violinist. He mostly plays scales and odd modes that aren’t commonly heard in 21st-century music, often for hours at a time. Sometime in May, he disappeared. The other day, he came back.
Other performances are silent. On an unpredictable schedule, a young woman shows up in gold body paint. Like a Coney Island novelty, she moves only when fed quarters, and then rather slowly, raising her arms and crossing twin sheaves of wheat. She looks like an emblem from a dollar bill or a bag of flour.
“Do you think what she does is entertaining or disturbing?” I asked a shopkeeper downstairs, the last time Golden Girl showed up.
“Neither,” she replied. Fair enough, I thought.
The other night, a troupe of face-painters showed up, dressed in black. They stayed a while, and, later, as a thunderstorm built over downtown, a group of Morris Men, practitioners of an arcane English form of street performance, arrived wearing black jumpers and ranks of jingle bells.
More recently, a folk singer Xpress staffers are calling Extremely Loud Woman has commandeered the iron. She plays the guitar in an earnest and very physical way, but it is her voice — a tuneless bellow, equal parts Melissa Etheridge and Stock Exchange shout — that is most arresting.
“She’s got a hell of a diaphragm, that’s for sure,” a co-worker said, on his way to taking a smoke break last week.
Someone dead and English once wrote that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” Often, we’re not so sure. But what we do know is that we’re blessed to work in a city that encourages street performances, that allows so many people to live by their talents and share them with others. The IRS may not feel the same way we do, but here’s to Asheville and its buskers.