by Paul Clark
The biggest challenge to making a movie about the busking scene in downtown Asheville, says Erin Derham, was knowing when to stop.
New buskers cycled through town all summer, giving the filmmaker endless possibilities to flesh out her story on the subculture these musicians inhabit. Super-organized and deadline-oriented, Derham gave herself six months to complete the film. The result, Buskin’ Blues, will premiere at The Orange Peel on Sunday, Sept. 21. The event will also feature live performances by some of the musicians from the documentary.
A freelance videographer and editor, Derham launched the self-financed project eight months before she actually started shooting. Initially, it was about Asheville’s coolness factor. What made the city fascinating, she says, was its buskers and the interest that the larger busking world has in Asheville.
Derham, who moved to town two years ago, comes from what she considers a privileged background, at least compared to most street musicians. But as the daughter of a guitar player and the mother of two little ones, she’s not so distanced from her subjects. Like them, she works for herself, shooting and editing for the PBS affiliate in Charlotte, and for the Levine Museum of the New South. She can be really busy one month and not have much work the next.
Derham knew her workload would be light this summer, so she developed the idea for the film. She thought she stood a good chance at grant funding, given the shaky, amateur nature of many busker videos she’d seen online. “I was mainly interested in how buskers interact with each other, how they know where to go, what rules to follow, the hierarchies, how they interact with the city — all that,” she says.
Her break came one night when she went to a house party and met the opening act, a busker in town. Derham mentioned the film idea. The busker was eager to participate and said he’d introduce her around. So Derham decided not to wait for grant money, funding the project herself instead.
She assembled a local team, going out many evenings with a videographer and a sound technician. Lots of people volunteered to help, from production to post-production, and that collaborative nature shows up in the film.
“The reason buskers choose this town over other towns is how welcoming [other] buskers are — telling each other where the best spots are, how long they can stay, what they can do to get people’s attention,” Derham says. “That doesn’t happen in New Orleans or in other cities.”
Many musicians busk in Asheville because people here treat them well, Derham was told. “And not just other buskers, but businesses in general and the city,” she says. “And the tourists love them.”
The more good buskers stick around, the more not-so-good ones leave, “because there is somebody Orange Peel-quality playing 40 feet away from them,” Derham explains. The four high-volume, crowd-ready places to play are on Pack Square, in front of Spiritex and in front of Woolworth Walk, both on Haywood Street, and at the flatiron sculpture on Wall Street.
People started calling Derham with tips. They told her about a musician who pushes his piano on a dolly all over downtown. “I figured I was going to see this really grungy kind of dude,” she says. But it turned out to be the impeccably dressed Andrew Fletcher, who plays keyboard in a number of bands around town.
“Something that people like about Asheville is community spirit, and buskers have that,” Derham says. “There’s this guy, Jimbino Vegan from London, an amazing clarinet player. He’s traveled all over the world with a couple of buskers in town. He was doing his own little tour up the East Coast, and he got to Asheville and asked Big Nasty Jazz Band if he could play with them. He immediately had a place to hang out, a place to busk, money, a place to sleep, parties, drinks, everything.” Derham knows this because she followed him around for a day.
Vegan and Fletcher opened her eyes to “superbands” — bands that buskers put together to help other musicians who have lost instruments, had medical problems, maybe need rent money. “It’s like their union. They all come together to donate the money to that one person,” Derham says. “[Vegan] is doing it to get his friend out of the Ukraine. His goal is to raise $10,000, and he’s almost made it from busking.”
What Vegan said on film is that if the buskers don’t help each other, nobody’s going to help them. “That is when it really hit home for me that this is a genuine subculture,” says Derham. “This isn’t just me tacking on some anthropological phrase to what busking is. They were genuinely their own community.”
WHAT: Buskin’ Blues premiere, with performances by Andrew Fletcher, The Resonant Rogues, To All My Dear Friends, Flat Pennies and Chris Rodrigues. Silent auction to benefit Asheville Music Professionals (AMP)
WHERE: The Orange Peel, the orangepeel.net
WHEN: Sunday, Sept. 21, at 6 p.m. $15
For more information on Derham and Buskin’ Blues visit thehistoryboutique.com.