Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Busking and Play-for-Pay - Our Experience; What about yours?

I'm part of a trio, and we do mid-19th century music at events and historic sites in Louisiana, east Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. We charge for our services; and we do not only music, but a number of other period entertainments. The list is long: poetry recitations, Temperance meetings or rallies, preaching (comedic sermons on Saturday, serious on Sunday), medicine show pitches of products we've 'developed', Phrenology readings, and we're working on several others. We don't make Beyonce money; or ZZ Top money; but we do get paid enough to continue to make it worth our while.

Events aren't all that plentiful within our travel range; and many events and sites hire bluegrass groups for $50 or $100 - these are antebellum and Civil War venues, mind you - where $100 won't cover our gas there and back - sometimes not even "there" for the more far-flung events. So we sometimes create our own mini-event by busking.

If you're not familiar with the term, "busking" is a slang term from 1851. Its several meanings include selling articles or obscene ballads in public houses; playing music on the streets; or performing as a sort of informal comedian in pubs. Playing music on the streets (of New Orleans) is what we do sometimes, between playing contracted performances.

There are lots of rules about busking in some places; less so in New Orleans, from what I understand, than most. Though no one owns a "spot," it's funny how fast you find out that lots of folks own "spots" on the streets. If I played one corner for 22 years, I'd be a bit proprietary, too. There are lots of folks playing modern music - they're the ones who get the occasional $1 tip in their instrument cases. They play for their own enjoyment - they play to be seen.  

If you want to make a little money busking, we've had success by dressing as we would for historic sites: in attire of the 1850s - and using instruments reproduced from period instruments. Our instruments include two Boucher banjos, both by Bell & Son (one was a kit, and the other was completely finished, with all the bells & whistles - no pun intended - thanks to the generosity of Mr Bell); plus two gourd banjos I made, using necks I got from Bell & Son; and a reproduction Sweeney banjo that made its way here from somewhere in Nebraska, I think it was. Those, plus limberjacks and two reproductions of an 1856 CF Martin guitar, plus a reproduction of a 1790 violin, round out our principal instruments. We also have tambourine, bones, spoons, harmonica, and jawbone.

The sound of the banjo, and our peculiar costumes, draw the most attention. Folks come for our novel appearance; they stay for the music. They pay for pictures - voluntarily, without our even suggesting it - and of all the things we're asked about, the number one 'puzzler' to so many folks is "What is THAT?!" (as they point to the Boucher). The clothes are eye-catching - three fellows in black frock coats & trousers, black top hats, vests, wearing scarlet secession cockades with a brass 1851 badge in the center of them - but the sound of the banjo carries very well, and the song selection is so alien to so many folks. We p[lay nothing newer than 1864.

(Oh - if you have CDs, you can't sell them on New Orleans streets without a business license. BUT - you CAN accept donations; and you can say "Thank you" (for the right denominations of donations) by giving the generous donor a CD. Donations of $15 gets a CD, for example; we have three titles, and we give deals, too. (A donation of $15 gets your choice of any one of the three; but if you donate $30, you can choose any two; and if you donate $45, you can choose ANY THREE - now THAT'S our kind of deal!...lol). And most of the money you'll make will come from people having their photos taken with you by their family or friends or passersby. Those are the $5 and $10 and $20 tips.)

We donate a few performances, and we do limit the number of times we'll do that per year. 

That's our experience. What has yours been?

Chuck Lee
Elder Lee of Roscoe, Lee & Abadie
Denham Springs, Louisiana

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Did you guys have to get a license to perform in the Quarter?
Did you guys have to get a license to perform in the Quarter?
Did you guys have to get a license to perform in the Quarter?

None required since about 2008. There is a regulation on the books, but it's unenforceable as written; and the City has elected not to revisit it "for the time being," we were told, by the fellow in charge of those regulations when we visited him in person several years ago.

John Cohen said:

Did you guys have to get a license to perform in the Quarter?

Though there's no license required, thanks to an unenforceable law, there are regulations in place. If you're in Jackson Square, you can't be closer to the park area than 15 feet, unless you're a psychic or medium or paint-artist. You can't blockl the sidewalks. You can't set up in front of a store's door(s); and if you set up in front of a storefront, you must comply if the store asks you to move; failing to accommodate the store will result in your being escorted away by a police officer, and you may have to pay a fine of up to $500 (which sucks all the fun out of busking, I'm sure).

No one owns a "spot" or a corner, etc. Theoretically, it's "first come, first served." However, don't think there won't be a problem if you take over a corner someone else has habituated over the last year . 5 years / 22 years (the last is the case with Maurice the Tuba Player, in front of the Cabildo). 

You can't charge for your services and you can't sell products. You can accept tips and other donations - but you can't display a "donation thank you value list" - a price list. How do we handle that? We have items safely on display (so they can't easily be stolen by friendly passers-by) and we can tell a small crowd that if they elect to make a donation, we have special ways of saying "Many thanks!" - and then we reel off what we have to offer. Nothing in writing = nothing illegal, in essence.

You can't perform after 8:00 pm (and you;re crazy if you try to perform after dusk). There are decibel level restrictions, but I don't think a trio like ours - even as a loudly as I sing - can violate THAT ordinance. 

Early morning is the best time to arrive so you can find a place to roost; but be prepared to move around. It makes good sense to move around, though, as traffic flow shifts during the day.

From 9:00 am to 8:00 pm on Saturdays, I think it is, Royal Street is closed to traffic, beginning two blocks away from Jackson Square and extending maybe four blocks toward Canal Street. You know parking is going to cost you something. How much stuff you plan to bring with you, and how far you'll want to tote it, and how much you're willing /  able to spend for parking will dictate whether you park next to the levee, down near the Crescent City Brewhouse and Jackson Brewery, or if you want to get into the parking garages a block or two over from Jackson Square. 

Unless you're friends with a store owner or some museum folks (we are), be very aware of public restrooms. 

That's a lot of the fatherly advice I think I can give...lol.

Wow, thank you for the advice!  I've been wanting to do some busking in the Quarter for years now but never got around to it.  I'll take this advice to heart and next time I'm back home I'll try it out.  I'm more interested in playing for people than making money in all honesty, but a few donations wouldn't hurt!

I've always looked at donations as the way folks say "Thank you" in a tangible fashion. The way we dress and perform, our repertoire, and the extra things we do and offer is lagniappe for them; and it adds flavor to a city known for its flavor. It's also how we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the herd; and it's often why people come to hear us: they're curious about our manner of dress, and our instruments. Unless we can draw them close enough to see and hear, then we're just laying out in public for our own enjoyment, or to stroke our own egos, or something...lol. We aspire to be far more than an mp3 player come to life; we hope to educate folks, and perhaps spark an interest in historic music, the history of New Orleans and Louisiana and the South, and gain a better understanding of how the music we play and love impacted the people of New Orleans. From time to time, when we have a crowd that seems amiable and amenable to suggestion, we can take them in on a Juba dance, which has been danced on the streets of New Orleans since the days of the first slaves, and on up through today. We get to teach a little history through all that we do, and that's a good part of the fun for us. Tips pay for parking and food and making an hour trip down and another one back on a Saturday or Sunday. I am convinced that we perform a public service, and people accidentally learn a little history from us. If I wasn't convinced of that, I could just as well sit in my backyard and annoy my two dogs with my caterwauling and playing, and have my two cats avoid making eye contact with me, the way some visitors to New Orleans do...lol. The money justifies my taking time away from affairs and chores at home; but as you know, the real payback is connecting with folks who didn't expect to meet you that day, and didn't have the faintest idea that they would learn something new (other than what the outside of the Hustler Club looks like on Bourbon Street...lol). One thing that does strike me as interesting when we go there, though, is how often the folks who come to watch the longest, and chat a while, are residents of New Orleans - often folks in the service industry who have already seen pretty much everything they thought New Orleans had to offer. We're new and novel to many of them; and they dig it, and dig us. 

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