Glasgow is a musical community, with more than its fair share of good music shops, gigs, open mic nights and recording studios, but that doesn’t necessarily account for the number of people taking it to the streets.
So what is it about the place? Perhaps it has something to do with that tedious 21st century word, logistics: meaning in this case plenty of suitable places to set up. What you need is a space to stand where there is a bit of elbow room, possibly some shelter from the elements and – a big plus – no traffic. And what do they have there? The broad sweeps of Buchanan Street, much of Argyle Street and a large part of Sauchiehall Street with little more than the drone of a distant engine.
The year I was there, until early November there was an accordionist who smiled her Romanian-looking way melodically and skilfully through the day halfway up Buchanan Street, her green anorak keeping her warm as autumn engulfed us. Then she apparently flew south for the winter – and the middle-aged female accordionist slot was taken over by a lady who, through no fault of her own, didn’t bear comparison with the original. She didn’t use her left hand much to operate her instrument’s inbuilt backing mechanism – rows of buttons for playing a bass part in a sort of oompah style. The two women shared a general style, however: a repertoire of 1960s film tunes such as Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago. And with their apparent ethnicity, there was something appropriate about the ladies conjuring up the spirit of a mysterious Europe.
Although the accordion is a favoured instrument among buskers – light, portable and capable of producing a full sound (if you do the left-hand thing), there are all sorts of alternatives around the place. The guitar, of course, is similarly handy and versatile, and while there are those who bash out acoustic versions of pop, rock and folk, modern amplification means you can plug in an electric guitar and a microphone, and even an elaborate backing track if you’ve got the cheek.
Thus we had the Hank Marvin impressionist, giving us Apache, FBI and more from The Shadows’ back catalogue, while in Sauchiehall Street a reggae player filled in the gaps on guitarless Bob Marley backing tracks.
Native Americans, not generally known for their music, could sometimes be found right in the middle of the pedestrian throughfare, their Sitting Bull headdresses doing little to dispel the impression of commercialism made by a substantial PA system powered by a generator and pumping out their latest professionally-recorded CD while one of them played some sort of pan pipes in what came across as a token gesture.
This being Scotland, naturally the bagpipes were strongly represented, sometimes solo and sometimes backed by ferocious drumming from characters who looked like they had been hiding in the hills since Culloden, learning how to deal with the lack of barbers by developing a hairstyle called dreadlochs.
And the Salvation Army, no strangers to giving it some in the open air, added their smartly turned out brass sounds to the mix.
Why do the ordinary buskers do it? Well, it’s not money for old rope. I’ve done it myself and let me tell you: it’s hard work. Even in a quiet place, without amplification you’re hitting the strings harder and singing more loudly than you ever would normally, and to make it worth your while you’ve got to stick at it for hours on end before trudging off, hoarse, sore-fingered and lopsided with a pocketful of small change (if you’re lucky). Certainly there is more self-respect to be clung onto than in straightforward begging, but you’re never going to get rich.
The Christmas shopping season brought out some oddities including a sweet old lady for whom the expression ‘smiling gamely’ might have been coined, as she held a cheap, strapless nylon-string guitar by the neck where it meets the body and, without making chords, fluttered her right hand across the strings inaudibly and sang quietly to herself. The next day she had refined her act, raking the strings with a wooden coffee-stirrer. It’s called ‘having a bash’.
Even she, though, doesn’t represent the peak of unskilled initiative. That accolade has to go to the brass-necked opportunist I saw in Leicester Square, London. With no money and no instrument, he merely sat against a wall with a traffic cone to his lips and went brrr brrr brrr down it like a kazoo. All together now: ‘I’m a one man band; nobody knows or understands…’