From Buskins to Busking

From bagpipes to balancing acts, busking transforms the street into an eccentric display of creativity. But for most of us, it’s just the unobtrusive background noise accompanying our ambling to and fro. We notice. We acknowledge. We walk on by.

The hordes that flock to Cornmarket in Oxford’s rare periods of sunshine, for example, are regularly treated to multitudes of performances by buskers. For the most part, we give them momentary glances, a half-smile, perhaps a glint of copper, before shuffling along to our next grazing point.

But buskers weren’t always treated with such vague indifference. The travelling musicians of old were the troubadours, who were in high demand in Europe’s 13th century courts, commanding a rock-star status that the bards on today’s street corners can only dream of.

And the troubadours didn’t just gain commercial success. They quickly gained high-art kudos, with Dante himself extolling their virtues in his essay On Eloquence in the Vernacular. These travelling performers, the thinking man’s minstrel, were credited with creating the first sophisticated form of secular poetry in the common tongue.

In some ways, the same thing can be said of a lot of modern buskers. To these guys, busking is a serious business. Dave, in the fleeting moments between performances, told us the real point of his shoegazing on the sidewalk.

“It’s about getting noticed, embedding yourself in the scene. Talk to the other buskers round here, and most of them’ll say the same thing,” he said.

It’s the jobbing musician’s poster campaign, guaranteeing them the gigs that offer more than a few thrown coppers in the street. It’s a world that’s a far cry from the cultural shifts the 13th century troubadours set in motion, but modern buskers are never under the illusion that they’re reinventing the musical wheel.
The music that they play quickly stops being cutting-edge; the doctor’s-surgery-esque rehashing of Top 40 hits in ever more unmemorable arrangements was never really the point. Instead, busking serves a specific purpose in the modern musician’s business plan, although for others, like the man and his long-suffering canine companion, it does seem like an extremely bizarre expression of something resembling an inner madness (not to mention a dangerous urge to harm the animal kingdom).

So, it seems that buskers may not be musically interesting, nor cultural revolutionaries, but that was never the point. For them, it’s more about survival than art.


Our verdict on the buskers of Oxford

If buskers have any claim to artistic legitimacy, they should be given the same serious critical thrashing that professional musicians have the pleasure of having lavished upon them. We may as well subject buskers to the ridiculous points-based scoring system us critic-types are so fond of. Much like this one.

Radio 2 Dave
Rating: 4/5

The first unwitting busker to face our withering criticism is Dave, offering us Radio 2 classics in wholly agreeable guitar arrangements.

OxStu verdict: He had the rock star itch in his fingertips, the languid locks and the Spanish guitar, but sadly his hair had more volume than his music.

Aussie Gap-Yah-ist Nikki
Rating: 3/5

Next up, Aussie Gap-Yah-ist, Nikki, with sun-kissed vibes to match her beach-blond looks.

OxStu Verdict: The upbeat acoustics were lifting on a rainy morning but spirits weren’t soaring with the melodies, despite the inordinate amount of pep.

Trapeze Artist/Violinist
Rating: 2/5

Now, with full marks for originality, we encounter the Trapeze-Artist-cum-Violinist. But how will he survive the panel?

OxStu Verdict: The sheer audacity of teetering four feet off the ground whilst simultaneously rapidly scratching a bow across his violin in an attempt at virtuosity soon wore thin.

Man accompanied by pet dog
Rating: 0/5

To fill our BGT bizarrequota, we present the eponymous Man-accompanied- by-pet-dog act. Can he pull a Boyle moment out of the bag?

OxStu Verdict: We liked his premise that hitting a dog to prompt yelp at climactic points in a song would intensify the emotional experience, but the RSPCA have been called.

The OxStu Busker of the Year
It’s the dog who comes off top, if only for not willingly participating in this bizarre charade.