Street performance has a long history, especially in New York City. As Patricia J. Campbell notes in her book Passing the Hat: Street Performers in America, “The history of busking is the history of urban civilization. There have been street performers at least as long as there have been streets” (Campbell). Busking can be traced back to the Middle Ages as jongleurs, troubadours, and minstrels would sing, juggle, dance, and perform other acts in the streets and at fairs. The practice then traveled and evolved in the United States during the Revolutionary War where Patriots sung political ballads on the streets of New England. Even Benjamin Franklin sung on street corners in order to sell his goods. It was not until the urbanization of America, however, that street performance as we know it started to emerge in New York City.
In the late nineteenth century, new German and Italian immigrants brought an influx of new buskers into New York City. The amount of street performers grew immensely; in 1923 the NYC license department reported eight hundred organ grinders and other musicians. These early buskers included singers who sung in the courtyards of poorer neighborhoods. As a sign of appreciation, housewives would drop coins wrapped in paper down to the singers from their windows. Considering this, it is clear that street performance flourished at this time. However, with the emergence of radio and movies, busking started to look like an obsolete form of entertainment. On January 1, 1936, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned street performance by cancelling its licensing, saying that street performance was for beggars and that the city should not tolerate it. Because of this, during the 1940s, only the poorest of the poor would busk in the streets. In her book, Patricia J. Campbell called the busking at the time “little better than elaborate forms of begging,” citing poor people hopelessly playing a broken violin without any sort of talent and pedestrians who would avoid making eye contact as they quickly dropped a few cents in the beggar’s cup.
The negative view of street performance began to shift in the late 1950s as the youth of San Francisco, New York, and other cities crowded in the streets. Many of them, poor and homeless, had guitars which led them to singing folk songs and passing a hat in order to pay for some food. The busking was generally accepted in Greenwich until 1961 when the Washington Square Association and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Newbold Morris decided that Washington Square park should be a quiet and peaceful place. This led to the Beatnik Riot on April 9, 1961 when folk musicians protested the denial of a street performing permit by gathering in Washington Square Park. The protesters sang the national anthem and argued that Commissioner Morris had no right to determine who can and who cannot play in the park. The protest led to the police pushing around the musicians and arresting several protesters (Beatnik Riot). This marked the beginning of the trend of questioning authority during the 1960s. In the late 60s, Americans protested the Vietnam War in the 60s by performing guerilla theatre in the streets. Because of this, not only was protesting becoming a bigger part of Americans’ lives, but street performance was also becoming more common.
In 1970, the street performance ban was officially lifted under Mayor Lindsey’s administration, but subway performance was still banned. Despite this, the NYC subways were still filled with music. Musicians during the Folk Revival like Woody Guthrie played music while waiting for the trains. In the 60s, African Americans and Italians sang doo-wap in the subway cars for donations from the riders. The subway ban was officially lifted in 1985 after the People v. Manning court case determined that the ban was a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment (Tanenbaum). After the case, the city established Music Under New York, a program managing different subway musicians. Since its establishment, MUNY has helped liven the New York City subway with live musical performances. Today, New York City is filled with subway and street performers of all different backgrounds and talents.
Campbell, Patricia J., and Alice Belkin. Passing the Hat: Street Performers in America. Delacorte Press, 1981.
“How the Beatnik Riot Helped Kick of the ‘60s.” National Public Radio, 9 April 2011, https:// www.npr.org/2011/04/09/135240040/how-the-beatnik-riot-helped-kick-off-the-60s.
“MTA Arts & Music.” MTA, http://web.mta.info/mta/aft/muny/.
Tanenbaum, Suan. “A Guide for Street Performers.” http://City Lore, 2012, http://citylore.org/ urban-culture/resources/street-performers/.