The History of Busking Feature

I wrote a feature on the history of Busking for Spectator Life.

Imagine hearing only the clip of your heels on the squares of Covent Garden.   

If Charles Babbage had had his way in 1864 then a walk through town might have been eerily quiet today. 

Babbage, the philosopher and mathematician credited with inventing the first model of the mechanical computer, was extremely averse to street music. At the time the streets were, he said, wrought with ‘the most discordant noises.’ He dedicated an entire chapter of a book to his thoughts on these ‘instruments of torture,’ describing the detrimental effects of buskers on the inhabitants of London. Busking, he said, ‘robs the industrious man of his time; it annoys the musical man by its intolerable badness; it irritates the invalid.’ 

He appeared in court to make noise about noise and wrote several letters to The Times expressing his contempt of street music. He was already well-known for being fastidious. Seven years before his attack on the sounds from the street, he launched an in-depth investigation into the way each of one factory’s 464 panes of glass came to be broken.

It may come as no surprise to learn that his impassioned musings on street music were met with musicians ‘of various tastes’ playing ‘worn-out or damaged wind instruments’ at his window under the instructions of his revenge-seeking neighbours.

Babbage’s attempt was one of two significant movements against street music in 1864. The second was put forward by the aptly named Michael Thomas Bass, MP. He tried to put his ‘Act for the Better Regulation of Street Music in the Metropolis’ through parliament and rallied support from influential figures including Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Everett Millais, Wilkie Collins and, notably Charles Dickens who penned the letter that led the signatures of objection to street music. Dickens implored that ‘brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads,’ be stopped. 

Dickens’ objections to public performance did not however extend to readings of his own work. A year before his letter to parliament, Dickens read ‘A Christmas Carol’ to a crowd of 2000 working-class people in a town hall in Birmingham. He was a great performer who relished every moment on stage. His readings created mass hysteria with audience members reportedly fainting during his shows. He described the thrill of reading before an audience and said it made him feel like: ‘a giant refreshed.’ 

The power of an appreciative audience is one that has continued over the years. It is a symbiotic relationship, as musician Leo Humphries tells me: “I found busking to be quite scary at first. It feels like you’re breaking an unwritten rule of society. But as soon as someone gives you twenty pence, it vindicates you, you feel you’re supposed to be there, and it becomes incredibly fun. It’s very nice to be playing a song and see enjoyment on the faces of people you don’t know. The feeling of connection you get with strangers is not something you get in everyday life – especially in London, where eye contact with strangers feels like a transgression.” And musical talent is richly rewarded: “Someone once gave me £20 for playing Lola by the Kinks.” 

Perhaps Babbage, Bass and Dickens would be pleased to hear that, to be a busker on the London Underground today, one must pass a rigorous audition process first. The competition to hold a licence is fierce, as Transport for London explains to me: “Each busker must go through a shortlist process and then an audition in front of a panel of 3 judges (performing live in one of our stations). Each musician must perform 2 songs (1 prepared number and another selected by the panel, from a submitted set-list.) The judging process reviews the musician’s repertoire, musicality, technical skill and performance. If successful, the musician will receive a 12 month licence to perform on the Underground.” Last year over 600 musicians auditioned and 70 were granted licences. If anyone was in any doubt, busking on the underground is much more than tapping your foot to the beat of your accordion. 

The method of tipping buskers is changing. London is the first city in the world to introduce a contactless card payment scheme. But will that deter giving physical money? Soprano Seija Knight busks in Covent Garden and tells me: “The younger generation are more than happy to put a few quid from their card on a machine. But the older generation can feel a little offended that this service is being offered.” 

Whether you prefer hearing the percussive chink of coins hitting a guitar case or the beeps of a card machine, it’s being accompanied by great music that really matters. 

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