Forty years ago, singer-songwriter Jim Page was playing on the corner of First Avenue and Pike Street, his hat out for donations, when a passing police officer threatened to ticket him because he didn’t have a permit.
“I was 24 years old,” Page recalled recently, “and I wanted to be able to play downtown. I knew I wasn’t bothering anybody. I was just standing on the sidewalk playing music with my guitar.”
Page was up against a city prohibition against street musicians playing for tips. The idea that buskers could be ticketed for playing in public struck him as ridiculous.
“I just wanted to change it. I thought it would be the right thing to do. And it would be a fun project,” he says. “If it went nowhere, I would at least have had interactions with City Council people and the mayor. I didn’t know any of those folks. … It was surprising to me how much support I got.”
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Within months, his efforts led the City Council to pass Ordinance No. 103824, intended to “provide for and regulate the acceptance of donations by street musicians” — buskers could no longer be cited as public nuisances. As part of his busking-legalization campaign, Page serenaded the entire City Council. (In a photo taken at the time, he looks like a young Woody Guthrie, only skinnier.)
The 40th anniversary of the signing of the bill, which made busking “street legal,” will be celebrated during Seattle Busker Week 2014, from Sunday through next Saturday (Sept. 14-20). The festival features 30 free events on 13 stages in downtown Seattle.
Venues include six locations in and around Pike Place Market, plus events at Benaroya Hall, the Columbia Center, Seattle Central Library, and spots outside the Hard Rock Café, EMP Museum and Endless Knot. The festival kicks off Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Market.
“Busking is, by nature, a political act,” Page declares. It’s a protest, he feels, against the usual “entertainment paradigm” where performers depend on professionals to help them find an audience.
“Busking circumvents that. Busking says, ‘That’s nonsense! I’m going to go out and play now.’ ”
Colleges, he adds, are the best milieu for busking — as long as it’s not a business college: “It would have to be a school that encourages philosophy and literature and poetry. That sort of thing.”
What makes colleges better for busking?
“There’s no car traffic on a campus, and the students spend their days thinking — or recovering from last night’s thinking,” he quips. “You can go out and juggle fireballs, and they understand what it is and aren’t afraid of it. … On the streets, sometimes it’s just too hectic.”
Wherever he performs, he says, it’s important to find a place that has “kind of a meandering spirit to it.”
Can musicians make a living from busking?
“Oh yeah, sure. Of course you can! Some people do quite well.”
There’s a fine art, however, to catching the ears of passers-by.
“You learn what your strengths are. Your strength may not be singing,” he explains. “You might be a better guitar player. … You want to create an event, a circular event, which includes you and them — and then you’ve got something. … Wherever your strength is, you’ll find it.”
Page will perform with friends at the Seattle Busker Week Finale next Saturday from noon to 3 p.m., outside EMP, in a “come-one-come-all singalong.” For a full schedule, go to www.pikeplacemarketbuskers.com.
Busking enthusiasts will also want to be aware of “Find Your Way,” a documentary about busking that features Seattle’s scene prominently. It’s now on the film-festival circuit and scheduled to play next month at Bellingham’s Doctober Festival and the Tacoma International Film Festival.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org