While Bob Dylan is often considered the most iconic musical troubadour, his career seemed to lack a key element of folk: the busking experience. Woody Guthrie, Rod Stewart, Tracy …
While Bob Dylan is often considered the most iconic musical troubadour, his career seemed to lack a key element of folk: the busking experience. Woody Guthrie, Rod Stewart, Tracy Chapman, Janis Joplin and B.B. King all jump-started their careers by first performing on the streets.
Busking, though, seems to be a less familiar word today. For those who aren't familiar with the practice, it's jargon for street performance.
Often the performer stands off to the side in a heavily trafficked area, in this case, Taos Plaza and simply presents a hat, an open instrument case or some other means for collecting tips. Some prefer to use quirky signs and others even offer full albums or other artworks for sale.
During the prime busking season, late spring and summer, near the farmer's market or the John Dunn shops amid the rivers of flowing visitors one can catch local artists Zephaniah Stringfield, banjo player Juanxo Stambaugh of Poor Man's Blood or Anthony Carson of High Ideals. (Anthony Carson's name was listed in error in the print edition of this story.)
Zephaniah Stringfield from the Bay Area started busking and writing in high school before extensive travel and permanent relocation in Taos. You can catch Stringfield, ensembled in black clothing, wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a welcoming and warm demeanor alongside his mahogony Collins acoustic performing his 2016 album "The Book of Zephaniah," a 12-track album. The album is a vivid story of Greyhound buses, travel blues, New Mexico mountains and folk archetypes. Full of country styles, mythology and biblical imagery Springfield is a true poet, crafting graceful and honest stories.
Stringfield often collaborates and busks with other artists such as Juanxo Stambaugh from Los Alamos. Stambaugh, with a decorated, paisley banjo headstock and fretboard tattoo adorned on his left hand that travels up his arm, was an original member of the Noseeums and is now the banjo player of Poor Man's Blood.
Stambaugh started with clawhammer banjo style before adapting the Scrugg's style, an innovation from Earl Scruggs during the 1950s and 60s that is now the traditional fashion of bluegrass banjo. A composer of rhythms and melodies, Stambaugh accentuates and collaborates with artists and joins them in the busking areas.
Anthony Carson, originally a solo musician, is now in the group High Ideals. He is in the recording process and is another frequent performer in areas around Taos Plaza. Never staying for more than a few years in a precise location, Carson writes songs for the damaged; they're full of healing and encouraging lyrics that explore growth, forgiveness and self-love. Some of the songs have a '60s, Woodstock groove rock sound while others contain intricate plucking reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide."
So why busk? Is it the money? Is it the interactions? People are often hesitant to recognize the motivations behind it.
Some people think it's a form of harassment. Several town codes are in place to restrict, as well as to create, standards for the way this practice occurs, but that's not the mission of these artists.
They never ask or request compensation. They merely accept a donation if someone, of their own free accord, decides to have a listen, recognize the talent and drop a dollar in the case.
"I feel like busking as a musician is really hard. You get grouped in with those kinds who kind of heckle people as they walk by and, you know, harass them for their money," Carson said. "You tend to be grouped in with them."
The artists use this exercise to overcome performance jitters, to share their art and connect, and while these artists are passion driven, not in it for the money, what does it hurt to earn a few bucks? "You get up there, you make mistakes, you hit he wrong chords, you forget the words, you get over it and just keep on playing," Stambugh said. "It's really the only way to get comfortable with playing in front of a crowd of people."
Stringfield comments, "You're gonna practice anyway. The point of doing all this practice is to perform in front of people."
For these musicians, as much as is it practice, it's a connection and a way to share what they have to offer. "The idea of going out and sharing what we (buskers) have and being around people and making a few dollars in tips is a nice thing, and it helps us to afford the things that allow us to build our sound and build our experience," Carson said. These artists realize, for them, it isn't about money. It's about music.
"Everything I do is for my music, but I don't spend enough time working on the business side to make it a career," Springfield said.
While the revisions weren't followed through, in November 2017 the town of Taos attempted to rework the ordinances, including permits, check-ins with codes administrators before 9 a.m. on the day of desired busking and limiting the activity to one person with audible sound radius limitations. Earlier this year a surveillance camera was also installed on Juan Largo Lane off Taos Plaza.
There is currently a "designated'"spot with a sign-up sheet near the public restrooms close to the John Dunn shops; however, a majority of the shop owners in the main plaza do not desire to have buskers within the immediate vicinity of their shops.
"I think the issue is more with shop owners and where I set my table up and whether they feel as though I enhance the atmosphere or perhaps, like, detract (sic) their customers or something," Carson said. "I feel more energy from shop owners than anything," he said.
Stambaugh and Springfield agree more designated spots would be beneficial and are thankful for the support of shop owners in the John Dunn area. "Less regulations would be great. Target the people who are making problems instead of the whole community of musicians," Springfield said.
Regardless of views and opinions, these musicians value and crave opportunities to practice, share and create more music, it's a path of creative appetite and perseverance.
You can hear the voices of these modern troubadours at zephaniahstringfield.bandcamp.com, poormansblood.bandcamp.com and soundcloud.com/highidealsmusic or witness their musical contributions in person near the plaza.