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« My "Deprived" Childhood | Main | Holy Crap! »

October 31, 2005

Subway Musicians

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't often ride subways simply because we don't have them here in the Pacific Northwest. But I like riding them, and do it a fair amount when traveling in Europe and even in the U.S. where and when I feel it's safe to do so.

For some reason (such as the presence of a captive audience) subways seem to attract musicians.

In the London Underground system, musicians tend to be found in the passageways between stations. It's my understanding that they are tolerated by the authorities, being allowed to perform at agreed-upon times and places.

The Paris Metro is another matter.

You can be clutching a handbar, swaying with the coach, and then the train stops at a station. A slightly seedy-looking young man carrying an accordian steps into your coach. Once the doors are closed and the train gets underway he starts to play, slowly making his way down to aisle, eyes flitting from side to side scanning for les flics. You either avert his eyes and let him pass or, if you feel a wee bit generous, slip him a 50 Euro-cent coin.

Some folks like these corridor-based or train-sneaking musicians. I don't, because they add noise and maybe a whiff of stress to an already noisy and sometimes stressful experience.

Your reaction might well differ.



posted by Donald at October 31, 2005


Technically speaking, musicians aren't allowed on the New York subway, except for a small number who qualify under an officially sanctioned program, but as a practical matter enforcement is very limited to nonexistent. As an example, there's a steel drum player who's a more or less permanent fixture on the IRT express platform at 34th Street-Penn Station during evening rush hours. He's never bothered by the police even though there usually are cops on patrol on that platform.

Posted by: Peter on October 31, 2005 11:08 PM

I wonder how the NYC cops decide which subway musicians to hassle and which ones to leave alone ... It's pretty amazing how good and talented some of them are. Pretty amazing how annoying some of the others are. It's hard not to feel a little peeved in that "I hate being anyone's captive audience" way no matter how talented a beggar-musician is, though.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 1, 2005 12:01 AM

While I was briefly working there, I loved street musicians in Washington. Never saw one in the Metro, though. Not surprising, given how sanitary that system is compared with NY or Chicago or BART, aside from being unavailable at the really critical hours.

Posted by: J. Goard on November 1, 2005 3:14 AM

My favorite NYC subway musicians:

Carolina Slim - real name Elijah Staley, an old blues guy who plays guitar and sings. I even bought his album. He would sometimes hang out with that tall thin black guy in the pink zoot suit, yellow hat, and white sneakers - if you've seen him you'll know who I'm talking about. Slim would play and Mr. Zoot Suit would dance. I haven't seen either of these guys in a while though.

The mariachi guys - two Mexicans with guitars who get onto the A-train and sing mariachi music for three stops in very nice harmony. They're really good.

The various bucket drummers - the first one I saw was near Times Square, but the act has been copied and spread around. They play five-gallon plastic buckets like a drum set, and get some great rhythms going too.

Here is an article about the Music Under New York program, which is the official channel for this kind of thing. It mentions my man Slim. Turns out he was in a Madonna video!

Posted by: Brian on November 1, 2005 9:10 AM

I'm a big fan of Peter Mulvey, an adept folk guitarist and an original singer-songwriter who started playing music for a living in the subways of Boston, going on to win an underground music competition and a record contract with a respectable indie label. Check out his album of covers by Dylan, Costello, Simon, et. al.--Ten Thousand Mornings.

Posted by: Mark Dellelo on November 1, 2005 9:43 AM

I have a fond memory of being on the London Underground in early 1992, and man with a small strap-on keyboard came through the car singing bits of songs interspersed with patter. He wasn't bad at all, musically, and when he said that Elvis himself had once praised him and predicted he was destined for stardom (then added in a stage mutter, but who knew IT WOULD TAKE SO LONG -- Elvis died in 1977 and this was 1992)... well, contrived or not, the implied admission that he was pretty far down the showbiz pecking order playing subway cars endeared me to him and I gave him the first coin that came to hand in my pocket, a one pound piece. And to this day I don't think it was ill-spent.

Less endearing...well, actually downright pathetic is a slightly haunting memory I still have of the Metro station in Paris during my student days in 1972, where I saw an elderly woman, apparently blind, standing by the entrance with her hand stretched out to receive francs and singing in a horrible croaking voice. I guess the idea was that it wasn't enough to just look sad while begging, something additional was required, like a performance of some sort, if not to provide actual value for money then to show good faith by actually making an effort however ineffectual.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on November 1, 2005 10:06 AM

i think musician should be able to play where ever they would like to.

Posted by: background check on November 2, 2005 5:02 PM


Your reason for not riding subways often makes very good sense.

I agree with you in your distaste for performers in subway stations or trains. Some of them are reasonably talented, a few might be enjoyable to hear under other circumstances. But that's beside the point.

If the crowded conditions of a city are not to send everyone crazy, the physical space most people need around them and often don't get in urban life has to be replaced by a psychological space. The Japanese have refined this idea over centuries and have learned to create little islands of calm, even in the endless concrete landscape of Tokyo (so I'm told). English people with traditional manners won't initiate a conversation, even if you happen to be sharing a table in a restaurant, which Americans think is unfriendly; but to the English (mostly of an older generation, to be sure) it's just respecting you by acknowledging that proximity isn't an excuse for intrusion.

Subway balladeers and guitar pickers won't let false modesty stop them violating this civilized convention. Who wouldn't want to hear the reincarnated Paul Robeson soulfully intoning "Ol' Man River" or young Bob Dylan recycled? Well, chaps, when I do I'll let you know. Meanwhile spare me your bohemian-romantic panhandling and leave me in whatever peace I can scrape together in my mind.

Posted by: Rick Darby on November 2, 2005 5:20 PM

Jeez. The act that sticks out for me from 20 years ago in Manhattan was these four Latino guys, three with wooden guitars and a fourth drumming on a simple kit of a solitary high-hat cymbal and a cardboard box. They did Beatles songs, mostly 1963-66 stuff, in gorgeous harmonies, including an absolutely stunning rendition of "I'll Be Back." I happened upon them like three different times on three different platforms in the space of three weeks.

If every act was like that, I'd absolutely be all for one in every major subway station.

Posted by: Flash Bazbo on November 3, 2005 9:22 AM

First, it is totally legal for musicians to play in the NYC subway. One doesn't need a permit, because playing music falls under the Freedom of Speech right.
A permit is only needed if your music act is not accoustic (i.e. you use a microphone).
Second - most musicians who play in the subway are NOT beggars. They have good paying gigs elsewhere, but come to play in the subway for various reasons (reach a larger audience, advertise their music, etc.).
Read Susan Tenenbaum's book 'Subway Harmonies' - a research of the NYC subway musicians a few years ago.
Third - I think 99% of the musicians in the subway are great. I love the Saw Lady (who was chosen by the Village Voice and Time Out NY as 'best subway performer').
And last - I think having a musician in the subway gives a sence of security, and brings people together. Watch how people around a musician start to smile, talk to one another, people of different walks of life, different cultures all of a sudden communicate. It is heartwarming.
I think subway musicians are a blessing to this city.

Posted by: Misha on November 8, 2005 11:12 AM

Misha wins "best laugh of today" award with his musician in the subway gives a sence of security line.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 8, 2005 12:15 PM

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