Three elementary-age girls sat perched on the curb, their pink and purple Crocs resting on the brick pavement of Seattle’s Pike Street. Their blonde hair and bright blue eyes cast them as siblings. The girls stared intently at two musicians playing on the sidewalk just a few feet away—a fiddle player and a young woman singing as she strummed her fingers across a washboard.
The singer was petite, just over five feet, wearing laced up boots from the turn of the last century and a maroon cotton dress that enhanced her shoulder length ebony hair. Her partner stood next to her playing the fiddle. His six-foot, two-inch frame cast a commanding presence, and his vest and Indiana Jones style hat created a suave, rugged appearance. The young woman looked down at the girls as she sang.
“Little bird won’t you sing to me, I know you sing for free,” she sang in her soprano tone. “I’m right where I wanna be.”
The girls’ mother stood a few feet away and smiled, though I doubt she envisioned that one day her girls might be playing the Pike Market.
A woman in her 40s stood nearby, subtly tapping her foot on the bricks. “That’s got to be a hard way to make money,” she said.
“I’ve always told my kids that if you like what you’re doing, it’s not work,” I replied. Yes, my girl’s a busker.
“Her voice is incredible, so unique,” a fellow lawyer, who moonlights as a guitarist, told me recently. “She could make a living with that voice.”
“Indeed,” I replied, bragging that folk star Todd Snider “closed for Sierra” at Track 29 in Chattanooga.
But, at 27, she’d rather be busking.
“I’m more comfortable on the streets. I like being on the same level as the people listening,” Sierra says. “When you’re on stage, it’s like people are expecting something of you.”
Over the past two years, I’ve caught up with Sierra busking on the streets of Nashville, New Orleans, and, most recently, Seattle.
Seattle’s Pike Market sits high above the Puget Sound. Originally a farmers’ bazaar, the market now covers several blocks and offers a mix of fresh seafood and fruit markets, local butcher shops, and eclectic stores like a map room and an old-fashioned newsstand. A neon clock sits atop the arcade entrance.
“Joe and I are playing at noon,” Sierra announced, pointing to a green pillar adorned with pieces of masking tape.
“This is Joe,” Sierra said, then turned to say, “This is my dad.” I shook hands with Joe, who was about my height, with reddish blonde hair and a thin beard. He wore a newsboy cap and American flag lounge pants. Standing next to him was a 12-year-old boy, barely five feet, with a head of shaggy reddish hair. “This is my boy, Toby.”
An older model Saturn station wagon was loaded down with instruments and backpacks. When Sierra opened the door, Wasabi, Sierra’s Australian Shepherd mix, and Cinderella, Joe’s hound mix, jumped out. Sierra pulled out her guitar case, and Joe picked up a fiddle case and small blue suitcase. Toby stood by with a washboard hanging from his neck. Antique washboards are the buskers’ percussion instrument of choice. Performers strum their fingers across the ribbed steel surface once used to scrub clothes. The washboard adds to the homespun feel of busking.
“I’m going to walk Cinder,” Joe said. “We’ll see you at noon. Barry’s joining us.” Sierra and I followed suit, taking Wasabi to a grass area along the waterfront. As we walked, Sierra described busking in Seattle.
“You have to sign up for your time,” she said, which explained why she carried a roll of blue masking tape and a Sharpie. “You play for an hour.”
“What’s with the badge?” I asked, pointing to a laminated tag attached to her case.
“You have to have a license. It’s $30 a year,” she said. “No big deal. I can make that in half a set.”
Buskers play at locations designated by musical notes on the sidewalk. Sites include the clock, the arcade mezzanine—known as the “cave”—and Post Alley. Signing up for an hour-long set is an unwritten rule that not everyone follows. Each morning a man with long white hair and a beard rolled his piano to the corner of Pike and Pine and stayed most of the day.
Promptly at noon, the banjo/guitar duo at the clock thanked the crowd and moved aside. Joe briskly set out his fiddle case and a wooden jewelry box of CDs before wrapping the dogs’ leashes around the pillar while Sierra tuned her guitar. Barry lifted his bass up and began tuning the strings.
Barry looked to be in his early 30s. He was my height, just under six feet, and slim. His black fedora and modern black-framed glasses provided a stark contrast to the long hair and thin beard.
Joe started playing a fiddle tune, and Barry planted his feet shoulder width apart like a golfer to brace himself against the instrument. He nodded to the beat as he picked the strings to provide the bass line. Toby strummed his fingers across the washboard, and Sierra joined in with her guitar. They tapped their feet to the beat, and a crowd started to gather.
They performed for the next hour, playing a variety of folk songs, bluegrass tunes, and Sierra’s original compositions. With precise chords and melodic harmonies, they sounded like they’d been playing together for years.
“If you like the music, we have CDs featuring Sierra,” Joe shouted between songs. “Recorded in a professional studio in Nashville, Tennessee.”
When the famous clock reached the top of the hour, Joe tipped his cap to the crowd. “Thanks for listening. We’ll be around later.”
Joe quickly moved his fiddle case and a young man, who looked to be 30, wearing a golf cap and a brown sports jacket, set out a tip jar and attached his guitar strap. His partner was a young woman in her early 20s who wore a colorful party dress, high heels, and bright red lipstick. They played a variety of songs from the Sinatra era, the girl belting out the lyrics while strumming on a washboard.
I grabbed the dogs’ leashes while Joe and Sierra finished picking up. “You sounded great,” I said.
“Be quiet,” Sierra chastised me. “It’s rude to talk when they’re playing.” She led me to a spot next to a fish market delivery door. Sierra sat on a pallet while Joe kneeled down to divide the tip money. Barry unscrewed the stand in the bottom of his bass and replaced it with a wheel.
“That must come in handy,” I said. “Just roll it up on the train.” “I’m too old for that,” he said with a laugh. “We drive a van.’’
“Sierra’s looking to find a vehicle,” I said. “Maybe she’s getting tired of hopping trains.”
“After Labor Day, we’ll head south. New Orleans, maybe,” he told me. “Unless you’ve got a band, you’ve got to travel.”
“Any plans to settle down?”
“Not yet,” he said, though it sounded as if his traveling days were coming to an end. “But my wife’s six weeks pregnant.”
Joe counted the money from tips and CD sales. CDs sell for $10, with $2 going to the performer and the group dividing the balance. “It’s my CD,” Sierra explained. “But the others helped sell it.”
Buskers take tips in cash, except for a pair of guitarists who accept PayPal. People carry dollar bills. Etiquette requires leaving a tip after listening to one or more songs.
“How’d you do?” I asked.
“I made $60,” Sierra said.
“Not bad for an hour.”
“Yeah, but sometimes I make more by myself in the cave.”
I offered to deposit some of her earnings in the bank. Stuffing the bills in my pocket, I joked, “I should probably let the teller know my girl’s a busker, not a stripper.”
Sierra joined Craig, the nattily dressed fiddle player, for three sets on Saturday, and on Sunday, she and Joe played outside a coffee shop billed as the original Starbucks. The tourists lined the sidewalk. A musical note is conveniently located just past the entrance.
After the last set, Sierra stuffed the day’s earnings in her guitar case. “Seems like easy money,” I said.
“It’s not,” Sierra countered. “It’s hard work. I just want to go and watch Netflix.” Still, my girl says: “I love busking. It’s the rose without the thorns.”
“My Girl’s a Busker” was first published by GFT Press, Ground Fresh Thursday, in the May 4, 2016, online edition at http://www.gftpress.com