Friday, May 20, 2011

Busking on Sixth Street

Busking — Chiefly British: To entertain by dancing, singing, or reciting on the street or in a public place. (From


Guy Forsyth said while on stage in Longview a few weeks ago that he started out busking in Austin, a word with which I was just vaguely familiar. I thought I knew what it meant, but I have learned not to rely on guesswork when it comes to words I don’t really know. Such carelessness has caused past problems when I mangle words, using them in the opposite way as intended. Once I used “opprobrium” when I should have used “approbation.” The latter means approval, the former the opposite. If I had good sense, I would have used neither, since I was unsuccessfully trying to pretend I own an extensive vocabulary. An alert reader pointed out my error. It was a humbling experience.

Forsyth is a popular and frequent performer on the Austin scene whose reputation has spread. A friend first alerted me to his music four years ago. He adeptly plays guitar, harmonica, ukulele and the saw, on which he wobbles a haunting version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” at most shows. His voice is his greatest instrument, with a wide range as he sings in a genre his website describes as Americana and blues. He works hard, playing the other night in front of perhaps 75 appreciative folks at the Longview Museum of Fine Arts. The museum in my hometown hosts a fine music series that features folks one often sees in Austin — including in the past few years Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson and Slaid Cleaves. It’s quite a treat to see such stellar artists in a cozy venue, so I make a point of catching these shows when possible.

Guy, his band and I share a couple of bathroom experiences. The last time I saw him before Longview was three years ago at Antone’s in downtown Austin. I was with a group of friends and family. Guy and I ended up in the bathroom together. I recognized him, of course, as we both stood facing the wall. “Good luck, tonight, Guy,” I said. He said thanks. That seemed to be stretching the limits of conversation one should have in a men’s bathroom with a stranger, even a semi-famous one, so I stopped at that, not wanting to violate men’s bathroom-conversation protocol.


I headed toward Longview early on a Friday afternoon, figuring I would make it to Guy’s concert with 90 minutes to spare. Just south of Belton traffic suddenly stopped on I-35 in that sickening way that anyone has experienced, if they have traveled this “Highway From Hell,” which is what I would call this interstate if it starred in a movie. Drivers go from 75 mph to zip in seconds and for the next 30 minutes crawl along. I had no idea why and how long the delay would be, so began plotting an escape route by cell with help from my fiancé and her brother, who works for the highway department. If I could just get to the exit, I would cut across on a different highway and avoid I-35, which could be a parking lot all the way to Waco, where I start heading east.

Before I got to the exit I came upon the wreck, which involved a couple of 18-wheelers — one of which was hauling carnival rides and ended up upside-down, straddling the median and tying up both sides of I-35. I arrived about 45 minutes later than planned but still made the concert in time.

As it turns out, Guy and his two band members, traveling in a white box van, were stuck in the same traffic jam. He apologized while tuning up just minutes before showtime. There was a terrible wreck on I-35. Later, during a break, I end up next to his drummer in the dual restroom line and ask her if it was the same accident that waylaid my journey. Turns out we were likely within a few hundred yards of each other. We should have saved gas and shared a ride.


A few weeks later I wandered Sixth Street on a hot Sunday afternoon during the Pecan Street Festival and happened along a world-weary busker. He was a one-man band, sweat-soaked and wearing a fedora, a drum and cymbal contraption strapped on his back and operated with a foot strap, a banjo in front, a harmonic rack in front of his mouth. He was about my age, I figure, flirting with the double-nickel. Painted on his drum was a caricature of the musician and the words, “MR. TOJANGLES, ONE-MAN BAND.” He did a credible version of “Blue Moon,” and received several dollar bills in the glass tip jar propped in the banjo case.

I joined others in filming his performance with my iPhone and tossed in a buck as well. This is hard work, especially when the temperature is knocking on 100 degrees. My hat goes off to all those street musicians who start out on street corners, hoping someday like Guy Forsyth, to get to play at places like Antone’s. But even Guy has to hit the road and play modest-paying venues like the Longview museum. For that, I’m grateful.

Originally published in The Hill Country News, (Cedar Park, Texas), May 19, 2011.

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