BUSKING WITH BILLY BRAGG

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I’ve sung in bands on and off over the years, but performing in public has always been a nervous, shaky and awkward affair for me. I had a piano and two guitars until I sold all my stuff a couple of years ago to try to catch up with rent arrears and get back on my feet – and I haven’t really sung or played since. I had always wanted to try busking but found the idea daunting – especially doing it alone.

But then came a challenge I couldn’t turn down – busking outside Camden tube station with Billy Bragg, one of my musical and political heroes, who was happy to tutor and coax me through our favourite playlist.

It didn’t help that the Sunday before our busking “date”, disaster struck; I lost my voice. How on earth was I going to get it back to be able to sing A New England with any degree of tune or competency? I took to Twitter for help, and tried everything that was suggested: hot water with honey and lemon; lashings of turmeric neat on a teaspoon; my own Feisty Soup with garlic and ginger, chillies, lemon and tomatoes. By the time the day arrived, I was still speaking in a husky voice.

Billy and I met for a quick rehearsal and busking lesson beforehand at the Underworld in Camden, going through a few songs we had chosen together. The Times They Are a-Changin’ by Bob Dylan was my request – it seemed fitting, and having gently rehearsed it to myself in the kitchen a few days before, I knew it was within my severely limited vocal range. As we left the intimate cocoon of the pub, my bouncy excitement became more of a trudge as, heart in mouth, I babbled and swore, and panicked that I couldn’t do it, terrified that stage fright and nerves would overtake me, and that my tentative voice would abandon me altogether.

We found a spot outside HSBC, sniggered at the irony, and I took a swig from my hip flask of hot water, honey and lemon, and another swig of Buttercup cough syrup before we kicked off. Billy played guitar and I shouted along beside him: “I was 21 years when I wrote this song and I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long … ”

Standing on a corner singing, with people rushing past you, is a strange experience. You want to stop them, ask them why they’re not staying to listen. But gradually, a crowd started to gather, and several people took out their phones to record us. Initial fear had given way to a surge of adrenaline, in response to a positive reaction from the assembled crowd. A white-van man even stopped at the lights and whipped his head round to listen as we belted out Oh My Sweet Carolina into the noisy, grey streets.

We’re not really used to spontaneous outbursts of singing in the UK. I recently spent 10 days in Tanzania with Oxfam visiting food and farming projects, and one of the things that struck me most on the trip was the music; everywhere we went, men and women would dance and sing to welcome us to their villages. When I came back to London, the only music to be heard was an old accordion player sitting outside Marks & Spencer, trying to catch the eyes of passers by to make a few quid.

Now it was my turn to be the busker. I discovered it is a queer juxtaposition of vulnerability and empowerment. I put on my performance face, threw my head back, and enjoyed myself – but safe in the knowledge that standing beside me on my right hand side was a man with decades of busking experience and a natural affinity with the crowd. Between us, and over four songs, we made just over £38.

If I had been asked to go it alone, I might have refused, and I never would have experienced the rush of street performing.

Call me romantic, but singing Can’t Help Falling in Love on a busy street corner is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. Even if it was in a husky croak, and I couldn’t manage the chorus.

Click here to watch the video on the Guardian website.

Originally published in The Guardian, Friday 21 March 2014. Photography by Linda Nylind for The Guardian.

Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe>

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Categories: Blog, NEWS

19 Comments »

  1. How I would have loved to have been there! I was fortunate to see Billy perform live in Ann Arbor, Michigan many year ago (I was a 21 year old college student) and it was most definitely a peak life experience.

  2. You were brilliant today on TV with Matthew Wright. Hope you go back again. Had your peach and chickpea curry for lunch. Fabulous!

  3. Good to hear you singing for your supper Jack…and nearly 4 weeks budget food grub in takings too. Keep enjoying 🙂

  4. Hi Jack,

    Lovely to see you busking with BB in Camden. Did you know that, in October last year Billy, along with Bill Bailey and Mark Thomas, had taken part in an event with The Keep Streets Live campaign, on that very spot, to protest against Camden Borough Council’s aim to make unlicensed busking illegal?

    Here’s one of the videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1_uEbGJtnY

    Since then, CBC, a Labour controlled council, voted to bring in the new legislation which would see buskers fined £1000 and have their instruments taken from them for busking without a license.

    We took Camden Borough Council to The High Court to have this draconian legislation overruled and lost the case.

    This means that, from Monday 23rd March 2014 unlicensed busking anywhere in the entire Borough of Camden will be illegal.

    The Keep Streets Live Campaign are now seeking leave to appeal and have gained support from the likes of Lord Clement Jones (Who brought us the 2012 Live Music Act) and Natalie Bennett, leader of The Green Party.

    Please could I ask you and your readers for support, in raising awareness, to sign our petition and to help us to raise money to fight this ridiculous council.

    http://keepstreetslive.com/

    Thanks very much,
    Nick.

  5. Strange how you never mentioned the current situation n Camden with regard to the draconian licence scheme being introduced in Camden. Billy Bragg was, apparently, passionately against the scheme. Surely if he’d of mentioned it to you it would of made a great story. Perhaps it slipped his mind.

  6. Hi, great story and what an experience to sing with BB!
    When was the performance? Was it a goodbye to busking on the streets of Camden?
    To add a little more sadness to your statement about Britain not being used to spontaneous outbursts of singing, from Monday the 23rd of March, it will now be illegal!
    I’m sure you have an opinion on this matter and I’d love to hear some positive thoughts about it.
    They are taking our streets from us and we need to reclaim them.

    Andrew.

  7. As soon as I saw it on the Guardian site I shared it via Twitter and Facebook, I remember seeing Billy Bragg in the 80’s when he was part of Red Wedge and recently bought some of his CD’s. You are doing great and I wish you continued success with everything you are doing.

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