Dating back to antiquity, musicians and entertainers have taken to the streets seeking fame and fortune through song, dance and tricks. Today, buskers remain a common sight the world over, from magicians wooing street-corner crowds to the Naked Cowboy strumming his guitar in Times Square.
Eugene’s streets may be home to many a panhandler with a guitar, but three locals in particular are revealing a serious belief in their ability to entertain as mobile musicians.
His card reads “Stephen St. Claire, Accordionist and Balladeer.” You can find St. Claire on the produce side of Saturday Market, decked out in a three-piece suit, his hair slicked back and glasses perched on the tip of his nose. His song repertoire evokes the fantasy scene of a quaint European market, and you half expect to find a monkey dancing at his feet.
A musician by the age of seven, St. Claire, now 29, has been playing the accordion since 2005. He takes his accordionist persona seriously. “I wouldn’t play on the street if I thought I couldn’t entertain somebody,” he says. “If I had a bunch of songs that weren’t really put together on accordion, I wouldn’t feel right putting on a show and asking for money.”
Fellow troubadour Samuel ‘Beefcake’ Mitchell, 21, has also been playing since childhood. Catch him in the company of banjo player and guitarist Sarah Jean Olson as these musicians cruise through town in a red pickup affectionately known as Piano Truck.
The piano — set up in the bed of the pickup and adorned with a stuffed, three-legged coyote named Family — is Mitchell’s stage, allowing him to draw in crowds with a blend of ragtime, jazz and dirty blues. He plays family friendly during the day, but come night he hauls out a bevy of clever originals with titles like “Road Kill Ballad,” and he refers to his piano as “delightfully out of tune.”
“It’s different than stage performance; it’s different than cinema,” Mitchell explains. “It’s a whole new thing. I’m a walk-by performer and I have to grab people’s attention as they are walking by. But I play to hundreds of people a day.”
Violinist Christopher Stark, 20, got his start at the age of six in the Suzuki Strings Program. He’s won concerto competitions, and he placed fourth in Oregon’s state competition. He is currently a music student at UO.
For Stark, busking is a chance to practice new pieces in a setting that differs from the concert hall. He performs on the produce side of the Saturday Market, where he says he’s noticed that people show more appreciation for classical pieces on the violin.
“For me, music has always been about emotional context — the reaction of the audience, making them enjoy it the same way I’m enjoying it, is one of the things I like the most,” Stark says.
Keep street performers on our streets: Fuel their passion by tossing a buck into the bucket the next time you find yourself strolling by.