For musicians, performing on the street — otherwise known as busking — is a time-honored tradition.
Usually busking isn’t an organized event, but a festival this summer is taking over the streets of one town in southern Berkshire County.
Berkshire Busk is a project designed to improve economic development and community engagement in downtown Great Barrington, while also showcasing a diverse range of music and musicians.
Zydalis Bauer spoke with Festival Director Eugene Carr to find out more.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: For musicians, performing on the street –otherwise known as busking — is a time-honored tradition. Usually busking isn’t an organized event, but a festival this summer is taking over the streets of one town in southern Berkshire County.
Berkshire Busk! is a project designed to improve economic development and community engagement in downtown Great Barrington, while showcasing a diverse range of music and musicians.
I spoke with festival director Eugene Carr to find out more.
Eugene Carr, Berkshire Busk! Director: Busking is a term that refers to a street performer, a musician, an actor, a dancer, someone standing out on the street performing and hoping to get tips. And it’s a tradition that you find all over Europe — and actually in Australia and New Zealand — not as much in the United States.
But it’s an opportunity for performers to get out without having to sit an audience, without having to sell a ticket. You just walk up, you listen to a performer, and if you like what they’re doing, you put some money in there in their tip jar or you send them a digital Venmo or something like that.
Zydalis Bauer: The Berkshires are well known for its rich culture and arts community. Where did the inspiration for Berkshire Bust come about?
Eugene Carr: Well, it starts kind of right at home. I’m a cellist myself. And though I studied classical, because I’ve been up here in the Berkshires, I’ve met a lot of bands and I was invited last summer to sit in with a jazz band. And I did my best to keep up with them.
And we played outdoors. And during the pandemic last year, it was really an incredible opportunity to actually be in front of people and performing. So, as the winter progressed, I thought, “wow, wouldn’t it be an incredible opportunity to take what was already a little bit of busking that was going on on the streets of Great Barrington last summer and really expand it and turn it into a multi week festival?”
So, I approached the town and I came up with this idea all borne from my own experience of actually playing on the street as a busker.
Zydalis Bauer: Now, this summer series will be featuring a different lineup of acts varying in art forms each weekend through September 4th.
How were the performers chosen and what can people expect to experience during these weekends?
Eugene Carr: We actually used social media to promote the fact that you could apply. And I was amazed that we got over a hundred and fifty applications from performers, the vast majority, I think 75 percent from Massachusetts and from New York State. But we we got applications from people in Cleveland and in Texas and and in Provincetown.
And so over this summer, we will have somewhere around one hundred and twenty five different groups or individuals, representing about two hundred and fifty performers. And they span the gamut. I mean, every kind of music, whether it’s blues, country, jazz, singer-songwriters, covers, oldies, you name it. Plus, we have jugglers, mimes, magicians, somebody doing card tricks. We have clowns, we have mimes.
We wanted to create kind of a cultural smorgasbord where you could walk up and down the street, just like perhaps your experience at a museum, where you go from room to room and you see all different kinds of art. We wanted to have a different cultural experience where every single street corner, there would be another surprise.
Zydalis Bauer: After a challenging year that we all had grappling with the pandemic and its effects on the economy, how does an event like this benefit a small town like Great Barrington?
Eugene Carr: Yeah, well, it has — there’s sort of multiple overlapping benefits. The first and foremost was, we figured, first of all, performers want to get out and play. There was a lot of people like myself that were cooped up for a year and wanted to get out and perform.
So number one, we wanted to create an opportunity performers. We also wanted to create an opportunity for the community to get out. It wasn’t clear, as we were planning this in the winter whether we would be masked or unmasked, but we realized that an outdoor event, aside from the weather, an outdoor event would give everybody the opportunity to get together.
The third really leg of the stool was could we get community support in the form of sponsorships from companies. And we’ve got almost 40 sponsors that stepped up and said we’d really like this to happen.
And of course, the final thing is we wanted to fill the town with people who are going to eat and shop and help the restaurants come out of the pandemic. So, we’re sort of interlocking and overlapping benefits that would benefit not only the town performers, vendors, all of that all together in one nice bunch.
Zydalis Bauer: Over 40 sponsors — that’s an amazing accomplishment.
Were you at all surprised with the support that you received from the community?
Eugene Carr: I have to say I was. You know, traditionally fundraising, you go and sit down with somebody and explain your project and they meet you. We had to do all of this, essentially virtually, and that was the big surprise that we can actually get community support and do it in a way without actually meeting face to face.So, I was very, very gratified.
A couple of the town leaders, the select boards, and some of the leading businesses really stepped up and encouraged me and opened the door to their friends and to their associates. So, I was very, very pleased with it. Yes.
Zydalis Bauer: Now, the first Berkshire Busk! Kicked off early July.
How has it been going? What has the community’s reaction been? How has the turnout been?
Eugene Carr: Well, you know, the turnout in the first weekend was, shall we say, hampered. We were all drenched. We actually couldn’t put any buskers out on the street during the first weekend. But every other weekend we’ve been operating. This coming weekend looks to be fantastic.
The community reaction has been great. We are working in partnership with Simon’s Rock, which is a local college, and one of their marketing research professors is fielding a study. So, we’re asking people on the street, how are you enjoying it? How is it improving your view?
And so, the results — I mean, I don’t have the full data. We’ve done about one hundred surveys so far. And and on a scale of one to five, how are you enjoying it? We’re like at 4.88.
So, I think people are really, really enjoying being out on the street and seeing live performances really in their backyard
Zydalis Bauer: With an arts background yourself, being a classically trained cellist and entrepreneur, what has been your favorite thing about organizing this festival?
Eugene Carr: Meeting the artists and the performers in person and then seeing them perform. It’s one thing to watch a YouTube video, to have an email back and forth, but then to be able to walk up and say, “oh, my goodness, they’re fabulous!” And to really enjoy the art that’s being performed, that it’s sort of like a photograph that’s black and white, and suddenly it’s color.
And that it’s been a real discovery, even for us who have been planning this thing, to really get out and see all the amazing performers. That’s been the most incredible part of this project.
Zydalis Bauer: You mentioned earlier that busking is well developed in Europe, in Australia, and you would really love to develop that sort of culture here.
What do you hope the future of this festival will become?
Eugene Carr: We’re really trying to create a new culture of people understanding that art can be performed on a stage; it can be performed in a museum; it can be experienced outdoors or indoors; and it also could be on a street corner, which isn’t even meant as a stage.
So, we’re trying to infuse — if it’s even possible here in the Berkshires — we’re trying to infuse even more arts and culture into the community.