From Liverpool to Savannah – a Tale of two Buskers.

The Beginning

Or perhaps it just began in the year 2000, when Bernie and I bought our airline tickets in that mecca of Old Europe, the English port, Liverpool.

Liverpool is the town where, on the sixth of November 1865, the last official Confederate Flag was lowered by Lieutenant Waddell of the CSS Shenandoah. The town where The Marchioness of Lothian helped sponsor the bazaar in aid of the Southern Prisoners’ Relief Fund on Friday 7th October 1864.

My great, great grandfather doubtless attended that Bazaar, as he was in charge of the workhouse at the time. He was a stalwart citizen, impeccable, charitable and respectable, but he’d left something embarrassing behind in the Lothians: my great grandfather, David Costain. Twenty years after this indiscretion, David came back to claim something from his wayward father; probably money or revenge, but he settled for a house in Liverpool. The young Mr Costain was father of my grandmother, the vaudeville star,Vida La Court who returned to the Lothians, doubtless passing the embittered Marchioness of Lothian on the way up. She married my grandfather, Jock the fiddler. They settled in Edinburgh, metropolis of the Lothians, brought my father into the world in a street up from the actor, Sean Connery, and by the time the families perambulations got to me, I was heading back down to Liverpool, unconscious of any family connections but still playing the ‘Celtic’ music that has been the lifeblood of my people.keltix_03

Music brought me to Bernie the banjo player, busking on the pier head, Liverpool. Our musical partnership, never lucrative, was at least for the moment, paying the rent.

And then, if anything can be called a beginning, in the year 2000, some one hundred and forty five years after the confederacy gave up the ghost, Bernie and I stood together. We stared at the remnants of their faded glory at Number 22, Water Street, Liverpool, a branch of the Charleston cotton firm John Fraser & Co and the address of the last official Confederate embassy.

Bernie and I had been busking all afternoon, worming funny money from American tourists. At one point we had encountered John Ratzenberger, from the sitcom ‘Cheers’ who was trying to flog some stories to the BBC. He had bought one of our cassettes. We hoped it wasn’t a blank dud as he seemed like a decent guy.

Ratzenberger had sparked Bernie’s mind on to American films. Perhaps the faded Stainless Banner ignited the flames to more splendour. He mentioned a Clint Eastwood production watched at the weekend: ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’: All about the ‘South’. I hadn’t seen the film. In fact, I hadn’t seen America except of course, on film. The South I did know as much as one knows a stuffed tiger observed at the natural history museum – It has stripes. I think it might bite – I knew it then, second-hand, tamed and distorted like reflections in a dim mirror.

When Bernie suggested we make the trip over, all I could think of was Stonewall Jackson and Margaret Mitchell. Visions of grey clad men clutching red badges of courage and limping authoresses clutching bottles of bourbon played out in my mind.

“We travel light,” said Bernie, ‘Take the banjos, a bag and we’ll make a fortune in Savannah. ‘Pat’s night. (We got the name wrong) There’ll be thousands of people there. I’ve seen the film. The place is a gold mine.’

I may have been a stranger to America but I was no stranger to Bernie’s plans. I expressed reservations. They were dismissed. I proffered objections. They met derision. Bernie, on a roll, is difficult to stop. His enthusiasms had led me in the past to improvising penny whistle live on air to thousands, (‘Bernie not only do I not know the tune I can’t play the whistle’), Rough country clubs in Liverpool with no public address system, no set list and no back exit. (Bernie, there is no means of escape, no volume control and they look violent’). On the other hand, his enthusiasms had also produced four Cassettes and two CD’s, television appearances, money, an Equity card and enough showbiz experience to swap stories with the household names of variety Television. Bernie was in short a remarkable man, a performer, cabaret artiste, entrepreneur and one of the best buskers in the world: The ideal conspirator for any doubtful or doomed enterprise.

He moved from persuasion to action.

The Airport

In a matter of days, there are two lines of people – Americans on the left and a ribald host of untidy hopefuls on the right.

The airplane had landed after nine hours of discomfort, heightened only by a choice of films picked so as not to offend three quarters of humanity. Belonging to that fourth quarter, I was only vaguely thankful that editing meant shorter. I was now conscious though, that disliking those films might mark me out, by osmosis, as an undesirable. One old bag, a banjo wrapped up in a shirt, unshaven from the previous train journey and fifty dollars in my pocket didn’t strike me now as prerequisites for the conventional holidaymaker that I was trying to impersonate.

I had a vague image of the expression Marco Polo’s face might have borne on his first embassy to Khubilai Khan. Probably not unlike that of the ancient Briton, Caractus who had endured a similarly long procession before Claudius, the Roman Emperor. Caractus displayed a bold front despite the long queue and a few impeding chains. Perhaps he had suffered less paperwork. The written word has a lot to answer for. The tiny green cards distributed on the aeroplane, with their incomprehensible instructions about wild life, farm life, cheese and other imports had already taxed my wearied brain. Even such innocuous things as signs had begun to exude the subtle opium that confronts wilting travellers like highwaymen.

Atlanta airport seemed to have a lot of signs, not necessarily telling you where to go, more telling you what you couldn’t do. There were a lot of ‘don’ts’.

The Gate

The slick, uniformed man asking the difficult questions reminded me of the other uniformed man on the other side of the Atlantic who also asked difficult questions. Both American, both abrasive, both keen on where I was going, how long I was staying and importantly what I was doing when I got there. In the face of anybody in authority, a cavalcade of small guilty secrets parade in my brain like cavorting miserable dwarves. I begin to croak.

‘Party,’ I croaked. I hit a nerve. ‘Party in Savannah’.
‘Nice town,’ said the now genial customs officer. ‘Have a nice day.’

Incredibly, they were allowing me in.

Atlanta, it’s Travel Establishments and Environs

I have been to many cities. Some, like Berlin, I only ever saw from the front portals of the railway station. I can assure you that, from this vantage, all cities look bad. All the people who might conceivably help you have already helped thousands. Helping has lost its thrust for them. They have quietly forgotten Kant’s moral imperative . Their purpose is instead, to avoid helping people. Those needing help are beyond help. They are itinerants, drunks, young people, homeless, immigrant, criminal, foreign, broke. They hang around the benches and sidewalks like suburban social lepers and they are often looking for money. You, as the traveller, have the money that they seek. The trick is to look like one of them. Fortunately, after nine hours of sanitised viewing, I almost did.

Atlanta was no different from Berlin. A step outside the bus station had me confronted by demands for a dollar. Quickly shrugged off with a monosyllabic grunt, I was off to the bus station, content that I had effected the smooth enactment of a scene that would look good in “Midnight Cowboy”. Already a few minutes into America, I began to confront the peculiar distortion of the brain, which renders everything in double vision. The street signs, the cars, the people, the surface of the road had two existences. One as the object staring up at me, and the other as the film set version seen from the couch in Old Europe. Each street carried its own déjà vu. Everything had been seen before a million times before on celluloid or computer graphic, brightly spilling forth from screens large and small, often with a car chase prominent. If someone had pointed a gun at me, I would have probably smiled and chirped ‘do I feel lucky?’

American myths had not, so far, exploded like party balloons. All that was required to decorate my unfolding idealised picture was the Greyhound bus station. I was already whistling ‘America’ by Simon and Garfunkel. ‘Let us be lovers’, ‘pass me a cigarette’. A brief trip through the concrete wilderness of Atlanta and we would be there. The Greyhound bus, the ubiquitous wagon train of new America. Distant vistas waiting.Banjo Savannah

Enjoy Your Trip

The man who had composed the rules regulations sign and signals at the airport had performed his pièce de résistance [1] on that poor bus. It was probably desperate for a smoke, a drink, some loud music, a gun, a canary, a touchy-feely partner, internet access and some means of disturbing the imperturbable driver. At the least, it wanted to take off its shoes, but no. There were so many things one couldn’t do I began to feel that, by some Wellsian trick, I had lost thirty years and my parents had just discovered a girlfriend clutching a tin of beer while puffing a joint under my bed. In short, anyone entering a Greyhound bus becomes on the instant, a potentially reprobate teenager who at any given moment might spit on the floor or burp loudly.

Half way to Savannah, at 2am in the middle of nowhere, the bus stopped. The imposing driver, apparently aware that I was a foreigner, had sought out an opportunity to illustrate cultural divergence. He walked the length of the aisle, his huge shoulders bunching to avoid striking passengers and thereby avoid breaking several of his own bus regulations. He knocked on the toilet door.

‘Come out sir. You’re smoking in there.’

In a few seconds, a burly middle-aged man emerged. This is how my crude Scottish mentality envisaged the next few moments. There were two possibilities. There would be a brief altercation, a sheepish apology. After heartfelt assurances and a conspiratorial ‘we all bend the rules occasionally’ camaraderie, the bus would move off and all would be well. Alternatively, fists would fly, there would be a titanic struggle, some passengers would weigh in, there would be a ‘shoot-out’, the police would finally be called to take away the offending man, then the bus would move off, and all would be well.

No. Without remonstrance, without apparently caring that he was in the middle of a dark swamp, without even the comfort of a pre-lynching banjo tune, the man simply walked off the bus.

Astonished,  I settled down with my cramped, aching shoe-bound feet, battled the silence, tried not to surreptitiously break wind, checked for litter, avoided the gaze of fellow passengers, and, after ensuring my cigarette packet was securely locked, faintly hoped I would be allowed to catch some sleep. My last waking moments mixed pictures of my fellow passengers remonstrating with Vivien Leigh who shouted pathetically “Rhett, where shall I go? What shall I do?” before her formal ejection for snoring.

[1] I mean that in the old sense of the word as ‘the main course’, never mind the quality, it’s the quantity of rules one can invent

Savannah – Accommodation

The first rule of musicianship, the rule that even precedes ‘with which end of the guitar must one shoot’ and ‘where is a Chinese takeaway?’ is ‘find somewhere to sleep’. With extensive experience, we had arrived in Savannah some seven days before the big event, ‘The Patties day parade’ 2001. Our choices were limited. As always, we had little money. (Money is something a busker just expects to arrive during the day as Wooster expects Jeeves to bring him tea: Not measured by quantity, but by satisfaction to the palate).

Still living in a movie, I proposed my plan, which was to go to church where we would be accosted by an organised team of enthusiastic Christians. Not only would we be ensured food for the week, a busking pitch unfettered by an irate moral community and solace for the soul, but that vital sine qua non, a bed for the night. Bernie imbued with more practicality was already making for the ECONOMY hotel.

The ECONOMY had three advantages the first, I think the least of us could guess; the term ‘economy’ conjuring the suitable synonym of ‘impoverished’. The second, its proximity to the bus station and the third, an Indian woman behind the counter who had a similar facility for barter as Bernie. I say similar, it was only similar in kind not in quality. Once, in the toughest district in Liverpool, I had seen Bernie move a recalcitrant police officer from the opinion that we were under arrest to the conviction that busking was a community service and that Bernie and I were its exemplars. A woman who had merely inherited a timeless system of ancient barter, which defined the geographic and historic conventions of entire civilisations, had very little chance against a man familiar with the English street denizens of Liverpool and Manchester.  Bernie negotiated a poor man’s price. At a time when tourists were paying an escalating figure of 1000 dollars for an apartment, Bernie and I were relaxing in our suite for a few dollars and the vague promise of more to come.

I used the term ‘suite’. The ECONOMY has changed dramatically in the last few years and perhaps one example of its previous life will suffice. On the first morning, I risked a shower. Lying exhausted on the bed, my body jack-knifed in the posture of a tiny sailor who has mistakenly ordered a shoddy, over-sized hammock, I was irritated to notice that I had left the shower running.  I was mistaken. The guest in the room above had bravely decided to shower. The water from his ablutions descended from the roof of my shower cubicle like a miniature Niagara Falls. Now, in search of an amicable Dr Livingstone, it quickly defeated the walls of the shower unit and surged across the floor towards me.

Bernie, eyeing the deluge from his collapsed bunk, said simply, ‘rent reduction.’

banjo kidsOff to work we go

On the first morning, we began our assault. We needed show costumes, in this case something green, so the first stop was the Goodfellows. Here, we encountered one of many contradictions to be found in the Colonies. In England, there are two types of charity shop. The first is a bedraggled outpost in a poor area in which one finds clothes that have been recycled since Hannibal crossed the Alps, some with less success than that unfortunate. These are haunted by people who will be lucky to survive the struggle of finding some post WWII apparel. The second type is located in the posher parts of plush English villages beside cricket lawns, fine wine shops and croquet parks. In these latter, the sport of the thinking middle class is to find Armani suits, antique clocks, select children’s toys and Italian silk shirts for under ten pounds; partly because they are cheap but mostly as conversation pieces over bridge parties. ‘Yes, Craig got that shirt for only three quid tucked away under a bunch of old tennis racquets’. This is equivalent to prehistoric social kudos like ‘Manboy, he find dead tiger skin under big stone’.

In Savannah one sensed immediately that going to Goodfellows was a social admission perhaps on a par with visiting the pawn shop – which was our next stop. Here I bought a cheap throwaway guitar to supplement my little banjo, add the bass end to our duo and make two of last years Patty’s day polo shirts look like a credible fashion statement. I recall at the time, the wonder of an endless array of green beads whose profusion resembled some kind of mistaken Lourdes exhibition run by the Great God Pan.

‘What are these, Bernie?’ I said experimenting with a waterfall of beads.

Atypically, Bernie seemed lost for an explanation.

 River Street, street of legend, street of wondrous tourist charm, street of potential cash, was our first hit.

 The Art of Busking

For those who don’t know, Busking is an immensely skilful job that starts not simply by finding a pitch, but by establishing a right to be there and maintaining this fiction for as long as possible. There are various factors. Firstly, the competition: Any good pitch will be occupied by a good busker. He won’t be pleased to see you and can become violent.

Secondly, most good pitches will be beside a shopkeeper who is not as enamoured by the music as the cheerful passing tourist. It could well be that yesterday the NYPD pipe band elected to have a go, to be moved on and replaced by the local amateur trumpeter, upstaged by a Nigerian percussion ensemble who gave way to a heavy metal guitarist whose deafness has rendered him an environmental criminal. The long-suffering shop keeper stares out across the streets with a glazed, burning gaze at the sight of ruffians with instruments.

Thirdly, the local Police officer has the community to think of. There may be an entire statute of laws depicting exactly what one can do with a banjo on River Street. This official edifice crumbles in an instant if a police officer’s daughter has just run off with a gypsy minstrel who also borrowed his BMW. Police officers are human too.

Bearing this in mind, and a whole gamut of other imponderables, Bernie and I arrived in time to beat the first musician to the pitch. We then waited for an hour or so with our instruments on display as a Scotsman wears his sgian-dhu: clearly visible in the sock but not held to anyone’s throat. Then comes the friendly nod to the early police officers. Just enough to show that you are new in town but not about to raid the bank.

Finally, the masterstroke: like two angelic choirboys making up for a recent campaign of venal sins we begin to perform a series of religious instrumentals, children’s tunes and insipid bagatelles, whose volume and pitch would fail to disturb the dreams of a confirmed insomniac. This, accompanied by an almost funeral aspect in stance, and a vacant childlike expression of innocence and certitude, is maintained for as long as it takes to convince the shopkeeper that we are harmless, congenital idiots on holiday and, more importantly, will be gone shortly.

Here is a typical lurking song, a lovely piece, ‘Mollie’ written by Bernie. It was ideal for early morning or late afternoon busking.

Of course, as the day goes on the volume rises, our old bodies begin to thrash around in quasi rock poses and the spiel begins. From choirboys we transform to the second worst form of street predator.[1]

After a successful stint, only slightly marred by six lads from Boston we started pack away our stuff. The Boston lads had come across, listened appreciatively to a fair rendition of Danny Boy, and punted a bunch of greenbacks. We naively asked them if they liked Irish stuff and they broke into song. Their rendition of an appalling beautiful obscure Irish lament in six-part harmony prompted us to try and return their money. But, as we learned, there are a whole bunch of decent Americans whose enthusiasm for music and life makes the gyrations of the English parliament comparable to a funeral parlour. Another find was an American Irish fiddler who joined us for a few tunes. We had already booked a gig at Finnegan’s Wake and he was keen to come along.


From here, we moved to Johnson square. These old squares are a thing of beauty. They also had the makings of what we call a lurking pitch. This is a pitch where the punters come in slowly and the busker can almost hide himself. The trick is to keep the music simmering gently, wait until a punter appears from a far distance, judge by his appearance what kind of music he likes and then go into it when he walks by.  We were employing these strategies while admiring the sun light casting on the old churches. I was marking down a bookshop to wander around and reflecting on the statue when The sight of churchgoers strolling down the steps alerted me to my plan.

I checked out when the next service would be read. The sun was now going down. Savannah centre at night is relatively safe but the further out you go the more dangerous it feels.  It was time for us to count the dollars. We’d played all day. The next step was to check out where to play all night. No rest for the wicked musician. We began making a round of the bars and night clubs.

[1] The worst is, of course, a mime

6 Responses to “From Liverpool to Savannah – a Tale of two Buskers.”

  1. Brilliant Craig…already waiting for the film…rock on Bernie

  2. Think I’m going to enjoy this……

  3. Brilliant Craig..already waiting for the film Bernie

  4. Ha,ha,ha… I can see the Pictures already…!! I know the Feeling (the bus!!)..

  5. Belinda Says:

    Really enjoying this, can’t wait for the next installment! Craig, your writing really captures an amazing picture. Thanks for including the song, not heard that for time! Dad; it’s beautiful. X

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