From Liverpool to Savannah – a Tale of two Buskers. Part II

Bernie and Craig on the Mississippi

Bernie and Craig on the Mississippi

The Bars

Lady Chablis, immortalised in Clint Eastwood’s film, didn’t look like the place where banjos would get a fair hearing but there were one or two other bars on the go.

Time passes quickly and things change. I remember we played about eleven bars in two weeks – some are now gone and some have changed names. They all seem to mix together with the passing of days. One thing was sure; Bernie and I had already discovered that Americans were friendly and very flexible in their attitudes. Getting a gig was easy. Walk into the bar holding banjos. Ask the owner if he would like some live music. Negotiate a small fee and start. The basic fee was never great but we quickly latched on to the game. You play, people enjoy it, they ask for requests. If you play their song they give you dollars. This was something two buskers could readily understand. With Pat’s night coming up everyone was on the make and two European foreigners who could bang out Danny Boy and Wild Rover were just what the doctor ordered.lady chablis

What was this weird song ‘The Unicorn’ to do with Ireland? Rely on Bernie whose mind is a mass of showbiz facts. The song by Shel Silverstein popularised by the Canadian band The Irish Rovers in 1968 was apparently huge in the USA and a must for Pat’s night. We had it off pat in ten minutes. (Sorry about that) It does however lead to the next peculiarity. It is not ‘Pat’s’ night in Savannah, It’s ‘Patty’s night’.

We had already played a couple of gigs and were getting booked for the big one. Two poor guys had already been shot and killed, sleeping in their car outside our hotel. They had nowhere to sleep. The place was buzzing.

But we weren’t doing much sleeping anyway. We busked for about six hours a day and played for about three at night. People were arriving in droves from all over the USA. That year Savannah played host to the second biggest Pat’s night in the world. The beautiful squares with their Magnolia trees, dogwood and azalea were no longer quiet retreats. We moved from River Street in the morning where the action was toughening up with the local buskers to the Squares in the afternoon. We’d fuel up on coffee and donuts, grab something proper in the lull to eat and then back to catch some rest at our hotel before the evening work.

We were still paying thirty dollars a night for The ECONOMY. Brightly dressed women arrived throughout day and night with men they had apparently just met. The Indian woman was now screaming at Bernie and trying to change our room. Her idea was that we move out and we had a strong suspicion that the ‘change’ involved disappearance from her life. Bernie was still playing her like an accordion and using the word ‘tomorrow’ a lot before we raced passed reception.

In fairness to this hard dealing woman she had really met her match, Bernie to this day is a long time supporter of childrens’ charities but he revels in a challenge and is master of debate where dollars are concerned.  She had no chance. We are talking about a man whose playing has brought tears of bitter pleasure to the eyes of a famous London strongman.

Bernie has met them all: encounters with Louis Armstrong, John Peel, Paul McArtney’s brother, Paul McArtney, Mike McGear; Together we appeared in Peake Practice. Bernie was in Last of the Summer Wine, Coronation Street among many others. He’s written a song for The Wurzles (check out the albums and look for a songwriter) the best ever English football song, met Elton John, the Dubliners, Ken Dodd, everyone -had a call from Hamburg radio with Liverpool Lou belting out over Germany, ” Hey! Das is your leetle song Bernie, Listen!!!” I’ve been with Bernie on the streets of Liverpool and listened to hilarious banter with innumerable TV Comics who all know Bernie on first name terms. Jesus, he’s even been a cartoon character as well as a street trader throughout the UK and parts of Europe. The poor lady might as well have talked to the peeling wallpaper in reception.

But the pressure was now on and it looked like we might have to play until we dropped out on the bar stools just so we could catch some sleep.

O'Connell's Irish Pub, Savannah

O’Connell’s Irish Pub, Savannah

We were still travelling light, a bag each, two banjos and a pawned guitar and pockets full of dollars. Nothing left our side. It was pretty clear that if it did it wouldn’t be back.

Our main venue was now established on West Congress Street where we had been booked for Patty’s night in the Irish bar.

Over a million people had arrived for the celebration.

Patty’s Night

It’s not some kind of surreal waffle evening hosted by the three witches from Macbeth, nor a dubious girls’ night committed to memory in the darker tenements down Leith Walk. This indeed, is the American term for what is known as ‘Pat’s Night’ or ‘St Patrick’s night’ throughout the rest of the known world.

Bernie and I were booked to play O Connell’s bar in Savannah on the evening but first we had to decide on a busking pitch to garner the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were about to arrive in town in the pockets of our customers

I say decide. I might as well have come out with it and say ‘fight for’. A Manchester fiddler once told me that busking was one of the last jobs where ‘the survival of the fittest’ remains utterly paramount. This includes physical violence and borderline clashes with the authorities.

A description from a later visit – about 2004 – will give you an idea of the game.

Years before we had given up River Street as a busking pitch for Patty’s day. One reason was the competition, but another very good reason was the impossibility of walking anywhere carrying a banjo. There were just too many people. In 2004 we had picked a square reasonably close to West Congress Street and our venue for the evening. We would have to stay on one pitch for a whole day so we needed to build up that pitch as ‘our pitch’. This meant convincing everyone that we were regulars. By everyone that particularly meant other buskers. Staying in one place is always dangerous for a busker because locals get bored, the dollars start falling and people start asking questions. So, we tried to keep this pitch low key in the morning before venturing elsewhere. It was a difficult balance – preventing other attempts to steal the pitch, making sure we didn’t stay too long.

We were on our third morning, two days before Patty’s night, playing merry Stephen Foster songs under the magnolias when catastrophe struck.

We had become complacent, fatal for a busker. When the police officer approached, our guard was down.  He smiled at Bernie. “Morning. Where is your permit, Sir?’ (In Savannah everyone is ‘Sir’ even the lowest beggars and drunkest drunk.)

Permits. Permits, permits. We opposed this official view with disdain. After all, the only thing we sold were dreams. Bernie started in the normal manner. A blend of confusing sidesteps in conversation, a recital of names and a catalogue of faces vaguely connected with the area…’ The officer was one of the stubborn types. ‘You need a permit to play, Sir.’ The philosophical argument went on for a few more seconds but Bernie saw that it wasn’t working. We surrendered the ground and reassured him that permits were next on our list.

Anyone backing the police philosophy here needs to understand a very simple thing. Buskers are the bards of the modern world – we carry songs and stories from land to land, All we do is play our instruments. If we are playing them badly or too loudly then by all means move us on but if it’s in company with the spirit of the place we add to the atmosphere. Why get a permit to play a song? It is the cry of freedom from the little fellow.

Next on our list meant ‘last’ because we didn’t actually have a list.

We moved to another Square and picked up where we had left off. Some hours later the officer arrived again. “Afternoon. Where is your permit, Sir?’

We hadn’t been able to find where to get one. (We hadn’t looked) The officer put us right.

We moved to another Square and picked up where we had left off. So far, this was all in day’s work. Bernie was a master at dissimulation and neither of us liked permits – but we had forgotten that this was the USA. We were only slightly more attentive than normal and we would still have got away with it if the officer hadn’t arrived on a bicycle –caught us totally by surprise.

“Afternoon. Where is your permit, Sir?’ Bernie had just started his spiel – when the officer’s hand moved quickly to the holster. Here was one of the moments where you realise that all the things you have seen and done in this place are alien. The officer was going for his gun; something inconceivable back in Liverpool where police officers would merely kick you or your instrument case and arrest you before dropping charges. Now, immediately, if we made sudden movements we would be shot. Visions of being shot for playing ‘The Unicorn’ circulated through my mind. On another day, I might have reflected that a few people had probably been seriously injured for playing it. On this occasion, the police officer’s hand wavering over the holster had sobered me up. Fortunately, Bernie, master of the game, was talking in a clear concise but very fast fake Southern accent. “The offices were closed and we’re right on our way to getting a permit.’  Which on this one and only occasion we were. The next morning we had more permits than City Hall.

But back to the year 2001 when the West was a bit wilder and the South a bit more relaxed. Bernie and I needed a morning pitch and we thought River Street would be chock-a-block. We were up before the sun and trying to sneak past the reception desk when we were spotted by the Indian Lady. She had probably been up all night pondering murder. She had marshalled her armies. Rooms were now selling for over a thousand dollars – even at The ECONOMY where I suspect people paid good money to form escape committees. Unfortunately, our 30 dollars was no longer quite up there with these figures. No one could have done any more. Bernie relinquished our keys with a faint sigh of regret. We were now homeless with the only possibility of accommodation costing about 2000 dollars. If you slept in the street there was a fair chance you would be shot and there was a bigger chance you would be robbed.

We actioned the plan discussed over the last few days. For a couple of hours we occupied a quiet Square just before a large church, gently strumming such classics as ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and a host of gospel classics. We then joined the queue of worshippers. Bernie and I never lied or cheated but we did enjoy a bit of dissimulation. The church building was superb; a relative sanctuary for the poor and homeless which we now were. Straight after the service, which was anthropologically interesting in itself, a young chap who’d been born in Manchester approached us. Within seconds, we had booked in for the church meal on Wednesday. Our predicament regarding accommodation had been mulled over. Later at the pub, we were met by Miles, a musician who became a great friend over the years. He was happy to put us up in his office for a few days. Christianity had come good. The basic decency of the Christian, the southern sense of hospitality, the American way of helping a stranger – all thanks to a few religious tunes.

In direct contrast to this daylight Christian goodness, the early evening leading up to the big night was revealing the seamier side of human nature. We had now discovered the purpose of those endless green beads – you wore them, you threw them, you displayed them, you sold thousands of them – at 50 cents a go. Accompanying the flashing display of beads came the flashing display of women’s breasts. In those days, you couldn’t walk across a street without a bevy of ladies displaying their charms. The combination of endless drink and boisterous festivity led to a little moral latitude. Can’t say I didn’t enjoy that although it did distract from the busking at times.

With Cousin Bob outside O Connell's -Patty's Night

With Cousin Bob outside O Connell’s -Patty’s Night

It was virtually impossible to get into O Connell’s because of the press of people. Bernie and I had been playing for six hours. We managed about another six. A constant stream of ‘The Wild Rover’, ‘Danny boy’, ‘The Irish Rover’, ‘The Irish whatever you’ve asked for’ and of course ‘The Unicorn’.  To give you a flavour of what is was like here is an extract from a subsequent trip.

‘On Patty’s night of course the whole world becomes Irish for a few magical hours and Savannah is no exception unless it be that the madness is more concerned with flashing beads.

We were booked to play before the Cork band ‘Natural Gas’. Shame we didn’t meet them, but in amongst 500 000 tipsy dancing Americans it wasn’t even easy to find my cousin Bob with extensive prior arrangements. We did meet though and I am now the proud possessor of Cousin bob’s monologue ‘The Green Eye’d God’ and did I forget to add that the NYPD pipe band were booked with us on the same night (remember Shane McGowan’s ‘A Fairy Tale of New York’ – Yes, these are the bouys.) We were living our own fairy tale.

The celebration of the Patron saint of auld Ireland is the cause of much controversy in Savannah. The religious aspects were brought to the fore this year – not an easy task when the average American is exploiting the ‘consumption of alcohol’ aspect on River street, sporting a yellow band which costs five dollars and allowing the sportee to consume as much alcohol as is conceivable. The Americans certainly know how to have a good time.

I had a good time, bashing out the old favourites with Bernie on the 5-string. I attended bluegrass sessions with some great players – Miles, Wyle, Morgan, Jimmy and Dennis on Mandolin, Uke, Guitar, 5-string and double bass come to mind. I also had a lifelong ambition fulfilled:

Picture yourself on stage in the Deep South surrounded by a packed audience. Its sin city Savannah and Captain Morgan and his dishy assistants have just danced through dressed in red and hotpants. (Not the Captain – he had a natty buccaneer kit and a black beard) Danny from the NYPD band has just finished a jig set on the pipes. Jimmy Wolling is on stage, the best Bluegrass banjo player you have ever heard. You happen to be holding a guitar and they’ve just invited up on the stage the great local singer Spec.

“Can you play ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky?'” says Jimmy.

“Once upon a time…”

At about four in the morning, burdened with dollars and banjos, we wandered back to the Office building in Down Town Savannah where we would be sleeping on the floor, passed  the rows of Antebellum houses with their quaint porches littered with green ribbons and beads, through the quiet streets littered with passed-out drunks and soaked with beer, the towering oak trees and the sweet magnolias. In the morning, the hundreds of thousands of visitors and the weary local shopkeepers, the grafters, the buskers, the mimes and the musicians, would be sleeping late.

On the other hand, Bernie and I would be up early to catch a place on the Greyhound bus heading for New Orleans.

The floor of the Old Greyhound bus station, Savannah, GA

The floor of the Old Greyhound bus station, Savannah, GA

One Response to “From Liverpool to Savannah – a Tale of two Buskers. Part II”

  1. Great Stuff Craig keep going ps don’t forget the OLD SAVANNAH song incident…if you want some details my mind is still intact (just about) and I’ll re tell the bits…cheers Bernie

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