The Take Home Busker,  by Tony Smith

Since my partner and I have had fewer restrictions imposed on our time by work commitments, I have reinvented myself as a folk musician. We attend festivals, do CD reviews, write songs and perform in ‘sessions’. Undoubtedly, one of my greatest pleasures is busking. I’ve busked in the central west of New South Wales, the Blue Mountains, the south coast, Canberra and north-east Victoria.

Busking at Blackheath, in the Blue Mountains

Busking at Blackheath, in the Blue Mountains

The origins of the term ‘busk’ are obscure but its meaning is clear. Busking is performing in public places, usually for money. The wits who suggest the term derives from ‘bus queue’ might not realise that local government guidelines suggest that buskers avoid crowded areas.


When considering busking, check Council guidelines. The big cities can demand buskers attend auditions, pay large fees and carry photo i d.. Smaller towns might have no policy. At least one local government area in Sydney says simply that it welcomes buskers. Sensible advice is found in the Blue Mountains City Council’s guidelines: avoid amplification, do not obstruct pedestrian pathways and do not actively solicit money.


My experience suggests some other advice. Check that your pitch is safe, shady and not too noisy. If using a private area such as a supermarket car park, ask permission. Do not stay too long and try to have a wide repertoire – passersby hear you for a few seconds, but retail staff hear you for much longer. Your repertoire should include some children’s tunes and tunes for special occasions such as Christmas. Besides my instruments (harmonica, tin whistle, button accordion, a jig doll and spares) I carry a chair, water, lip cream, a certificate of insurance and a collection tin for the Leukaemia Foundation. Always say ‘thank you’, regardless of the size of the contribution.

A harmonica stirs memories for many.

A harmonica stirs memories for many.

When I began busking I found people very generous and wanted to share my good fortune. Most appreciate the presence of the charity tin and so far I have filled eight. But people also appreciate your efforts and insist that some of their donation goes into my instrument box.

While the money is handy for covering expenses and forms a contractual relationship between the busker and the public, the personal interactions have been priceless. In Mansfield a girl of about five and with probably new glasses stopped with her father. When I played ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ on harmonica especially for her and she recognised the tune, her face lit up in an unforgettable smile. A boy of perhaps one in Bathurst stood opposite the jig doll and danced happily.

Older adults stop and reminisce about instruments like mine. Often these have belonged to their parents and sometimes they are wistful talking about them. Once a man in his seventies came along, assisted by his partner. A stroke had forced him to stop playing his own button accordion. His was much larger,  and when he tried mine he seemed to regain hope that he might be able to manage to play again.

My button accordion.

A jig doll creates interest.

A jig doll is a crowd pleaser.

The jig doll attracts a deal of interest. A woman with a walking frame said that she was a tap dancer when younger. She was proud of a protégé who danced the lead in ‘Aladdin’. A genuine Elvis fan who is disdainful of festivals which exploit the King, reminded me that Elvis sang ‘Wooden Heart’ to a puppet.

As well as cash, I have been given some lovely gifts. At Bermagui markets I received  marmalade, bread and cakes. In Gulgong a woman put some gold nuggets into the tin, explaining that she found them in the creek banks after rain. And of course, the compliments are nice. People appreciate that a busker adds to the sense of community, creates a happy atmosphere and demonstrates  that there is something commendable about showing a little initiative.

I have happily shared my busking experiences. I wrote a piece called ‘Buskers’ for the online journal ‘The Cud’ and recently gave a workshop for buskers at the Gulgong Folk Festival. My multi-skilled partner Gene recently put together a CD ‘Take Home Busker’. This is our third CD. but the earlier ones do not reflect my busking. The material on ‘Bleatings’ and ‘Silent Centenary’ contain mostly political songs. When busking I do strictly instrumentals.

A chair for comfort and a dog for company.

‘Take Home Busker’ is being sold for $10, $2 of which is earmarked for the Leukaemia Foundation. It has twelve tracks; six instrumentals, five songs and a poem. The songs and poem focus on the busking experience. The late John Dengate, who busked around Sydney’s QVB wrote the poem ‘The Man from Forest Grove’ about me. The songs include ‘Whiskey On A Sunday’ about a jig doll busker and ‘Their Stage Is In The Street’ , which I wrote to describe the busking experience. Busking is great fun. Long may it continue!

Tony Smith



Counting up. Photo credit – Leukaemia Foundation.


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  1. Great story – thanks Tony for some very interesting insights into the world of busking.

  2. I love hearing buskers, especially in the UK’s London underground. Hundreds of commuters rush by seemingly oblivious to the music, but for others, it brightens their day. Some buskers of course are better than others! On my first trip to visit my brother in Australia, I enjoyed listening to a guy playing the digeridoo outside Fremantle Market. It made my day as I never heard one before.

    • Pauline

      There was a fellow playing the pan pipes in the city the other day. So hauntingly beautiful.

  3. I fell in love with the sound of Pan Pipes when we had a lovely TV series many years ago called Flight of the Condor. The scenery was stunning, and it made me want to visit Peru which I eventually did in 2007 seeing Condors for real. Visiting an ancient site, we came across a Peruvian man dressed in the colourful garments they wear, playing pipes. The sound echoed across the valley. Quite special. Being cynical I think the tourist board had planted him there, but he brightened our day.

    • Pauline

      That reminds me, we took some O/S visitors to our local look-out and there was a lone digeridoo player sitting under a gum tree. They were so amazed. I didn’t like to tell them he was probably employed by the council. Mind you, have never seen him since.

  4. Great blog. Thanks Tony.

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