Rev. Busker
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Rev. Busker


Band Folk Singer/Songwriter


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"Underground, hard times resounding ...battling the tough economic times"

Underground, hard times resounding

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / January 4, 2009

Few acknowledge the graying 62-year-old strumming his way through Ralph McTell's "Streets of London" on his Fender guitar. They whisk down the platforms of the Red Line's Park Street stop without making eye contact, insulated by the headphones stuffed in their ears, and juggling coffee cups, cellphones, and bulging shoulder bags.

These days, it's getting harder to make a buck down here. On top of the noise of passing trains, fast travel schedules, and a proliferation of iPods, performers like this man are battling the tough economic times.

Michael Sullivan sings anyway: "Have you seen the old man in the closed-down market, kicking up the paper with his worn-out shoes. In his eyes you see no pride, hand held loosely at his side - yesterday's paper telling yesterday's news."

It's Sunday, just after 9 a.m. Sullivan, a busker who performs on sidewalks and in subways, has set out a collection basket - complete with a bit of his own pocket change - made with a bunched-up Ministry T-shirt. An hour and five songs later, three dollar bills flutter against the faded black cloth of the makeshift basket as a train passes.

As the economy worsens, passers-by are keeping their hands in their pockets and their change in their wallets more often, said Stephen Baird, head of the group Community Arts Advocates, which promotes performers such as Sullivan.

"The word I get from the subway is that donations are down," Baird said. "Artists are not recession-proof. . . . It can be very close to the bone for some of them."

There are about 200 buskers licensed to play in Boston's T stations, according to the MBTA. And usually, the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's is when most buskers - whose average annual income is less than $20,000 - make the bulk of their money, Baird said. Over the past year, though, many have been struggling.

"It's a combination of high oil and gasoline costs. It really hit people early in the year, and then the lack of employment and the economic collapse," Baird said.

It's hard to put a number on just how much less buskers are earning; a performer's take varies from day to day, location to location, and based on how long they play. And because the job is part of the underground economy, analysts say it's not tracked in the same way as retail sales and charitable giving.

But several buskers say they've had to stretch their sessions to get what they were making earlier this year. Some have even noticed more audience members lamenting their own financial woes in lieu of throwing them some change.

"They might clap or they might say, 'You sound really great but I can't give anything,' " said Yani Batteau, a banjo player. "But that's OK. The fact that they're listening makes it OK."

Sullivan, who has been busking for about four decades, also appreciated the attention, but noticed his increasingly bartender-like role.

"All the time I hear it: 'I'd like to give you money, but I can't right now. Things are really bad," Sullivan said. In the past he's made $100 or more during a playing session. Now, with the economic downturn, he's lucky if he makes half of that.

On this particular Sunday, it's almost 10 a.m. before Boston College student Karen Kovaka tosses a folded dollar bill into Sullivan's basket. She's the first.

Kovaka, 19, had been listening to Sullivan pluck out Randy Newman's tune "Baltimore," occasionally interrupted by recorded announcements like the one from Dan Grabauskas, general manager of the MBTA, about reporting "suspicious packages."

Then, as her train approaches, Kovaka sidles over, takes a turn around a post and drops the money into the Ministry T-shirt.

"Just a dollar" she says.

Later, when reached by phone, she explained that she had the dollar because it wouldn't go into the machine to pay for her T pass the night before, and she got waved through the turnstile.

"Because I had an extra dollar and I would have spent it anyway, I gave it to him," she said.

Money trickles into Sullivan's basket after that. There's a dollar from a Florida man traveling on business, $5 from the Taiwanese vacationer who takes a video of Sullivan with her Cyber-shot, a buck from an older lady who says Sullivan reminds her of her grandnephew.

But most just pass by.

By noon, Sullivan has garnered about $16. Not bad, he says, but not great.

"You can't think about the money when you're playing; that's like the worst thing you can do to yourself. You gotta get people listening . . . you gotta win their hearts in three minutes," Sullivan says. But, he notes, "in better times, money would be flowing by now."

He shrugs and keeps on playing.

And, as the first chords of his song reverberate through the station, even those people busy fiddling with their cellphones, reading their books and trying to look uninterested, cock their heads as one and unconsciously begin tracking Sullivan's music like flowers turning toward the sun.

Maybe tomorrow, one or two will find a dollar to give him.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

© 2009 NY Times Co.
- Boston Globe


"Acid Guitar", Buskers World, 2008

"Becky's Tune", track 7 with Michelle Shocked n "Give Us Your Poor", Appleseed, 2007.

"Street Music", Buskers World, 2006

"Romance", Buskers World, 2006.

"Buskers Jam, Whiz Bang Deal Band", Buskers World, 1995.

"Blake and Sullivan", Rizzutti Studio, 1992.

"Harmony River Band', Irving Productions, 1989.

"MSG", Preston Studios, 1986.

"Street Lites", Irving Productions, 1984.



Michael Sullivan is Rev. Busker. A multi-talented musician and high priest of busking, he has toured North America since 1977. "Beckys Tune" with Michelle Shocked is on Appleseed's "Give Us Your Poor" CD about poverty in America with Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Bon Jovi.