TO BE A STREET MUSICIAN
★ ★ ★ ★
By Matt Dennison
As a child, part of me always preferred being alone, in the woods, fishing or looking for rocks—especially geodes: the secret within the secret—fossils, skeletons, arrowheads and the like. Doing this, and being rewarded, time after time, with the discovery of something unique, beautiful, and, most times, small enough to hold in your hand, taught me faith in the process, the walk. There may be nothing in front of you at the moment, but if you keep walking along the riverbed, deeper into the woods, you will find something of value: an encapsulation of the universe in a perfect leaf, an undisturbed fossil, a snapping turtle caught when a fish was expected—or later, in the French Quarter, a new embodiment of suffering and celebrant humanity.
A song is something small enough to hold in your hands, for that is what it passes through—the secret within the secret—and makes you realize how large your hands actually are.
To be a solo street musician is to be a lover exposed. Is to be in love with mystery, magic and the night—music and all its dreamlike passing inhabitants. Is to be present. Is to give to the beggars, receive from the beggars, embrace the freaks and saints and be embraced by same. Is to be in love with the spirit and giving of song; to be hungry, tired, bone thin and vital. Is to walk miles every day, absorbing, filtering and distilling life. Is to desire, above all else, to penetrate and be penetrated by the magic of a shared humanity. Is to want to inhabit and be inhabited by that, for what better place could there be? Is to retreat into one’s personal revival night after night, no matter how many attendants: the purpose being to disappear in the snake-handling blister of ecstasy—to catch fire, to be fire—and perhaps a scattering of coins at your feet.
Every day I would get off the streetcar at Canal Street and carry my guitar through the French Quarter, heading for a favorite street corner or spot in Jackson Square. And one day I realized it was the very same thing as carrying my fishing pole through the woods, that setting down my tackle box, baiting the hook and making that first cast was the same act as setting down my guitar case, opening up and beginning to play. Me the worm, song the hook. I think most creative acts are reminiscent of fishing, that extending of yourself into the unknown. It’s like shaking hands with God, when the fish hits, when the word-thought appears, when the song soars. When the kiss occurs. Doesn’t always happen—sometimes it’s the wrong bait, wrong time, wrong place, wrong lips—but when it does you know it.
Through the combination of both worlds I witnessed nature and humanity’s full display.
Another benefit of entering the nightly dream was the meeting of musicians from all over the world. I played with a one-legged British mandolin player (who would stab a fork into his wooden leg for drunken laughs), Canadian fiddle player, Chicago blues harp player, Japanese bluegrass guitarist, a “click-tongue” African drummer… And though we didn’t always speak each other’s language, we shared the language of music and the desire for ecstasy (even if we didn’t admit it, claimed only to want nickels tossed at our feet, food placed in our bellies).
Poverty fed our souls with richness, received in the hungry, begging not begging but giving night. And though even the best of us were far from angels, and like any gathering of humanity we had our fair share of degenerates, freaks and those afflicted with what can only be described as common assholery, so did our passing crowds, each mirroring the other.
When, years later, I took my then-thirteen-year-old daughter to New Orleans for her first visit, I realized how far removed I had become from my protean self, how I had shifted from inhabitant to observer. Wanting to present only the beauty of the place as a tour guide of sorts, I found myself unable to share with her the poverty bliss I had experienced. For back then a day was the equivalent of a hundred years, in terms of density of experience, and could not be explained with a passing story.
Not even the story of how I arrived in New Orleans on a Greyhound bus with twenty dollars in my pocket, enough, then, to get a room at the YMCA at Lee Circle, where I lived for a week before finding a job at a Bourbon Street restaurant and a rooming house on Dauphine Street. Or later, in the empty room next to mine in another rooming house, finding a trunk containing hundreds of exchanged letters between a Sven and a Gilda, all written in Swedish, dated 1948-1952. Or how, in yet another rooming house, I discovered the letters of a woman who claimed even God hated her. Or how I lived in what was once an abandoned Catholic convent with a very artistic couple with sixteen bathtubs and sixteen toilets, huge rooms above and below and one massive staircase to separate us— how they would speak to me from it. How I was starving as they made their art, and used to sneak into their pantry to slip my finger inside their peanut butter jar, snip a piece of cracker…
Or how, one night, while strapping on my guitar to play on my favorite Royal Street corner I noticed a crowd to my left watching two cowboys kicking an old black man on the ground with their black cowboy boots. Taking aim, taking turns, taking time. Choosing the best spot to wound. One woman saying, “Someone really should do something…” Handing my guitar to a stranger and walking over to the man, bending down, seeing a boot out of the corner of my eye slicing through the air, exploding blood onto my face as the cowboys strode away, laughing.
Or how, unable to afford the bus, I would walk miles to the Hare Krishna temple on Esplanade Avenue, past the black gospel church with its ringing hymns, to eat free rice on Sundays. How one man bowed down to me. How another told me I stank.
I could not tell her these things. I could only point and say, ‘Isn’t it pretty?’
And it was.
This song was written while watching the Mississippi River one night, just off Jackson Square at a place called the Moon Walk.
This song was written while living in the abandoned convent. It was a rainy day and my side door opened onto a small courtyard.
After a rather extended and varied second childhood in New Orleans (street musician, psych-tech, riverboat-something-or-other, door-to-door poetry peddler, etc.), Matt Dennison finished his undergraduate degree at Mississippi State University where he won the National Sigma Tau Delta essay competition (judged by X.J. Kennedy). His work has appeared in Rattle, Natural Bridge, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and Cider Press Review, among others. He has also made short films with Michael Dickes, Swoon, and Marie Craven. He currently lives in a 112-year-old house with ‘lots of potential’ and can
be reached at [email protected]