Bothersome buskers and Twitter twits


TwitterBusking is a very ancient art, the blogging and tweeting of another age. Like the blogger and the tweeter, the busker can unselfconsciously, and regardless of ability, command a certain amount of public attention.

You can sing in tune or sing flat, hit the note or miss it, forget the words or make them up. Just as bloggers can turn a stylish paragraph or churn out self regarding rubbish and tweeters can report every breath they draw on the assumption that the world is waiting for the news.

Some buskers, however, are bloggers in disguise, bloggers without the technology. I wouldn't have minded hearing Emma Ayres busking for Queensland flood relief and perhaps it was her talented example that caused me to exhibit a fatal moment of hesitation the other day in Rundle Mall.

'My grandfather,' said the nearest busker, latching on to my indecisive groping for some coins, 'my grandfather used to walk the 'susso' tracks during the Depression.'

He was taking a break from his song. I use the singular advisedly because his repertoire was basically 'Goodnight Irene'. He sang it straight, hummed it, whistled bits of it, yodelled it. But it was always 'Goodnight Irene'.

His voice, honed and gravelled by a lifetime's unfiltered tobacco and strong drink, rasped by age and disappointment, edged with the cynicism of a thousand defeats, had unique, ear-assaulting qualities beyond the reach of metaphor or comparison.

'The 'susso' was sort of like the dole is now,' he said, 'it was short for sustenation or somethin' like that. What they'd do, they'd walk from place to place in the bush takin' on whatever jobs were available. Sometimes they'd cut wood, sometimes dig postholes, sometimes they'd be dunny men. You know about the dunny men?' I did, but I could feel a refresher course coming up.

'In the bush townships they'd have the old thunderboxes and the dunny men would come along and take away the full one and leave an empty. My granddad swore he whipped one right out from under some woman up around the mallee somewhere. Her natural reaction was to get away as quick as she could and so out she comes into the light of day ...'

I assembled some coins from several pockets.

'Dangerous work of course. See, they used to get corroded. The welds at the bottom of the can would rust out. Well, me granddad reckons one day he saw a bloke hoist a full one on to his shoulder — they had special pads, like, for the weight and everything. And just as he got it settled, the whole bloody bottom drops out. The woman from the house had to come out and hose him down.

'He was never the same again apparently. Well, you wouldn't be, would you?' I dropped my coins into the dark, greasy innards of his inverted hat but he transfixed me with a beady eye.

'Mind you,' he said, 'by the same token is, I reckon it wasn't as tough as those old codgers made out. Take my granddad. He had five kids and a wife who'd won a few quid in the ring. Those women boxer troupes would take on the blokes in the bush and hammer the shit out of 'em as often as not and she was a champ. Anyway, as you can imagine, the old granddad knew which he rathered when it came down to bein' home or on the track. Even the dunny run was better, accordin' to him.'

A young woman hurrying past flipped a 20c piece into the hat. 'Thanks, luv,' he said. Since he wasn't singing at the time, perhaps she was buying his silence.

'By the same token is,' he went on relentlessly, 'I reckon it's just as hard here makin' a fool of yourself singin' for a crust as it was for them blokes in the old days carryin' a swag. Healthier, of course out on the track. Fresh air, sunlight and all that sort of bullshit. But, as me granddad used to say, I've never had a gulp of fresh air that I wouldn't swop for a bloody lamb chop.

'By the same token is, at least they actually got jobs. I lost mine when this global financial bullshit set in. So I dusted off me guitar and here I am, comfortable enough, though the super's not too flash and you wouldn't want to get crook.'

He picked up his guitar, strummed a couple of discords that somehow jarred all the way to your back teeth and said, 'Well, mate, gotta get on. No rest for the wicked.' I left, waving goodbye.

'Now me and my wife are parrrrting ...'

I'm with you, Irene. He's a good bloke, but you couldn't stick with that voice. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Twitter, blogs, busker, Goodnight Irene



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Existing comments

Why censor the rich, Brian Matthews, rather than the poor?
Joyce | 18 February 2011

I'm not much interested in twittering and blogging, Brian, but I'm glad I read on to your colourful story - a joy I'd have been sorry to miss. I loved the line about fresh air and lambchops.
Joe Castley | 18 February 2011

Why censor the poor, Brian Matthews, rather than the rich? The bothersome busker may have been annoying you but at least he's not harming others. I don't use twitter or send text messages (so much to do, so little time) yet I've just heard that a Chinese boy who had been abducted has been found thanks to all the tweets his father and helper managed to generate.
Joyce | 18 February 2011


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