Fiddling in the DC Metro

This past weekend, The Washington Post printed a column in their weekly magazine (click here for article) on a social experiment involving star violinist Joshua Bell. On a workday morning, Joshua brought his $3.5 million Stradivarius down into the Washington DC subway and stayed for most of an hour, performing against a wall at the top of the escalator leading down to the trains.

The article covers the reactions he received in some detail, and it’s a worthy read.


About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs. Peter founded Santa Barbara's Old Time Fiddler's Convention (1972), UCSB's Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps - three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled "The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music" (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 - 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, "BlueGrass West!", based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California. Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America's musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.
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1 Response to Fiddling in the DC Metro

  1. >Thanks, Peter, for linking up to that incredible story (a little
    >long-winded, and we might have dispensed with the heady discussion about
    >Kant and morality). Still, I used to do some busking in San Francisco
    >years ago and that story brought back a lot of familiar memories. One
    >thing I learned fairly quickly was that the tips you made had very
    >little to do with artistic mastery. On the street, you were there to
    >entertain, to call attention to yourself, to distract people from their
    >everyday routine and concerns.

    That was one of the things that struck me on reading the article. There is the component of “show business” in any form of music. Some extremely competent musicians have no concept of how to present themselves, while others, some even poor musicians, can create a “show” that captures attention.

    This is not to imply that Bell is not a showman, but he very obviously had no experience in busking, which as you and others have pointed out, has a different set of requirements than work in a concert hall. Indeed, every type of music has it’s own context in which the process usually unfolds. Change the context, and the entire experience changes.

    Many years ago, I took a couple of hours and created a “musical social status scale” for music in the USA, listing musical types and the reasons for their placement in presteige. At the top was opera, followed by symphonic and other “classical” presentations. The list went down through musical theater, pop musics, various types of jazz, “exotic musics”, blues (city and rural), western swing, and finally worked its way down (past rap & hip hop) to bluegrass and old time music. There, at the very bottom of the scale, was the music of the rural white farmer – with whom no American in his right mind would ever want to be associated. That old fiddle/banjo music represented ignorance, poverty, and an almost animal-like existance that no upwards striving human would want to acknowledge as their own.

    Take a look at “classical” music and its context: It is an example of an evolutionary process to project social status. The musicians wear a uniform intended to imply wealth and sophistication – black tie and tails. They perform in guilded concert halls on elaborate stages, red carpeting, plush seating, with marble walls in the lobbys that bear the names of wealthy patrons (and here we have a clue to the process) in “silver circles”, “gold circles”, “platinum circles” and “founders’ sections”. This music came into being in the courts of kings and other nobility. The entire setting caters to the wealthy; it is _designed_ to do so, as only the wealthy can support institutions such as opera companies and symphony orchestras. By doing so, with their names inscribed in letters of gold, they achieve as close a relationship to royalty as this country affords. Of course in Europe, the sucessful composers and performers had an actual relationship with royalty (or the church – perhaps even more wealthy than the kings) who sponsored their efforts. We’ll never know about those who didn’t have the social graces or the opportunity to show their wares before “proper” audiences (and so have an opportunity to give their works immortality), but we can thank Mr. God that persons like Bach and Mozart “made the cut” and lined up patrons. Indeed, it is said that Bach invited street musicians (buskers) onstage between his pieces – and I’ll bet he found performers with great chops to do so.

    Note this has nothing to do with the quality of the music, just that it needs social setting and context – similar to what Tony was speaking of re. the dearth of black fiddles. At any rate, take away the props, and the music may just fade into oblivion, like an orchid left outside in a Minnesota winter.


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