The making and breaking of street music

A Town Like New Orleans?
BBC2
The Mary Kenny Saturday TV Review
Daily Mail , 15 Aug 1981

They talk about books, plays, films, television programmes which ‘change your life,’ such is the dramatic impact.  Life changes come from inside the human soul, though, not from outside.

But last night’s programme A Town Like New Orleans? (BBC-2 – and the title refers to Leeds, of all places) had a direct influence on my behaviour. Having seen it, I deliberately went out and put money in every buskers collecting hat that I could see.

Busking musicians bring a little sprinkling of joy to city dwellers on their weary commutations and I think it is rotten that the law should persecute them, The programme was a rather unformed but patchily pleasant look at the number of amateur musical groups – at least 200 of them – who strive and sometimes thrive in Leeds.

And it featured on specially appealing saxophone player called Zero Slingsby (real name Matthew Coe) who often plays on the streets of northern towns – and plays very well.

Yet he has appeared in court more than 39 times on charges of begging, vagrancy and obstruction – the technical infringements of the law whereby buskers are persecuted.

It seems so unfair and such a silly law. Most people in my experience like the presence of street (and in London, underground train) musicians. If there is a real obstruction, or if, say, a shopkeeper actively complains, by all means move them on. But regarding busking as illegal is just joyless. Anyway, haven’t the police enough to do?

Not all the musicians featured in Ian McNulty’s documentary were as pleasant as Zero Slingsby. Some of them were a right pain in the neck.

The function of musicians is to make music, not to talk jargoned tripe. They should express their feelings, just as the black people of New Orleans once did in their spirituals and their blues. Funny, there were no blacks among the many groups in Leeds.

The range of music was varied, from jazz, rock and punk to lively Irish jugs and soul ballads. There was a young woman singing jazz, in the old style, called Carole Bell, who really deserves a chance to be a professional: Her talent recalled the tuneful jazz phrasing of Anita O’Day and her face shone with happiness as her voice sweetened the air.

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