Tourists passing through the streets of Paris, Toulouse or Aix-en-Provence in France might be surprised to come across a man dressed in black playing the finest and authentic old-style American blues. He goes by the name ‘Jim Bruce’ and firmly believes that an artists must give his absolute best, whether he’s performing in the Albert Hall or on an unknown street corner. Of course, most people look down on these buskers, but among the also-rans there are thoroughbreds like Jim. It’s well known that several very famous musicians have played on the street for just one day, to test the reaction of the public. Incredibly, they are mostly ignored, as the dogma surrounding street musicians is all-pervasive.
Street musicians are a dying breed in Europe, at least in the old romantic style. In times past, all kinds of music was represented for passers-by, including traditional folk styles and the finest classical music played on a variety of instruments. Within the genre of American blues, street performance was often the bread and butter for an itinerant blues guitar player. Many musicians in the early part of the twentieth century played for pennies outside stores, bars and tobacco houses – anywhere that people gathered or frequented in their daily lives.
It must have been a hard life for sure. The best gigs may include playing for three or four hours at a party or similar kind of celebration. Often, the pay was simply some drinks, a meal and a bed for the night. For a young man, it wasn’t a bad life – much better than working in the fields for fifteen hours a day, for example. Other men had little choice but to follow this life-style. Born blind, several notable blues men traveled the states playing and earning a living where they could. The lucky ones were recorded during the Race Records popularity, and some even became quite wealthy by the standards back then. It’s a sad fact that for every blues man known today, there were a hundred unknown musicians doing exactly the same thing for little reward.
The blues tradition of playing on the street is still alive and well in Europe. Notably, Jim Bruce is a well known blues man and teacher who still sings the old-style blues on the streets of France. Years ago, it was a necessity that became a pilgrimage – to follow in the footsteps of the old blues men and keep the tradition alive. ‘Keep It Real’, Jim says, and that’s exactly what he does, appearing in a black suit and hat in the old style and finger-picking blues and ragtime in the classical way.