In Defense Of Bucket Boys, Street Performers & Creative 'Noise'

By Stephen Gossett in News on Feb 22, 2017 7:26PM

One man's cultural institution is another man's noise pollutant. For those of us who value downtown street musicians as part of the city's inimitable fabric, the latter impulse seemed poised to win the day as aldermen were slated to consider a street performance-stifling proposal on Wednesday.

The proposed ordinance was ultimately stalled from consideration for at least one month amid legal threats from the ACLU. But the fact it even reached this stage speaks louder than a Bucket Boy's drum to the City Council's misaligned priorities.

On the wings of a full-throated endorsement from the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, an ordinance that would have effectively silenced street musicians was poised to go in front of the City Council on Wednesday. The ordinance, introduced by Ald. Brendan Reilly (Ward 42) would have prohibited the emission of "noise" by performers that can be heard within 20 feet on two of downtown's busiest stretches: Michigan Avenue, between Cedar and Balbo; and State Street, between Huron and Jackson.

We're not without sympathy for the "thousands," according to Reilly, who have complained to his office about noise from street performers. Truly. This writer can vividly recall, when working near State and Randolph streets, how the sidewalk sax player's repeated Coltrane figure would transform from background ambience to brain-burrowing earworm.

Still, Chicago's vibrant and imaginative busker tradition is worth honoring and we should be careful about indiscriminately curbing so many voices. Gabriel Chapman documented the scene for a time at Chicago Street Musicians. In 2011, he recalled the moments of frisson when encountering genuine talent with the Reader. "I'd always hear musicians down [at the Washington Blue Line stop]," he said, "and being a musician myself, I really enjoyed listening. There's one guy in particular, Thomas White [a vocalist and electric guitar player]. After a long day, you can just chill there, just sit and listen, and not think for a minute about looking to your right to see if the train's coming. I would think, man, I just really like this." The ordinance doesn't affect any of the designated performance spaces in CTA stations, but the sentiment can easily be extended.

Some of our favorite performers would include the one-man band common to Michigan and Erie and the beloved Puppet Bike, but the most notable standouts have to be the Bucket Boys. Known to play along the corridors targeted by the ordinance, the DIY skinsmen—or the "pickle-bucket drum corps" as the Trib derisively dubbed them—are genuine icons. According to local filmmakers Jarrell and Jerome Lucas, who Kickstarted a documentary about the Bucket Boys in 2014, the tradition dates back to the Robert Taylor Homes and offers a model of creative entrepreneurship in the face of diminished opportunities.

Jerome told WBEZ in 2014:

"It’s hard to find a job on the South Side of Chicago. And at the end of the day I think people want to be creative and be paid to be creative at what the do. So, I think this is more like their first option ... to avoid being involved in gang violence and other things of that nature. It’s like, if you’re not beating a bucket then you’re involved in some type of gang violence, or you’re becoming a victim of gang violence. So like I said, they choose wisely. I think they are good decision-makers, very good decision makers."

“People admire them because they get out in all weather and do it as a job, using their God-given skill to make a living,” Jerome told the Red Eye that same year.

We admire them, also. And while the stalled ordinance doesn't altogether ban street music, and artists like the Bucket Boys would be perform in other parts of the city, it doesn't extend them and their creative brethren the admiration they've earned. Lets hope Reilly and the City Council keep that in mind in a month's time.