Busking is a puzzling phenomenon. If you're lucky, playing music on the street can make you famous. If you're not, it can get you arrested. This Saturday, dozens of local musicians will live on the edge, performing tunes on State Street to raise funds for the Literacy Network of Dane County.
No one's in danger of arrest, thanks to a good cause and a few accommodating ordinances. But the Literacy Network risks losing some of its most important programs. Its parent organization, the United Way, has faced budget challenges for several years, leading to a $17,000 funding cut. That nearly decimated reading classes that help local residents work their way toward better jobs and college degrees. Last year's hour-long Busking for Books event raised almost $1,800 to keep the classrooms open. This year, the organizers hope to raise even more, enough to support at least a limited class schedule.
"In 2010, we had 880 people go through these classes, which are free and open to anyone in the community," says Literacy Network executive director Jeff Burkhart. "They're an essential service, helping people make advances at work and feel more comfortable about applying to tech school. Students tell us they see more possibilities for their lives after taking them. So we're taking matters into our own hands to support our learners."
Last year, nearly 60 local troubadours played the event, filling State Street with acoustic rock, folk, blues and more. Burkhart says this year promises an even more diverse array of musicians.
Variety is what makes the event so fascinating, according to Busking for Books cofounder (and Isthmus contributor) Andy Moore.
"It's an act of guerrilla benevolence, showcasing both the huge heart and huge range of talent in Madison's music community," Moore says. "There are high schoolers on one corner, kitty-corner to an acoustic punk act, down the street from an African drumming troupe. It may be one of the most unique two hours of live music performance in the country."
Moore's Americana band, Winn Dixie, will stake out the Chocolate Shoppe corner for the second year in a row, showcasing wild solos as they collect tips in hats and instrument cases. "There's a friendly, unspoken competition among acts to raise as much money as possible, so everyone is out to play their best," he says.
All 27 locations have been spoken for, as well as makeshift stages near Library Mall and the Veterans Museum. The roster of performers includes Burkhart's old-time trio Barley Brothers, singer-songwriter Katie Powderly, bluegrass ensemble Northern Pikers, Arabic songsters Al-Khemia, and Centro Hispano director Kent Craig on the jazz vibraphone. Local groups that often perform plugged-in, such as the reggae band Taki Allstars, will show off their acoustic chops as well.
Some of the most eagerly anticipated attendees aren't musicians. They're the folks the Literacy Network has helped. "We're really excited to have some of our learners there to talk about their experiences. A few of them may also play," Burkhart says.
And perhaps something even bigger will come out of Madison's busking experiment. After all, celebs like Bruce Springsteen, KT Tunstall and even Benjamin Franklin have a history of busking. Maybe Busking for Books will spawn the next local pop star. Or Enlightenment icon.