Madame X

Carolyn McInroy died last week. She was part of the Fat Albert’s open stage community. She played Ukulele and when she performed referred to herself as Madame X. She sung covers and I recall she especially loved Bob Snider’s work. Actually she loved the whole spectrum of characters – the genius, the homeless, the narcissist, the humble, the flirtatious, the stars and the starstruck. Twenty years ago she contributed this about her own busking in Toronto:

In Thoreau’s day, men led lives of quiet desperation. These days they’re still desperate, but they’re not all that quiet about it. A woman of the streets like myself observes such things during her time spent on the sidewalks and the boulevards of this great city of ours as a street musician. I’ve gained no wisdom, no encouragement, no support that I didn’t already have. I wasn’t expecting to find any of the above on corners as I played my tin whistle. I hit the pavements armed with the knowledge that any money I earned was to be treated as an unexpected bonus, and any praise from people was just confirmation of what I knew when I began.

If people notice and like what I’m doing, wonderful, but I don’t expect them to. If they don’t, it’s still good, because I’m doing something I enjoy. I don’t depend on money I earn on the streets. I’d be in big trouble if I did! Lucky for me, I have another source of income. And lucky for me that I start work at 5 in the evenings on weekdays, which leaves my days free to do what I want. I don’t go out and make street music every day, because, like many people, I have a busy life and family obligations. But when I do, I experience a strong sense of being my own boss, because I choose my spot, I choose what to play and I keep 100 per cent of my earnings. Most of the time it’s not even enough for a coffee sometimes it’s nothing. Even when the tin plate is empty, though, I’ve lost nothing by standing there playing music I enjoy. I remember reading something about Gordon Lightfoot when he was brought in as an adviser for Canadian Idol. One of the contestants identified herself as a busker but confessed she didn’t make much money. Lightfoot said busking should be considered practice. He meant practice for greater things, I guess, but I’m not that ambitious.

I sometimes go out and start playing without practising first, and at those times I feel like I’ve let myself down. I need to run through my tunes for an hour or so before I hit the street or I won’t be happy with the way I sound. Most passersby know little and care less about what I’m doing, and it might not make much difference to them if I make mistakes. I’m a self-taught blowhard who was inspired as a child by watching The Friendly Giant on CBC. How I loved his gentle presence, his patience with those dopey puppets (the goofy giraffe and that hokey rooster) and, most of all, his mastery of the recorder. Recorders were the only musical instruments available at my little public school tucked away in a woodsy, semi-rural corner of Pickering. Some of my more easily impressed classmates were wowed by my ability to squawk out such popular tunes as Windy and Downtown completely by ear. To this day, Friendly is the gold standard for what I wish I could achieve as a recorder player. Classical music is out of the question, because I’m too undisciplined to take the time to learn to read notation or even what key I’m playing in.

I play entirely from memory. I can only dream of aspiring to the smooth flow of notes and superior breath control of Friendly in Early One Morning, his signature tune, the song that always heralded the cow’s floating leap over the cardboard moon. My heart always wobbled a little, just like that cow, as I watched her being borne into the clouds on those effortless high notes of his. When I play it, I always feel like a pale imitation of the master. It takes lots of breath to really make a tin whistle sound good. Inspired by great Irish musicians like Paddy Moloney and Sean Potts of the Chieftains, I’ve learned some Celtic tunes. But once this spring when I was playing at Yonge and Bloor, a man gave me a toonie, then turned back and yelled, as he walked off, “Louder!” That’s when I realized that I tend not to play very loudly because I don’t expect people to react to me it’s only about every 30th person who does.

Twice I’ve had people make a point of sitting down on benches or railings nearby and listening for a few minutes, then giving me money and thanking me for the music because they found it so peaceful. Some folks take my playing as a reminder to call someone. They park themselves a foot away from me, get out the cellphone, ring up a pal and start yakking. The mass of people seem unable to care. They’re too wrapped up in their own concerns to bother with beggars, Outreach Connection vendors or charity canvassers. Why should a street musician be any different? Watching people is always fun especially children. Their wondering reaction to seeing someone playing a recorder, an instrument they themselves might own toy versions of, is a joy. Yes, it’s kid stuff, what I do. I guess I’m a child at heart, because the Friendly Giant is still my hero. Even though he’s gone, I still look way up to his shining example of gentle, understated music. I don’t necessarily believe it can make the world a better place, but I believe it has its own place amid the noise and the haste. That’s the place I like to be in, and passersby with ears and soul tuned to peaceful music can join me there if they like.

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