Busking in Corvallis: Local Tradition, and a Fistful of Dollars

Emily is a self-taught guitar player who sang choir as a kid. She’s only been busking for a year or so, recently moving to Corvallis from Portland. She really likes it here, because “there’s a lot of musicians, but it’s not too big. People are really supportive, it’s a really good environment for busking.” On only her second time playing the Corvallis Farmers’ Market, she did “really well” financially. Portland, on the other hand, is “a lot more competitive, it’s a lot bigger. It’s also louder, so I can’t just busk with a guitar… you’d need a full band.” The playlist of favorite songs in her repertoire include Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” and the Appalachian folk song “Cumberland Gap,” as well as some old country songs.

Emily has been busking for a year.
Emily has been busking for a year.

“Support your buskers,” Emily says. “They will remember and appreciate it, and then you’ll have more free music.”

Tom has been busking for a decade in Corvallis. He says the busking scene is active here, and while he doesn’t make a whole lot of money, “it’s a fun thing, you know.” His musical partner, Marsha, has been playing with him for two years.

“It’s fun,” Marsha says. “You’ve got this city ordinance that allows people to busk anywhere, and I think it’s been a real encouragement for people to come out and try busking. A lot of cities run you off. There’s just so many good musicians in Corvallis, it’s a wonderful place for people who are starting out, or people who have played for a long time to practice. This is pretty extraordinary for a little city like this to have kind of a bigger vision about, you know, let’s encourage all the arts.”

The city ordinance she speaks of is Corvallis Municipal Code This landmark legislation makes Corvallis unique amongst Oregon municipalities, most of whom limit or forbid busking. Rebecca Landis, market director of the Corvallis Farmers’ Market, which sees around 5,000 adults pass through on a busy Saturday, explained the origins of the law. Around a decade ago, Rob Gandara, then a Corvallis city counselor, was looking to make the Riverfront a cooler place—the original busking ordinance applied only to the Riverfront area. When his request for legalized busking went to the city attorney, they informed him they’d have to change a whole bunch of ordinances about begging, many of which were very old laws on the books. A few years later, circa 2010, a semi-homeless man named Dale Combes wanted to make sure busking could occur anywhere in town, and petitioned to have the busking ordinance expanded from just the Riverfront to the whole town. He was joined in his quest by the

A rockin' dance floor forms behind two members of Gumbo.
A rockin’ dance floor forms behind two members of Gumbo.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who wanted to expand the legal right to beg—not just busk—as a form of free speech. The City Council wrestled with the issue, holding a plethora of meetings. The Oregon Department of Justice weighed in, informing the city that begging is protected in the state. The final version of the law defines busking to include “singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, other performances, as an inducement to the giving of alms.”

In that spirit, the guys in Gumbo have been jamming in Corvallis for eight years, playing the very same spot at the farmers’ market the whole time, and they love it. Joe, Michael, and Syd started when the market started, happy it gave them a venue where “people can come by, with their dogs, and you can see everybody.” Beginning last year, and fully flourishing this season, an impromptu dance floor has formed on the sidewalk behind them, with as many as a dozen people at once dancing away to Gumbo’s groovy tunes.

Gina, the only musician actually booked by the farmers’ market for the day, has been playing music for 25 years. She’s been playing here in Corvallis for a few years after taking a decade off to raise her kids. She plays many different venues, from retirement and assisted living facilities to Imagine Coffeehouse. She has a day job as a waitress, but busking is a hearty supplement to her income, helping pay the mortgage.

Syd jams on the accordion.
Syd jams on the accordion.

“It makes it pretty possible for us to make a living,” Gina says. “This is my favorite thing to do; I’d be doing this at home, so I might as well be out here.”

She plays everything from classical guitar to Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin covers, as well as a Sade song. She’s currently recording an album so her kids will have a permanent record of her recordings, having grown up hearing her play all the time.

Sagan and Jake, who appear to be teenagers themselves, play soothing classical music. Jake on violin and Sagan on the cello have been playing their individual instruments for six years or so, playing together for the last two. While they’ve played for people before, this was their first time busking. Market-goers seemed to appreciate these virgin buskers, exemplified by an instrument case full of appreciative cash.

“It’s really fun!” Jake says. “It’s kind of a positive reward when they drop in some money; it means they like it.”

At the other end of the musical spectrum, Syd, a drifter who’s “just passing through” Corvallis, made a bunch of money playing a saw—an actual metal saw—in Santa Barbara, and used the proceeds to buy the accordion he plays now. Shirtless and sweaty, wildly belting Tom Waits tunes, he manages to pull in donations, with a $5 bill lying proudly in his accordion case amongst a smattering of singles and change.

“I play very spastically, and I actually do very serious damage to this accordion, but I think it sounds good for it.”

“Accordions,” he adds, should be played “violently, they should not last.” He double-checks with a farmer selling organic vegetables at a nearby stand, worried he’s playing too loudly, but is heartily encouraged to, “Have at it, man.” This is Corvallis, after all.

By Seth Aronson