Duluth singer, songwriter and violinist Gaelynn Lea plays few requests or cover songs on her worldwide tours, but the setlist changes dramatically when she performs for Canal Park tourists.
“I’ll play traditional fiddle tunes and classic songs like “Amazing Grace,” “What a Wonderful World” and “Over the Rainbow,” she said. “I don't play originals there because it's not a show. I do plenty of that in my regular life.”
On a sunny summer day, Lea picks a space on the Lakewalk near Lake Superior, sets out a tip collection case and works the violin for anyone who will listen. The age-old practice is called “busking,” making unannounced music for donation in a public place.
“I enjoy busking especially because it's not really about performing … you're just providing a service to the people walking by. Playing music to nourish the soul and connect with nature,” Lea said. “Sometimes people stop and have a conversation with you, and some people just smile and keep walking by. Both are fine with me.”
“Sometimes, when no one’s around, I just play for the seagulls.”
The city of Duluth has regulated buskers for more than a decade. Musicians must apply for a $40 performance permit. The permit then provides access to a Lakewalk entertainment zone between Endion Station and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or in Giche-ode’ Akiing, the former Lake Park Place. The city issued 35 permits this year, up from a previous cap of 25.
Duluth Parks Permit Coordinator Kraig Decker said permits allow the city to better control park space and ensure visitors have an enjoyable experience. He said the process is similar to food and vendor permitting.
“It’s pretty inexpensive compared to all our other stuff,” Decker said. “In all reality, they’re making money within the park, which is pretty similar to a commercial operation.”
An audition requirement was waived long ago, and buskers are not required to report income. Musicians must display permits at all times and stay within performance zones. Park rangers enforce the rules.
Still, Decker said the city welcomes buskers and even encourages performing.
“I think buskers and street performers are really fantastic and add a lot of life,” he said.
Last summer, city officials turned Buchanan Street, in front of the DeWitt-Seitz Building, into a traffic-free plaza. Buskers were hired to perform in the space. This summer, St. Louis County plans to pay musicians at its Civic Center mini-farmers market
“So the buskers are starting to become in higher demand … and working in other spots that weren’t previously approved,” Decker said. “I think the interest is growing and more (people) are saying: ‘Hey, this is pretty cool. Let’s try to grow this.’”
While some musicians don’t like the permit process and performance zone restrictions, most enjoy their time — and make a little money — working the busy Duluth waterfront.
Duluth guitar player, producer and music venue owner Jason Wussow said his band got its start about five years ago busking for tourists. Performing ska music as the band Woodblind, Wussow and Veikko Lepisto now perform regularly at bars, restaurants and street festivals across the Twin Ports.
“It was pretty fun,” Wussow said. “You never knew what Duluth is going to bring you. You’ll be out there and it will be sunny, then all-of-sudden, there will be a 40-mph wind and your guitar case will slam shut. But that’s the Lakewalk.”
Wussow said artists learn theatrical and audience engagement skills as they capture the attention — and win tips — from strolling tourists. The practice pushed the duo into new musical territory and made for a tighter band.
“Your friends will come and support you no matter what — but with people who don’t know you, it’s a little truer test,” he said. “That was part of the reason we did it, plus the fun and the sun and the beautiful lake.”
Singer-songwriter Jane Aas, who performs with Janie and the Spokes, said busking has provided valuable experience. Aas said she is relatively new to the entertainment world.
“It’s just so nice to be able to go down there and play,” she said. “For me it’s just getting more confident and doing things solo. Sometimes if I’m getting nervous and there’s a big group of people I say to myself, ‘Don’t stop. Keep playing.’ For me, it’s about inspiring self confidence.”
Aas will perch herself on a ledge and play for afternoon runners and downtown workers on lunch break. For older couples, she’ll sing a classic song from their era; young people will get snippets of current hit songs.
“There’s also a few originals when I’m feeling bold,” she said.
Aas and singer-songwriter Jacob Mahon said Lakewalk construction and limited “official” performance zones will make busking more difficult this summer. Mahon did not apply for a permit this year and said he will work Canal Park as an exile.
“My preferred spots were not legal busking spots anyway,” he said. “So even when I had a busking license, I was asked to leave those spots.”
Lea agreed. She purchases a permit every year to support the program but said the city needs to include performance zones near the Aerial Lift Bridge.
“It’s a shame,” she said. “That’s the most beautiful part of the Lakewalk, and it's where the most passersby are located. There just aren't as many people walking out by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, so you won't get as many tips, and you don't get to stare at the beautiful lift bridge while you play.”
Mahon said high-traffic-area performers can make about $15 and hour in tips. But busking isn’t about the money: “The worst thing about busking is going out hoping for money,” he said. “The joy of music doesn't come from money or other people's affirmation.”
Lea said her biggest joy as a busker comes from the children.
“I ask them to tell me their favorite song, and usually it's “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “Let It Go,” she said. “I know both of those.”
But one little girl requested the transcendent Prince anthem, “7.”
“I will never forget that adorable kid,” she said. “I think busking, if it's done in the spirit of fun and service, can really add a lot to the community.”