Tunnel Buskers

Devonshire Street Tunnel
Devonshire Street Tunnel

I was reminded today of Joseph Love, the first registered “busker” in modern Australian history. He was the eldest son of my GGGGG-Grandparents, John and Martha Love, who’d come to Australia as free settlers in 1792.

As a blind man, Joseph was unable to do much of the work necessary in the early days of European settlement. However, he was apparently a gifted musician, and in her book, “The Rocks”, Grace Karskens tells the story of how Joseph was given a licence to the play the violin for money on the streets of Sydney in the early days of European settlement.

Although he wasn’t called a “busker” per se, I guess that’s just what he was. And perhaps it’s because of that genealogical connection, or maybe it’s because of my upbringing amongst the hippies of Northern NSW (we weren’t hippies), I’ve always found the buskers of the Devonshire Street tunnel to be quite fascinating and charming, if not also totally eccentric.

Looking back on the twelve years I’ve lived in Sydney, I guess I must have walked through the tunnel several thousand times. Except for the occasions when it’s raining, or I’m starting work before six AM, or I’m just feeling too lazy, I pass through the tunnel twice each working day and sometimes on the weekend.

As I was walking through the tunnel this afternoon, a workmate asked me what I thought of the buskers who inhabit the tunnel for much the day, sometimes as early as six AM. “Mostly pretty awful”, I told him, declaring emphatically, however, it would be impossible to name the worst.

If you’ve never walked through the tunnel, or maybe you have, here are some of the people you’re likely to encounter (along with a description of what they do, and the nicknames I’ve assigned them).

Mr Mix 106.5: He’s an Asian man with a penchant for John Denver, Billy Joel, and other middle of the road pop you’re likely to hear during “Love Song Dedications” on Sydney radio station, Mix.

Jamaica Man: Again with a guitar, and with a penchant for the more middle of the road style of pop, he’s a large man of possibly West Indian extraction. He always has a smile on his face and thanks people who leave money in his tray.

Rasta Man: He doesn’t sing or even play an instrument. He just sits there grooving along to his boom-box.

Boom Box Boy: A young man – maybe late teens – who does a terrific impersonation of a drum machine. As it looks like he might be homeless, or at least on a low income, I’ve given him money on a few occasions.

Jimmy Little’s Sister: Actually, she really is the sister of legendary Australian singer, Jimmy Little. I haven’t seen her lately, but I remember with fondness her repertoire of popular folk songs from the likes of The Seekers.

Koala Didj Man: An Aboriginal bloke who simply strums his guitar with the occasional burst of didjeridoo. He’s accompanied by a fluffy koala toy.

String Man 1: An older Asian man who plays a traditional instrument consisting, it seems, of nothing more than a piece of string. Ghastly.

And that brings me to the non-musical buskers of the Devonshire Street tunnel.

String Man 2: He sells little pieces of string. I suspect they might be body adornments, though I’m not entirely sure.

Face Lady: An older English woman who claims to be able to predict the future by “reading” your face.

Pen Man: An older man who has been unemployed for close to a decade, but who sells ballpoint pens to supplement his income. He always look so very sad.

Jesus Loves You Man: A younger bloke who walks through every morning smiling, declaring loudly, “Jesus Loves You” or “You’re Beautiful”.

Since I moved to Sydney in 1995, the tunnel hasn’t really changed all that much, although they did change the murals a couple of years ago. Even when they closed the tunnel a few years ago for several months to install shops nearer to the Henry Dean Plaza, it looked basically the same when it re-opened with those awful green tiles.

And throughout all that time the tunnel’s buskers have remained as eccentric as ever. Some of them have been and gone, some have been there for as long as I can remember. Sometimes they’re infuriating, sometimes they lack any musical talent, but they certainly help to make the trip to and from work at the same time both unpredictable and predictable, if you know what I mean.

So in recognising the buskers of the Devonshire Street tunnel, spare a thought also for the memory of young Joseph Love, the blind musician who was the first “registered busker” in modern Australian history.

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