On the first Friday of every month, downtown Goshen is brimming with people of all ages engaging in the act of busking. Some do it for fun, some for money; but what exactly is busking? Caleb Sawin, a sophomore at Goshen College, explained it as “a term for going out and playing on streets, in public, usually for festivals or large gatherings of people.” An experienced busker, he can be seen playing and singing on First Fridays in Goshen; since this reoccurring event draws more people than the usual downtown crowd, he feels it “gives him more reason to play.”Sawin sings and accompanies himself on banjo, guitar, and harmonica. When asked how long he has been singing, he laughed and replied “forever.” His father was a music teacher, so growing up, Caleb lived with his very own vocal coach. He has been singing for seven years “in earnest.”
In addition to his singing, he really draws crowds with his banjo, which he has been playing for six years. It is harder to sing with a banjo, he said, which tends to be a difficult instrument to tune, but the technique with which he plays makes it as much a rhythmic instrument as a stringed instrument. The banjo also has less depth in its sound than a guitar, so he likes to use it for his more lively songs. One of those songs happens to be one of Sawin’s favorites, “Looking Out, ” by Brandi Carlile. The song’s lyrics tell a relatable story and its upbeat rhythm adds variety to his performance and helps keep the mood light. Another of his favorites to play and sing is the spiritual “I’ll Fly Away.” “The song gives me the chance to really use the banjo,” he said.
Besides complying with the frequent requests for either “Dueling Banjos” or something by popular folk band, Mumford and Sons, Sawin performs a range of songs in various genres such as bluegrass, southern folk music and a bit of country and jazz.
“I would describe my vocal and playing style as old-timey,” Caleb said, “old-timey, American music.”
He prefers to stick to songs that are shorter, around three to four minutes, so that his listeners can enjoy a whole song or even two without having the feeling that they’ve been standing there for too long.
As a busker, he plants himself at the intersection of Main Street and Washington in downtown Goshen and always stays within a block of this space. “It’s familiar and pretty frequented, but far enough away from the main stage to not be a distraction [on First Fridays],” he explained.
Although he does enjoy the hubbub of Goshen, he is perhaps more familiar with performing in his hometown in Kansas, where, two years ago, he began his vocation as a busker. Sometime in late September, the town holds an arts festival so largely attended that the main streets into the town are blocked off to accommodate for the people, stands and general activity during the fair. Some restaurants close and set up food stands to be convenient for customers, who would prefer to mill about in the streets. Caleb played at this huge event for two years in a row and experienced positive reception from his listeners; the same goes for his ventures here in Goshen.
“I can really command a room,” Sawin said, “and I love the connection between a street musician and their audience. People can really tell I enjoy [performing].” He believes that it is an overall better experience when the performer is performing for the sole purpose of entertaining him/herself, rather than doing it for the attention.
He does accept monetary donations, and sets out his case for that purpose, but he never puts up a sign or requests money. “I believe that if someone’s performance is engaging enough for you to stop then they deserve a bit of money,” he said, and clarifies that he does not play for the money, but appreciates the show of support from his audience.
Sawin said that one night at First Friday in Goshen, after he had already packed up and was heading home for the night, a man stopped him and was fairly dismayed that he had missed the “show.” Without hesitating, Caleb pulled out his banjo and performed “I’ll Fly Away” for the man, who was so excited by the piece that he proceeded to thank Caleb with “a firm handshake and a bag of donuts.”
Another night in Kansas, Caleb had decided to move locations when he came across a fellow busker playing guitar and singing. Jared, the musician, and Caleb began to play some contemporary hymns together and ended up passing several more hours jamming together.
Said Sawin, “That’s what I love: that music has the capacity to break down barriers.”