During our weekend in Dubuque, Kathy and I got to take a little side trip to the picturesque little hamlet of Galena, Illinois. . . a place with a lovely downtown district full of historic buildings, intriguing shops, and beautiful restaurants. We got to watch a real live blacksmith doing his thing- dined in a fantastic Italian restaurant (thank you, Kris Capel, for the recommendation)- saw the downtown hotel balcony from which Abraham Lincoln himself gave a speech back in 1854- and, of course, shopped and shopped and shopped.
But somehow, what hangs with me most potently from our trip to Galena was not any of the shops or historical sites- or even the spectacular Chicken Vinito I had for lunch. It was the street musician you see pictured above- someone I almost didn’t notice at all. Here’s how I encountered him: At the precise halfway point on main street through downtown is a long concrete stairway leading up a steep hillside to the next street above. On that street, according to a sign at the bottom, is the Galena Historical Museum, and I decided to dash up those stairs and just see what the museum looked like from the outside.
It was only as I was coming down those stairs again that I noticed for the first time this street musician – one of several, actually, who were playing and/or singing on the main street. Actually, I’m sure I at least saw him as I began climbing those stairs – but gave him scarcely a glance. But coming down those stairs (slowly, since they were rather treacherous) I got a good look at this guy – seated on what looked like a plastic milk crate, singing and playing both a guitar and a small bass drum, which he thumped via a foot pedal – a veritable one-man band. (The only thing missing was a pair of small cymbals suspended between his legs and a harmonica at his mouth.) My vantage point allowed me not only a clear view of him but also of the people passing by him on the sidewalk, briskly walking in both directions, paying absolutely no attention to him as far as I could tell. I looked both to the left and to the right, wondering if there might be a person or two standing off to the side, listening for a few moments- but no. As far as I could tell, I was this guy’s most interested listener at that moment in time. . . and I couldn’t even hear him!
It was such a poignant and even pathetic sight- and it made me think of those moments in my own life when I have felt such burning unhappiness because people didn’t seem to be paying sufficient attention to my music-making. That almost always happens when I play piano at parties -something I really don’t do anymore because it just feels so demeaning. In fact, the last time I did so – several years ago for a party of Racine dentists and their staffs- I came away feeling so utterly ignored (though well paid) that I haven’t played for such an event since. The three members of Caritas also remember what is for us an infamous case of being asked to sing for a company’s Christmas party – and finding ourselves all but completely inaudible, so relentlessly loud was the talking and laughing. We were given a very nice check for our time and trouble, but it did not begin to make up for how it felt to be so utterly ignored like that. And burned in my head is also an interesting moment I had several summers back when I emceed and sang with the Kenosha Pops down at a harbor event called the Tall Ships. All went well until the second to the last piece on the program, Carmen Dragon’s “America the Beautiful” – and just as I began singing, I realized that at the back of the audience was two members of the Wisconsin state legislature: two men I recognized because they have been on my radio program on numerous occasions. They were standing there, talking to each other- completely oblivious to my singing of this incredible song. And no matter how well I sang, and even as I soared to the big climax with the high G, they never once stopped talking- never once even glanced my way.
I’m not talking about all that to generate some sort of pity for me. In fact, I probably come off like a temperamental prima donna in those stories. But I mention them because I remember what it felt like to be sharing music and being ignored- (and in that last case, my unhappiness was because of just two members of that audience whose inattentiveness I couldn’t manage to ignore) . . . and here was this street musician, playing and singing his heart out and being met with nothing but seemed like callous indifference. What would that feel like? If I sat there long enough, would I have seen anyone stop to listen to him? And when this guy packs up his stuff and goes home, does he get to make music with other people? I’m haunted by those questions. . .
. . . and I’m also haunted by the fact that when I got to the bottom of the stairs, I joined all those other people who were in a big hurry to get to the next shop and did not linger for even a few moments to listen to and appreciate this guy’s performance.
I just got done playing for the vespers service at the Grace Institute – and I feel like every note I played and sang was not only appreciated but even cherished by this group of 35. But thanks to the street musician in downtown Galena, I am so profoundly appreciative- like I never have been before- of what a blessing it is for a musician to be listened to so intently and lovingly.
“. . . and hardly anyone listens. . .
. . . and hardly anyone cares. . .
. . . and hardly anyone seems to know
. . . that he is even there. . . “