Stephen Baird - Street Performer

Artist + Advocate + Administrator


PO Box 300112, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130-0030


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The History and Cultural Impact

of Street Performing in America

by Stephen Baird © Stephen Baird 2019


Program Description

 Lecture and Performance: Avenues of Self Expression --The History and Cultural Impact of Street Performing in America

Appropriate for High School and College History Classes; University Urban Studies, Urban Design, Art History, and Civil Rights Classes.

Teacher Guide can be adapted to Primary and Secondary School geography, history and art curriculum.

Background and Profile on Stephen Baird

 A sidewalk minstrel from Boston with over three decades of performances, Stephen Baird, enchants young and old alike with wonderful stories, poems, jokes, and plenty of songs. His repertoire is seemingly endless, ranging from Irish ditties to ragtime to sing-a longs. With leprechaun charm, he accompanies himself on all manner of instruments; mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, autoharp, kazoo, tambourine, and the fascinating limber jack - a percussion instrument in the form of a wooden puppet toy. His legendary "bag full of surprises" includes elephant, bumble bee and tooth paste costumes to dress up the audience plus life size puppets. Stephen Baird makes a place where people meet and touch each other through art and music.

Stephen Baird, street singer, has toured forty-eight states and Europe, playing on street corners, at fairs, festivals, concerts, coffeehouses and over one hundred college campuses since 1971. Instrumental in legalizing street performing in Boston in 1973, he has since become nationally renowned as an advocate of street performing. He has been featured in Time, Newsweek, People, Nationa Law Journal, American Bar Association Journal and many other magazines, a PBS-TV documentary, and at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Stephen Baird restructured Club Passim, the historic folk music venue in Cambridge, as a nonprofit organization in 1995-1997, co-founded the Bread & Roses Festival in Lawrence in 1986, founded the Folk Arts Network in 1982, published the New England Folk Almanac and New England Folk Directory from 1982-1996, produced Jamaica Plain Open Studios and was the Executive Director of the Jamaica Plain Arts Council from 1999-2001. He is currently the Executive Director of Community Arts Advocates.

History of Street Performances

Avenues of Self Expression

by Stephen Baird

© Stephen Baird 2000-2019

Article appeared in New England Performer Magazine in 2000

From Ben Franklin to Tracy Chapman, Louis Armstrong to the Violent Femmes, the streets of this country have been the avenues of self expression for emerging artists and musicians. Entire art forms such as tap dancing to break dancing, jazz to blues, rock n' roll to rap singing have risen from the fusion of diverse artists who have performed on the streets of New York City, Boston, Chicago and New Orleans. The history of popular culture has direct roots in the history of street performances. Today the streets are still a dynamic stew of sounds and rhythms from around the world.

The emancipation of the slaves after the Civil War resulted in a flood of new artistic expression on the streets. The blues migrated up the Mississippi from Memphis to Chicago. Jazz migrated from Saint Louis to New Orleans. Eubie Blake performed on the streets of Baltimore and New York City. The legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson toured picnics and fairs from Texas to North Carolina. For details see: Historical References

Waves of immigrants from 1870 to the present day have found their voices and audiences on the streets and subway platforms. Irving Berlin and Eddie Cantor are the forebearers of the recent multitude of artists arriving from Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Musicians from Central and South America can be found on the streets of New York City, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco filling the air with the lilt of pan pipes. For details see: Historical References

Contemporary jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan who developed the "touch-technique-playing-style" performed on the streets of Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin before moving on to the streets of Boston and New York and greater recognition. Both Martin Sexton and Tracy Chapman performed on the street corners of Cambridge's Harvard Square, much like Joan Baez did three decades earlier. Paul Simon and James Taylor plied the street of London with their songs to earn cash for demo tapes.

For a deeper look at the opportunities and challenges for street performers read Passing the Hat - Street Performers in America (Delacorte Press) by Patricia J. Campbell and Underground Harmonies - Music & Politics in the Subways of New York (Cornell University Press) by Susie J. Tanenbaum. See: Books and References

Web sites to scan include <> (Street Festivals, Street Vendors, Street Performers, Maxwell Street in Chicago, etc), <> (Story on Santa Monica legal battle), <> (Stories by Rex Boyd on performing in Europe, plus David Cassel on performances in Australia and tips on how to start out). These professional vaudeville organization sites will lead to many individual site links to noted street performers around the world <>, <>, <>, <>. For hot links and more details see: Links and References

Boston was called the "Emerald City" of street performing by Patricia Campbell. Artists can perform in Downtown Crossing, Faneuil Hall Marketplace (Auditioned in March and scheduled April-October), There is no permit currently required in Boston (See this page for details on the 2004 Federal Court case: Boston Legal Battle 1972-2004. The MBTA issue permits for $25. A picture ID is required. It is a first-come, first-serve basis except for Harvard station. Meet at 7 am for a flip to cover the 7 am-12 noon shift, 12 noon-6 pm and 6 pm to closing shift. Amplification is allowed at 80db at low levels and you can sell your own CDs. See this page for links to subway sites around the world plus details on the MBTA permit: Subway Transit Artists

Harvard Square has been one of the country's hottest spots for over two decades. The permit to perform in Cambridge is available at the Cambridge Arts Council, City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139. The permit costs $40/person for one year (January 1st - December 31st), and covers all forms of street performing. It is valid for all public streets and parks of Cambridge between the hours of 7 am-11 pm (till 12 midnight Fri & Sat). Call 617/349-4380 for more information. Amplification is allowed at 80db at 25 feet and you can sell your own CDs. See: Cambridge Legal Battle 1973-2003

Washington Square Park, Central Park, Broadway show lines, farmers markets and subways all have been stages for artists in the Big Apple. New York City has been in the middle of legal battles for the past 10 years over amplification and performance restrictions in Central Park. For additional detail contact the NYC Street Performers Alliance & Coalition of Artists United for Self Expression (CAUSE) at 212-802-7549. See: New York City Street Entertainers 1700 - 2005

Federal court cases have given street performances First Amendment protection since Goldstein v. Town of Nantucket, 477 F. Supp., 606, (1979). Additional court cases include Davenport v Alexandria, VA 683 F2d 853 (1983), 710 F2d 148 (1983), 748 F2d 208 (1984); and Friedrich v. Chicago 619 F. Supp., 1129. (D.C. Ill 1985). The recent case of Robert Turley versus New York City confirmed this protection and argues only the limits of the city to regulate amplification. See: Legal Court Citations

Many cities in the northeast from Portland, Maine to Worcester, Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut, to Burlington, Vermont, to Ithaca New York embrace street performances. Street scenes are more active in the summer months and each city has their own regulations. For details contact local city clerks for the current legal status. See: Model Regulations

Cities across the country known for street performances include Philadelphia, Miami, Key West, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Madison, Boulder, Austin, Denver, Seattle, Eugene. Portland, San Francisco, Venice Beach (LA), Santa Monica and San Diego. College towns are often open for the impromptu spontaneous performance with a supportive young audience willing to take chances on new artists and art forms. See: Performance Locations World Wide

The opportunities are boundless. With a little fearless ambition and reckless faith in the moment of surprise the next street corner can become a Carnigie Hall where the most profound artistic experience can change the inner and outer landscapes.


Stephen Baird is founder of the Street Arts and Buskers Advocates and has performed on the streets of the United States, Canada and Europe since 1972. He also founded the Folk Arts Network and Club Passim. Currently he is the Founder and Executive Director for the Community Arts Advocates, Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts. For additional information write or call the Street Arts Advocates, PO Box 300112, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130-0030 USA Telephone: 617-522-3407 Email: Web site:


Suggested Activities Before the Performance

  1. Locate Boston (MA), Chicago (IL), Alexandria (VA), New Orleans (LA), New York City (NY) on a United States map.
  2. View the Performance Locations pages of the Street Arts and Buskers Advocates web site and point out locations on World map
  3. Discuss the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment and Bill of Rights
  4. Discuss the three branches of government: Legislative, Judiciary, Administrative and theory of checks and balances.
  5. View the historical and legal pages of the Street Arts and Buskers Advocates web site
  6. Acquaint students with information found in this guide.

Suggested Activities After the Performance

  1. Ask class members to imagine themselves as new immigrant artists and musicians
  2. Students may prepare a bulletin board display.
  3. Older students may research individula artists such as Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin, Tracy Chapman
  4. Ask students to recall games and songs they have learned informally such as "on the playground" or "in the neighborhood". You may wish to use the following discussion questions:

Vocabulary Words and Topics of Discussion







U.S. Constitution

State Constitution

First Amendment

Bill of Rights

Civil Rights

Related Study Topics

Social Studies

Settlement of various groups of people in the United States
  1. Native American Indians
  2. European Immigrants
  3. African Americans
  4. More recent immigration of Asians, Central Americans, Russians...


Students can find performance locations on U.S. and World maps.


Students create displays, flags artifacts, musical instruments and native dress of their ancestry.


Skits depicting life in country of origin as well as the presentation of music, games, and costumes of each heritage.

Community Projects

International dinner incorporating foods, music, dress, dance and activities indigenous to each culture.


Additional Books

Newspapers and Magazines:

Discography and Videography


Boston Legal Battle June 2004-June 2005 ... on

Click image for larger readable version

Some National Quotes:

Letters of Reference

Community Arts Advocates Index
Copyright 1972-2019 by Stephen Baird