Down On The Corner
Adventures in busking & street music
Cary Baker

Foreword by Dom Flemons
Published November 12, 2024
ISBN 9781916829107
Page count TBC / 6 x 8.5 in (150 x 215mm)
£16.95 UK / $24.95 US / $32.95 CAN

One day around 1970, my father announced to me that he’d like to take me to Maxwell Street Market, an open-air flea market adjacent to Downtown Chicago. He wanted to show me where his parents used to take him shopping as a child. When he parked his car in the University Of Illinois lot, the first thing I heard, long before I could see where it was coming from, was the sound of a slide guitar—not just any guitar but a National steel resonator guitar.

We followed the music and found ourselves standing on the west side of Halsted Street, midway between Roosevelt and Maxwell, where Blind Arvella Gray was playing the folk/blues song ‘John Henry’—a song that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Sensing that his audience was generally passing by rather than gathering around, Gray kept playing that one song for his entire shift. He’d even altered the lyrics to refer to the local streets.

In that moment, I developed a lifelong affinity for the informality, spontaneity, and audience participation of busking.

Down On The Corner is the story of music performed on the streets, in subways, in parks, in schoolyards, on the back of flatbed trucks, and beyond, from the 1920s to the present day. Drawing on years of interviews and eyewitness accounts, it introduces readers to a wide range of locations and a myriad of musical genres, from folk to rock’n’roll, the blues to bluegrass, doo-wop to indie rock.

Some of the performers he features—Lucinda Williams, Billy Bragg, The Violent Femmes—went on to become international stars; others settled into the curbs, sidewalks, and Tube stations as their workplace for the duration of their careers. Anyone who has lived in or travelled through a city will have encountered street musicians of one kind or another. For the first time, veteran journalist and music-industry publicist Cary Baker tells the complete history of these musicians and the music they play, from tin cups and toonies to QR codes and PayPal.

This book allows us to hear the full story of feeding the street, as it has been done for over a century in the United States. It gives us a glimpse into the lives of the buskers who have enriched our daily existence with music and performance art. It’s a dollar in the hat, with the acknowledgment that the world is always a better place when busking is a part of the picture. Special thanks to Cary Baker for giving a new voice to a music tradition that will continue to live on forever and will find new homes wherever the music takes it.’ Dom Flemons, from his foreword

Born on Chicago’s South Side, Cary Baker began his writing career at sixteen with an on-spec feature about Chicago street singer Blind Arvella Gray for the Chicago Reader. His return to writing follows a forty-two-year hiatus during which time he directed publicity for six record labels (including Capitol and IRS) and two of his own companies, working with acclaimed artists such as R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, The Smithereens, James McMurtry, The Mavericks, Bobby Rush, Willie Nile, and more. Prior to his PR years, Baker wrote for the Chicago Reader, Creem, Trouser Press, Bomp!, Goldmine, Billboard, Mix, Illinois Entertainer, and Record magazine. He has also written liner notes for historical reissues from Universal, Capitol/EMI, Numero Group, and Omnivore. He has been a voting member of the Recording Academy since 1979. He lives in Southern California.

A resolute preservationist, storyteller, and instrumentalist, Dom Flemons has long set himself apart by finding forgotten folk songs and making them live again. His work has been recognized with a GRAMMY, two Emmy nominations, a USA Fellowship Award, and inclusion in an exhibit at the Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum. Raised in Phoenix, Flemons comes from a family of civil rights leaders, Tuskegee Airmen, and preachers who were prominent figures in the Black community of Arizona. After graduating from Northern Arizona University (which presented him with an honorary doctorate in 2022), Flemons moved to North Carolina and co-founded The Carolina Chocolate Drops. After leaving the group in 2013, he established a solo career that led him to collaborate with hundreds of artists in the Americana music scene. His latest project is Traveling Wildfire (Smithsonian Folkways), a follow-up to his 2018 GRAMMY nominated album, Black Cowboys.