Editorial: Street musicians help Chicago sing

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A street performer entertains festival goers after Lollapalooza was evacuated due to severe weather conditions on August 2, 2015. | Saiyna Bashir | Sun-Times.

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This goes back awhile, but some of us at this newspaper once had a favorite spot to catch a little street music — the Grand Avenue CTA subway stop.

It was close to work, back when the Sun-Times was on Wabash Avenue, and when the music was not terrible it could be very good. There was a guitarist who played “The Wind Cries Mary,” Jimi Hendrix’s beautiful song, so soulfully that you forgot all the sad stories you had written that day, all the copy you had edited. You might let a train or two go by just to hear a little more.

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Chances are, though, our local Jimi was breaking the law. Technically speaking, street musicians haven’t been allowed in the Grand Avenue subway station since the early 1980s. Any cop could have run him out of there and probably did.

Chicago officialdom has always treated street musicians with grudging respect, with rare exceptions. City Hall has generally been clueless to the city’s rich musical heritage and the power of street music — free, unexpected and wonderfully good or horribly bad — to bring a little extra joy to city life.

All of this is to say we are not surprised there is a movement afoot once again to clamp down on street music in Chicago. People who work along State Street and Michigan Avenue are fed up with the bucket drummers and sax players raising a racket all day. Normal people can listen to “The Flintstones” theme song only so many times.

But Ald. Brendan Reilly’s proposed ordinance takes the wrong attitude. It would require performers along much of Michigan Avenue and State Street to keep the volume so low that they could not be heard by somebody standing a mere 20 feet away. As a Chicago Tribune reporter observed, that’s fine if you’re a mime.

Chicago should be encouraging street music, nurturing it. Don’t suppress it; make it work. The city might even think about holding auditions for the best spots to play, if necessary, like New York does. The CTA  could do the same.

Currently, the CTA limits live music to just three subway stations — Washington and Jackson on the Blue Line and Jackson on the Red Line. Performers at other stations, CTA officials have said, might disturb the neighbors or get in the way.

But why then is live music so much more acceptable in transit stations in New York, Toronto and Boston? And don’t get us started on New Orleans.

A big city is not a library. It is a stage.

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