Issue 56, April 2006
Boston Performer Fights for Right to Take It to the Street
By Daniel Wolff
|Stephen Baird, executive director of Community Arts Advocates, protests new restrictions on street performers.|
It is 1980 in Ann Arbor, MI and Stephen Baird has just completed an exhausting four-hour street performance. He tells the crowd of more than 100 that he is done. Unexpectedly, the people do not disperse or drop a dollar in the hat. Instead, they remain seated on the grassy field for another 20 minutes, in complete silence.
“We were in this incredible meditative state,” Baird recalls. “It was one of those magical moments. I was so energized that I did another two hours after that.”
For 35 years, Baird has been entertaining anyone willing to listen to his unique blend of song, storytelling and puppetry at over 500 college campuses, parks and festivals. His shows, lasting as long as seven hours, have become a staple of Boston’s street performing scene.
“Street performing reaches a diverse audience like no other place,” says Baird, 57. “All ages, races and classes come together and we create this sense of community.”
Since 1971, the folk troubadour has been fighting to preserve that community and give jugglers, musicians and mimes the right to take it to the streets. He has been at the forefront of numerous lawsuits in Boston, Cambridge, Chicago and Baltimore to allow performers to play without police interference. Baird has also dedicated his life to promoting and cultivating a positive environment for artists and is currently raising money for street performers devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Baird still brandishes his long hair (though now thinning) and scruffy beard (though now significantly grayed) from his early street performing life. He primarily works out of his apartment in Jamaica Plain as executive director of the Community Arts Advocates, a group he founded in 2002 to connect and support artists from around the world. His office, stacked to the rafters with pamphlets and photos of performers, opens freely into his music room and bedroom, making it difficult to discern where his life of advocacy ends and his domestic life begins.
“He is really dedicated to his cases and his artists and freedom of expression in general,” says Barbara Michaels, a clown and stilt-walker who started working with Baird on the Community Arts Advocates Board in 1998. “He actually works around the clock often to prepare, to research and to help artists with their careers.”
Baird’s life in street performing had auspicious origins. He was a chemical engineering major at Northeastern University before dropping out in his senior year.
“My freshman roommate flunked out so I bought his guitar to help him with a bus ticket home,” Baird says. “Then I got radicalized by the anti-war movement, so I created street performing as an alternative lifestyle.”
Baird found harassment almost immediately after taking up street performance. “I really had no choice. It was either become an advocate for me and my fellow musicians or don’t play.”
His show is something of a cross between Raffi and Tom Paxton, incorporating traditional folk songs with puppets, kazoos and plenty of audience participation. He mainly plays guitar and several dulcimers to accompany the high timbre of his vocals.
In 1971, he founded the Street Arts and Buskers Advocates, which is still active today. The group was established to provide legal consultation to performers who have nowhere else to go. He refers artists to lawyers familiar with street performing cases, stages petitions and hires architects and urban planners to assess a location whenever public safety issues are brought into question.
Baird is currently involved in a federal case against the city of Boston that has been going on for two years. He is also helping people with legal battles in Portsmouth, NH, Akron, OH, Waikiki, HI, Santa Fe, NM and Chicago, IL.
“There are many different issues when it comes to street performing,” Baird says. “Sometimes it falls under commercial speech, other times it’s begging and panhandling, but really it comes down to businesses and what they see as unfair competition.”
On top of his many street performing battles, Baird has gone underground, defending the subway artist against the MBTA for over two decades. In 1976, then-governor Michael Dukakis implemented the Music Under Boston program encouraging Baird and his peers to adorn the platforms of Park Street. However, by 1982 the policy was abandoned and the MBTA cracked down on the entertainers. Baird and the Subway Artist Guild, in turn, sued the MBTA, which eventually relented.
“He helped me and a lot of other musicians out in the eighties,” says Kevin McNamara, a folk singing frequenter of Boston’s transit system. “Honestly, I’m not sure how or why he takes it upon himself to do these things. It’s really amazing.”
Baird’s support of the arts extends beyond the courtroom. In 1994, Harvard Square’s Club Passim (then known as Club 47) was on the verge of closing due to financial struggles.
“Club Passim was one of the last remaining folk clubs in the area and they were in debt somewhere between a quarter and a half million dollars,” Baird says. “It was a huge project.”
Baird took on part of their debt, restructured it into a non-profit endeavor and started booking 10 to 12 shows a week. From 1995 to 1997, Baird lived at Club Passim, transforming it into a major showcase for up-and-coming folk artists.
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ historic music scene was in disarray. When artists from the area such as Jeremy Lyons, the guitarist for a jazz trio who arrived in Boston with little more than his wife and children, and Fish the Magish, a juggler and magician, came to Baird, his answer was simple.
“I just said, ‘Okay, let’s do something.’ When a minister is in trouble, his church rallies around him. Why shouldn’t street performers do the same?”
Baird organized the New Orleans, Louisiana Arts and Artists Relief Fund. They began by simply purchasing instruments for those who lost theirs in the hurricane. Since then, Baird held a benefit at Octoberfest in Harvard Square and takes donations on his website (www.communityartsadvocates.org). Baird has raised $3,000 and has a goal of $25,000.
“The internet has become an incredible organizing tool for me to unite performers across the world,” he says. “My motto is to act locally and think globally.”
Other articles by Daniel Wolff.