Name: Amanda Nygard
Day job: None at present
Venues: South Side and Squirrel Hill
Instrument/medium: Fiddle, accordion, clarinet, voice, washtub bass
Most requested song: “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
Favorite song: “Sail Away Ladies”
Average daily take: “That’s for me to know”
Weirdest tip: Burger King burger with Bible verses
To Amanda Nygard, busking is like a giant sociology project: the reactions she’s received playing old-timey music around the country reveal a lot about the city she’s in … and the people there.
“Some people are just straight-up grumpy and you can’t do anything about it,” she says. “I’ve gotten harassed a lot — it was some male aggression like ‘How ’bout you play … my balls!’,” she laughs.
You do have to have a thick skin, she adds, but playing street music and traveling for most of her adult life have given her that. And she’s also had people be “super supportive”: On her birthday recently, she got a $20 tip outside a Kenny Chesney concert. “I can go out and make nothing, [other] nights I make enough to eat and drink on,” she muses. “There’s no guarantees.”
So far, Nygard’s six months busking in Pittsburgh has been a positive experience. Once in Chicago, a cop came so close he was spitting on her face, and she spent a night in jail. Yet she’s had only one minor skirmish with Pittsburgh authority, when she was asked to leave Market Square. It’s surprising and encouraging, she thinks, to see such a vibrant and accepting scene in a city the size of Pittsburgh. “A lot of young people are doing it,” she notes. “It adds to the culture of the city, it brings music out beyond the four walls of the symphony or the bar.”
Nygard comes from a musical family; while growing up in a small farm town in Minnesota, she studied the piano and violin in school, after being awed by a cousin who was a fiddle champion.
During that time, Nygard also developed a serious case of wanderlust. “It’s a good way to create a good story for your life,” she says. “I have a perspective on a lot of different things. If you have the wanderlust, you have to beat it out of yourself.” Faced with a long Minneapolis winter with no money or job prospects, she began playing cheesy Christmas music on the street. “[Music has] always been something I could take with me wherever I went,” she explains, “and I’ve traveled a lot.”
It’s mostly music from long ago that inspires her — old field recordings and blues and jazz. Of those historical performers enjoyed via her vinyl collection, she says, “You know, they were just meant to play music. Music these days is just so riddled with money-making and skeeze. It’s hard to find people who are genuine.”
She also found that fair amount of travelers she encountered were also into old-fashioned music. Consequently, a lot of the songs in her repertoire — which includes occasional jazz, gypsy or Middle Eastern bits for good measure — have been swapped with other travelers, learned by ear and tweaked into her own.
Since the violin spans many musical traditions, people respond well to it, Nygard explains, adding that it’s easier to carry on a bike than, say, an accordion. Or a bass made out of a washtub. “The washtub bass is funny. I tried it out, dressed up as an old man outside a baseball game. It didn’t work out — I think I made a dollar.”
When you encounter buskers playing out of love for old tunes, Nygard counsels that “we’re not going to bite, we’re not crazy. We’re just musicians who don’t know how to market ourselves — or don’t want to. Sometimes, it’s just to get a little attention for our abilities.”