A small, portable karaoke machine strapped to the front of a blue Yamaha motorbike covered in dust from as far away as Peru provides traveling busker Viola Wegener with a means of singing for her supper.
Wegener, 28, and her companion Charles Wright, 29, have been traveling from South America, through Mexico and across the United States, performing in the streets and relying on the kindness of strangers.
“The generosity of the locals has been overwhelming,” Wright said.
Buskers like Wegener have supplemented their income, scraped money together to get by day to day and even launched music careers performing in public. Acts like Old Crow Medicine Show, Rod Stewart and the late B.B. King began their music careers as street performers.
Vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, who will be performing on Thursday, May 28 and Friday, May 29 in the College of Charleston Cistern Yard as part of the Spoleto Festival, began her career busking on the streets of Paris.
Peyroux was born and raised in the U.S., where she lived until she was 13. She and her brother moved to Paris with her mother, Deirdre Westgate, after her parents’ divorce.
Peyroux did not adjust well to the change, becoming “wild” in her teenage years, she told CBS Sunday Morning in 2014. She ran away from her strict English boarding school and began performing with other street musicians.
Peyroux’s expressive voice, which has often been compared to the likes of Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, garnered attention from record company executives when she was a street performer during her teens. The reluctant singer was approached by Yves Beauvais with Atlantic Records and offered a recording contract.
Her first album, “Dreamland,” was released in 1996. After the album’s critical success, she returned to her roots and continued busking, performing and contributing to other musicians’ albums for several years.
Nearly 20 years and five more records later, Peyroux has created a career interpreting the songs of Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, Bessie Smith and others, making them her own. Her tumultuous life experiences can be heard in every note.
“You know, it’s a joke we have with the guys I was playing with recently,” Peyroux said in her CBS interview. “Just so it hurts just a little bit.”
Peyroux, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has spent much of her time on the road.
“I have been traveling most of my life, come to think of it,” she told host Michael Feinstein on NPR Music’s ‘Song Travels’ during an interview in 2013.
Wegener and Wright are spending a lot of time traveling, too. They have been working their way up the East Coast to New York City, where they will spend a few days busking and barnstorming before heading home to Germany. Wegener said she won’t be going back to her job as a fitness instructor; she hopes to make a living through her music. And like the profoundly private Peyroux, she’s in it for the love of the craft rather than the spotlight.
“Viola doesn’t want to be famous like Beyonce or Rhianna,” Wright said. “She wants to keep her life.”
“I want to make a life out of singing,” Wegener added.
And, who knows? Maybe someone will offer her a record contract.
Kate Drozynski is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.