Dave Harris, one man band

photo of Bruce Mason

by Bruce Mason

40+ years of busking

The rich musical life and legacy of Dave Harris is much greater than the sum of its eclectic parts. He stopped counting new songs in his repertoire at 500, and albums he’s collected beyond 10,000. He is still recording CDs but has lost count. And he no longer actively adds to his definitive 419-page Head, Hands and Feet: A One Man Band Book.

From early spring to late fall, and on windless sunny days between, he can be seen and heard at one of Canada’s most popular destinations: Victoria’s Inner Harbour, linking the Tourist Info Centre, famed Empress Hotel, Provincial Museum, and BC Legislature.

A good deal of the action and attraction is on the pedestrian causeway. Against a spectacular backdrop of sea, sky and assorted moored vessels and waterfront condos, jugglers, carvers, statue acts, and others, set up shop. Art, performance and commerce take shape as Harris unpacks in the north corner, where pedestrians find seating, shelter, ambience and food trucks. It has been his home-base for decades.

“My current setup is: Farmer foot drums (bass, high-hat, snare, woodblock, shakers, tambourine, National steel body tricone 12-string, Regal single cone steel body 6-string banjo, fiddle, a stack of concert harps, stool, stands, bungee cords, a four-wheeled hand-cart, books, CDs and strings,” he reports. “That’s scaled back over the years, including another guitar, fiddle, and Dobro mandolin.” Also missing in action: a fotdella, the foot-operated bass invented by legendary one-man-band (OMB) Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller, who wrote the enduring San Francisco Bay Blues. The fotdella was “too heavy, quiet and prone to break-down,” says Harris who hopes for improvements to integrate and round out his instrument arsenal.

“It still takes 15 minutes to arrange everything and tear it all down,” he reports. “I’m wary of gusts of wind, after a few instruments toppled over and broke. And keep a large umbrella handy for rain, shade and shelter from bird droppings.”

He often plays guitar or banjo simultaneously with drums and rack harmonica, switching to fiddle, with no break in the beat. That makes him unique, and he would know. “I couldn’t find any OMB information, so I spent three years of evenings and off-seasons researching and writing Head, Hands and Feet. It includes 900 examples and 1,200 visuals, from Japan, Australia, all over Europe, and North America.”

For years he stuck with his passion for blues, becoming an accomplished player – following in the long tradition of blues artists on the street – and an authority on the subject. Over time he learned that diverse, upbeat material works best when busking. So he integrated folk, rock, country and bluegrass, mixing genres and generations while introducing and showcasing his more obscure blues mentors.

After decades of busking, his own compositions get the biggest shout-outs from regulars and returning visitors, such as Crowded at the Bottom, and the most-requested Give Them Their Flowers.

A request for stories is filled as quickly and cheerfully as a query for songs. A $20US tip from Stephen Stills, in town for a CSN concert. Another $20 – this time Canadian – while tuning his 12-string. “Don’t bother, they’re never in tune. Do you know Summer Wages?” asked Ian Tyson, who wrote the tune and enjoyed Dave’s rendition. Full circle: on a rare busking stint in his hometown Toronto, he was honoured to accept a between-songs invitation from Sylvia Tyson, to join her band on-stage that evening.

Impromptu passers-by who pick up a guitar not in use have included Colin James, wowing on-lookers with Crossroads. And hoop-star Steve Nash, who fell a tad short. “Don’t give up your day job,” the crowd advised the good sport, good-naturedly.

His biggest hit: the elderly lady who tipped Harris a generous $5. Then, after a few minutes of fiddle music, emptied her change purse into his case, including a roll of bills, wrapped with an elastic band. She then disappeared, anonymous and untraceable, shouting “Thank you! Thank you!” Harris – who had never before seen a $100 bill and curious about the outer brown colour, peeled it off and counted the contents: $562. Unable to return what he calls a“ridiculous”tip, he purchased a better violin the following day.

Dave typically starts about 10 am at his “office”, takes a lunch break, and signs-off at about five. Often a night shift is added. He once logged 13 hours straight and laughs at musicians who complain of two and three hour concerts.

“Few people think of busking as a career and some look down on it as begging, dropping doggy bags for lunch or dinner in my case, or almost anything else you can think of. But I’ve made it work, since the mid-70’s and never had a welfare or regular pay-cheque.

I chose a quality of life I like. I sleep in my own bed, work in a beautiful environment, and meet new people from all around the world, every day” he explains.

“It’s commonplace to be approached by middle-aged people who watched me as children, often with their own offspring in tow. Some of the best moments include one-year-olds jiggling around, looks of wonder on their faces, elderly couples dancing to Blueberry Hill, and groups getting down to Slipping and Slidin’. Sometimes I feel old, but proud to still be here and remembered, hoping to be busking until the day I die,” concludes Harris.

Adding up the folks he has made music with on the street and elsewhere, and the number of bands he has played in, off-street, over the years, is impossible. A best-guess would likely come close to, if not top, virtually anyone else, anywhere. Among other groups, he currently plays in a skiffle band and with The Three Daves, which performs Hank Williams, exclusively.

Harris qualifies as a national legend, if not treasure. For proof, Google “Dave Harris One Man Band”. Search YouTube to experience his music yourself. Better yet, drop by Victoria’s Inner Harbour. You can’t miss Dave Harris, One-Man Band.

For a list of tips and etiquette for buskers, email brucemason@shaw.ca. Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

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