Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York

By Susie J. Tanenbaum | Go to book overview

9
Prospects for Change

When I ask New York subway musicians if they have ever considered organizing politically to improve the conditions under which they perform, I receive a number of different responses. Some laugh and advise me that art transcends politics. A few have no desire to put energy into helping their colleagues advance their careers. Others explain, almost tragically, that they have to devote their time to staying one step ahead of the police. Some freelancers say they come underground to escape the demands of organizations; in their opinion, subway music should remain ad hoc and independent.

I find it especially tough to challenge this last view. On the other hand, when musicians lament that they are not in MUNY and look astonished when I inform them of the rights they already have as freelancers, I worry about the status quo. At such moments I am reminded of the distinction Paul Chevigny makes between litigation and politics. "An action by a court is effective," he says, "only when the parties accept the action and change their behavior in response to it."1In the 1980s musicians proved that, in crisis situations, they were capable of banding together to change their legal status underground, but they did not sustain an organization to inform all musicians of their rights and responsibilities. Periodically, however, individual performers appear on the scene who successfully organize their colleagues. In this chapter I describe the Street Artists' Guild in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has operated for almost a quarter century, and the United Street Artists, which has recently called particular attention

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