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The Street Singing Saga

One day in 1974 I was playing downtown in front of Oliver’s Meats on lower Pike Street. A motorcycle cop came by and stopped, walking up to me with a business-like look on his face. He said, “You can’t play here without a permit,” and I said, “I’ll go get one.” “You can’t,” he said, “you’re not blind,” and he rode off into the traffic flow. I packed up and headed to City Hall to find out what he was talking about.

What I discovered was that there was an old law on the books in Seattle that said it was illegal to play music on the sidewalk for the purpose of soliciting donations without a permit, but the only permits were for “disabled” people. So instead of maiming myself I decided to see what I could do to change things…

The first step in this sort of thing, of course, is publicity. I went to the PI building (Seattle Post Intelligencer). In those days you could walk right in and go to whatever department you chose. I went to the news room to talk to Rick Anderson. Rick was a good guy (still is) and he gave me his full attention while I told my story. The piece that came out the next day was called A License For His Permit, a title based on a song I was singing at the time. I also spoke with the editor of the University Of Washington Daily, who was a friend of mine. So the press support was in place.

Then I started having meetings with various politicians – city council members, etc. I even met with the mayor. Nobody had any objections to the idea so we arranged for an open city council meeting where the public could voice their opinions and then the council itself could decide. A date was set and I went to work on the publicity.

city_council_street 1A week or so before the meeting I made up a bunch of quarter-page fliers that said “Jim Page In Concert At the Seattle City Council Chambers…” with the time and date, and I put them up in the parts of town where I was known. When the day came I headed downtown. The place was packed. I sang my testimony – a song I had especially written called “Now’s the Time For Talking.” It was the Watergate era and the song was based on the idea that public singing was like public talking and we needed all of that we could get. Then other people began to speak and they were all positive – even the police. In fact, the only person who was against it was from – guess where – the Musicians Union. But he was basically ignored and the meeting rolled to a conclusion. And when the council reached their decision it was for a change in the law to allow street music of all kinds. No auditions and no permits. Just go out there and play.

I have often thought that this would be much harder to do now. Seattle is a boom town these days and big money likes to keep things orderly. Back then Seattle was unknown anywhere outside of the region and nobody really seemed to care too much one way or the other. There wasn’t really much of an image to uphold. And so it was much easier for the people to have their way. I only hope that if some force ever decides to rescind that law, enough people will organize to keep it in place. We still need those streets to be open. And we still need that talk.