The article below was published in the high school newspaper just before my 18th birthday, in October of my senior year. It was one of my favorite articles to write for the Viking Voice since I spent a lot of time on State Street. I had a great time interviewing the varied performers and telling their stories.
For those of you who aren’t from the Madison area, State Street is a unique pedestrian zone in the downtown area. Currently only bus traffic is allowed, but it once was a conventional divided street you could drive on. State Street connects Wisconsin’s State Capitol building and the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus with a variety of shops, restaurants, and bars on either side. Several events are hosted on State Street throughout the summer and fall, including the Halloween Freakfest and Maxwell Street Days shopping event.
With that said, here is…
State Street Performers Offer Variety
You’re walking down Madison’s State Street on a Friday night, when suddenly your path is obstructed by a large crowd. Moving closer, you notice laughter and smiles coming to the faces in the area. This particular group of people is watching two university students do their own brand of improvisational comedy through song.
Musicians can be found on State Street nearly all the time, and they all play many different types of music. On any given night it is possible to find musical comedians, saxophone players, and guitarists doing anything from rock to rhythm and blues. Blaring saxophone players can be heard often in the State Street area. Steve Wolf is one of four regular saxophonists who perform for both money and fun. “I have been playing on and off for about 14 years,” Wolf said. “I try to play up to ten hours a day, which usually adds up to a 40 hour week.”
For nearly every block of State Street, a guitarist can usually be found playing whatever comes to mind, or even taking requests. Eric (who claimed he had no last name because of his nationality) is one of those regular guitarists strumming out a familiar tune to please the crowd. “I made $97 on my first day up here,” Eric stated. “But I’m not here for just money. If that was the reason, then I wouldn’t be here.”
One person who doesn’t sing or play an instrument is James E. Helmke. He simply tries to tell passerby about his views on various religions, and that he finds truth in Christianity. Helmke also passes out pamphlets better explaining his ideas which are based on ten years of study. But he says, “I refer to myself as a bum on a beach. Tomorrow, you might find me in the gutter.”
An interesting blend of people always gathers on State Street, and it is possible to hear the sounds of recording artist Matthew Davis. His group, The Matthew Davis Project, is currently getting Z104 airplay with the single “Your Face Brightens Up My Day.” They are also working on an album, and Davis seems to use State Street as a testing ground for new material.
MHHS graduates Prentice Berge and Chris Alley can sometimes be found taking song requests between small shops. Alley said he began performing in front of people in Mount Horeb. “When I was in high school, I used to play down at Stewart Lake,” Alley related. “I began playing up here for money, fun, and the fact that I got to practice when I play.”
Not every aspect of performing on State Street is enjoyable for the musicians. Many claim of being hassled by the police, or heckled by drunken members of the crowds. Some have even had guitar cases full of money stolen. Even so, the sounds of local musicians and street preachers can still be heard in the blocks leading from the Capitol to the UW campus.