In autumn, Washington, D.C., acquires a cinematic tint, ghost leaves pirouetting against marble monuments that tourists queue up to marvel at. Come April, America’s political epicentre is festooned with blush cherry blossoms. The East Coast giant has many avatars, and D.C.-raised busker Clayton Underwood loves each one just the same. But nothing that the student of opera music could have seen in his 28 years compares to how the city revealed itself to him, when he started performing in its many public spaces, or busking, to go by his lexicon.
It all began in the summer of 2020, when the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was swelling across America, wrestling not just detractors, but the shadow of an imminent pandemic. Fresh out of his tutelage at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Clay (as he is known) was drawn towards the streets, where power was now being questioned and deconstructed. Where friends and strangers were gathering daily to protest peacefully against racial injustice. “I really just picked up my guitar, headed to the steps of Lincoln Memorial, and started singing,” he says.
Built in the honour of the 16th President of America, the majestic memorial with 36 Doric columns and dramatically wide steps was suddenly not just another familiar spot in his city. To the freshly-minted street performer, it felt, “like a stage, where all these different scenes of America were unfolding: like a bridge between our past and our future”. There were people there. Thousands of them. And there was Bob Dylan—in spirit, of course. “I repeated his words, as well as that of other poets and musicians from the back in the ’60s and ’40s. And realised, not much has changed,” rues the guitarist. Clay was indignant, but not alone in this recognition. “I could see it in people’s eyes, when I hit a certain stanza, with impassioned words that unfortunately still resonate. I actually watched their eyes widen,” he recalls.
Clay’s busking journey across Washington D.C. (left), Philadelphia (top right) and Baltimore (bottom right) allowed him to view the cities in a new light. Photos By: f11photo/Shutterstock (harbour, Capitol building); Christian Carollo/Shutterstock (mural)
Dylan did his bit, but the busker soon turned to the incredible power of folk and blues icons Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. A medley of hope, hurt, angst, and anti-fascist energy—all of which mirrored the sentiments of his audience—wove themselves into Clay’s vocabulary. It came as a liberating shock when parents started bringing their kids around for a quick lesson in American history. And when, after a particularly emotional round of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, an elderly woman, grieving a loved one, came up to thank him, Clay decided that this was it. This was the reward for singing his heart out in vulnerable spaces where people are free to criticise, or worse, ignore you, but sometimes choose to be moved, instead. “There is this tremendous sense of communion that busking has brought me, of connecting with people, and places,” he reflects.
There are other perks of being a travelling troubadour. What with so many new interactions and time for reflection on the road, one learns to “read the room better”. On some days, the room is a city. Outside of his home turf, Clay has tried to ‘read’ Philadelphia and Baltimore, and found his out-of-towner’s perceptions altered by the experience of sharing music and lyrics with strangers. In Philadelphia, the musician loves strolling down the street, just so he can fish floating phrases from its rich pool of languages: Some Spanish, French, and French Creole, or perhaps strands of German, Chinese, English, or Vietnamese. One time, a car honked rudely at him, and there emerged this 65-plus man—a total stranger—who took it upon himself to tell off the offending driver. “It was a feisty case of old man versus car,” he laughs, mulling over the “openness of love and conflict” that a place like Philly can harbour. Nothing embodies the Philadelphia spirit better than the former residences of black opera singers set apart with tell-tale signs, preserving local history.
On a recent trip to Philadelphia, Clay explored the city through impromptu sets at the Washington Monument. Photo By: Julian Manning
Clay also played a set at Barnes Foundation’s garden, Philadelphia. Photo By: Julian Manning
The gesture may not afford the grand proclamation of D.C.’s statues, but it is, like the city itself, “beautifully human”. Baltimore, on the other hand, is all about the blues from the marina, mixing with those falling from his guitar. With boats and water taxis bobbing against the blazing crescendo of eggy-orange suns by the Inner Harbour, the city can be as much of a muse as a stage for busking. Nerdy in his spare time, the busker also loves visiting the National Aquarium. In hometown, D.C., which he dubs “moderately conservative, with a funky underbelly,” Clay isn’t as picky about where he whips out his guitar and his speakers. There’s The Wharf, the capital’s zany entertainment hub; a favourite indie bookstore called Politics and Prose; the Georgetown waterfront, in the view of the Kennedy Centre; community pizza joint, Comets Pizzeria (the stoic survivor of Pizzagate, yes); and when he’s not being shooed away, a vantage spot near the White House. What does he sing, on most days? “Bluegrass, soul, songs of Americana…” Bon Iver to Amy Winehouse, there’s something for almost everyone.
Clay pays a pilgrimage to the house of his musical hero, Paul Robeson, an actor, activist, and sensational bass-baritone singer. Photo By: Julian Manning
In the last one year, the accidental busker has travelled through winding neighbourhoods like Dylan’s Tambourine Man, playing a song and then some, for people he may not meet again. Tipped in sweet little nickels and “God bless yous” by the local church lady, the admittedly non-religious 28-year-old has come to believe in… something. He has also made a dozen “protest buddies”, been mugged in broad daylight, kicked off by cops, and showered with affection from kids, some of whom make their parents drop their plans just so they can watch one more performance. Clay calls them “masters of communion”. Street-side communion is often followed closely by serendipity. How else do you explain the owner of D.C.’s iconic 9:30 Club—where Dylan himself has performed—stopping by to drop high praises and a $100 bill? Or the Iraqi ambassador hearing him from a distance, before inviting him to play at his residence?
“Is busking a big thing in Mumbai?” Clay asks, name-checking my city as a place where he’d love to travel for music, along with Barcelona, Tokyo, Osaka, California, and “the big stage”, New York City. But before that, as soon as the world opens up, he hopes to visit Nashville and New Orleans. In music there can be no moving forward without looking back, and what better places to pay homage to his musical heroes? Looking back, he indulges the second-hand nostalgia of lost times. “Circus and carnival music, or evening symphonies, people have been starved for live music for far too long. Why? So many connections, just wiped out by tech.”
If the busker has his way, he’d travel the world for answers. Collecting them, one street song at a time.
To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.
Sohini Das Gupta
travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is the former Assistant Editor at Nat Geo Traveller India.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.