Dave Harris – An ardent devotion to music.
If you have ever walked around downtown Victoria, this man’s music has likely made you smile. You probably know him as the one-man band on the lower causeway, but did you know that for the past 45 years, Dave Harris has made his living as a busker, sometimes playing as much as 10 hours per day?
Dave grew up in Toronto, and got his musical start playing violin in the school music program but he didn’t really like playing classical music.
I didn’t have a television in the house when I was a kid. My parents loved classical music and it was on the stereo a lot. When you hear how glorious it is when it’s done right, it’s pretty daunting when you pick up your fiddle and go scratch scratch scratch, and it doesn’t sound right, so I didn’t get inspired by that.
It wasn’t until he started playing guitar at age 17 that he started thinking about a career in music and when he told his dad he was going to be a musician, he was laughed at.
It was like a light bulb moment for me. I just knew I was going to be a musician and that was all I was going to do, and I set out to do it.
“I said to my dad, ‘I’m going to be a musician,’ and he laughed at me because I froze at a piano recital when I was about eight or nine. I just sat there and blanked right out, couldn’t remember my piece, just totally blanked looking out at the church full of parents and other students all sitting out there. They got me back up at the end and the same thing happened, so my parents said, ‘well he’s not going to be a performer…’ I’m still quite a nervous person. I get stage fright every time I start but it goes away after a minute or two. I care a lot what other people think, probably too much, which is can be a real downfall sometimes you know.“
Dave moved to Victoria when he was 20, knowing that he wanted to make music full time, but without really a plan of how to make that work. He had one year of unemployment insurance to try to make it work.
“I wasn’t really ready. I went busking in the summer of 1977 with a friend and thought, ‘Wow! This is pretty fun!’ We didn’t make a lot of money but it kind of wet my appetite and so in the winter of 77 when my unemployment insurance ran out, I started busking full-time. I would go down in front of the Eaton’s building, and I’d play there on Government St every day from maybe 10:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon.”
A good day was like $15, but the room I was renting only cost $70 a month, so I was able to live fairly easily really. It didn’t seem that hard, but I mean I couldn’t buy guitars or things like that.
“One day, I was playing my fiddle and it was near Christmas time, and an elderly lady came by and dropped a five dollar bill in my case. A five dollar bill at that time was a big tip, so I said thank you. I’m sawing away on my fiddle and she walks over to the entrance of the building. I can see her out of the corner of my eye, and she’s standing there watching me. Then she comes running back, she turns her change purse over and dumps it into my case, and this big roll of bills with an elastic around it falls in my case. I couldn’t stop, I was so awestruck. I guess I was kind of in shock, and I just kept playing and playing. I thought- “ I’ve got to pick that up. I’ve got to take it out of the case. I can’t leave that. Someone might come and grab it.”
It was brown on the outside and I’d never seen a hundred dollar bill before. It was 562 dollars! Wow! The next day, I went to Vancouver and bought myself a better violin. That was my biggest tip ever!
“One of the things about busking that’s difficult is that there’s a quite a large segment of the population that think you’re just a beggar. You’re basically just asking for a handout but you’re not. They don’t recognize that you’re giving something back in exchange. It’s an exchange of energy. Their energy is in the form of cash or appreciation and my energy is in the form of the music.“
My dad was proud of me after he saw that I was really serious about it. I know I told you he laughed at first, but you know my parents were proud of me, so that that was nice.
Over the years, Dave’s playing has gone in a whole bunch of different directions. From blues harmonica, to Irish fiddle, to electric guitar in a country rock band and bluegrass, Dave has played a bit of it all.
“By the 80s started a I band called “Blue Sky” which didn’t last that long. It seemed like a long time, and I went through a lot of membership. It lasted about seven or eight years. We played a lot of dances at the Fernwood Community Center, some gigs around the island, a couple of festivals and things like that but we never really made it very far.”
We started writing our own songs and we had kind of classic rock flavor, but I don’t know, nothing’s ever really quite taken off for me. I’ve always just sort of gone along under the radar.
Dave’s transformation into a one-man band stemmed partly from inspiration on a roadtrip around 1990, when he was out touring the prairies as part of a country band.
“We weren’t really a country band but we learned the appropriate material. We’d always try and slip blues tunes in and the management would come over and go, ‘You can’t play that in here!’, to Caledonia or something like that. We thought, well it’s pretty close, but it wasn’t close enough to Garth Brooks and whatever was on the radio at the time.
In the hotel room, we wanted to practice. The drummer had not played a lot of country and he wasn’t too sure of some of the beats, so we were trying to rehearse him, and we didn’t want to set up a whole drum kit in the hotel room. We had a suitcase, and we got the idea to put the suitcase up against the couch and just put the base pedal on that, and then use the hi-hat and the snare, and you know you’ve got a basic little practice kit. I thought, ‘Hey! What a great idea!’
When I came back to town, I thought since I was busking by myself a lot of the time anyway, I thought I could probably add drums to my setup. I got a suitcase and a high hat from Charles Gates, a fabulous drummer here in town. It was it was a fold-up hi-hat, so I could put it in the suitcase so that everything was self-contained. It was heavy but it all fit. I started bringing the fiddle, and I’d play fiddle and harmonica and drums and maybe sing and bang on the wood block.”
One of my big innovations I feel as a musician, is playing fiddle and harmonica together. I’ve never seen anybody else do it. I know I’m not the only person in the world that does it, but it’s not common at all. It was harder than it sounds actually, but I’ve played so much harmonica that it is kind of muscle memory, so combining it with the fiddle, it was harder trying to figure out where the fiddle went with the harmonica rather than the other way around.
“I guess around 2000, I had a friend build me a foot operated bass where piano hammers would hit the strings. I used that for maybe 10- 12 years or something like that. I it was funky, it kind of broke down a lot, and it wasn’t real loud, but the bass was fun. I really enjoyed it. It was really challenging trying to play fiddle and change notes with your feet. I gave up on it after a while when I felt like people weren’t really noticing it and it wasn’t grabbing the attention that I was hoping it would.
I got pretty big crowds for a while on the causeway in the in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Bravo Television had a documentary about me. I that was probably the peak of my career in some ways, I hate to say that but it probably. I’ve written maybe 150 songs or something like that over the years, Not all of them are good. I was doing an album every year and selling it on the causeway.”
At the height of my one-man band show, I had the foot operated bass, my foot drums, two fiddles with different tunings, a viola, a mandolin, a banjo, at least two guitars- sometimes three. I mean it filled the back of our station wagon. My ex-wife would drive me to work all the time. I don’t drive, I ride a bicycle. I couldn’t haul all that on a bicycle, hence that’s why I’ve scaled it back to carry a couple of instruments, a suitcase and hi-hat but not much more.
Dave was fascinated with one-man bands and when he started researching them, he discovered that there wasn’t much written. He embarked on a passion project, and spent three years writing, “Head, Hands, and Feet: A Book of One Man Bands.”
“My mom always said I’d be a writer. She was surprised when I went into music. I loved creative writing when I was in my teens. I was familiar with a fair number of blues one-man bands and so I started looking around and there wasn’t really anything much written. There had been a magazine about it in the 90s that I had nobody had really tried to bring the whole thing together into a book.”
I felt passionate about it and so I started writing. I would busk all day and I’d come home and I’d do research at night and then in the winter months I wrote it. It took me three years.
“After I finished, I discovered there’s way more one-man bands and since I wrote it there’s been even more. I probably could have written a second book. I’m not going to. Part one didn’t sell well enough. I’m not good at marketing. I’m not good at knocking on doors and saying can you give me a gig, or do you want to buy my book. I’m just not good at that kind of stuff, so I self-published the book and there’s still 500 or something copies in in the garage at my ex-wife’s house. Every so often, I’ll do a little promo and I’ll sell another 20 copies or something but I just want to move them. I don’t want them to end up in the landfill. I tried putting them in the book boxes around town too for a while. I put a little thing in the front saying if you want to donate, you could and gave them the option of e-transfer. That worked a little bit . I mean a lot of them went away for free, but that’s okay. It’s better that they go into somebody’s house than into the landfill for sure.”
Dave is clearly passionate about all things music- playing, song writing (he has written over 150 songs!), researching, educating (he wrote a piece about Busking Etiquette you can read here), learning and listening. We found out that over the years, he has curated a collection of over 12,000 LPs and we needed to know more.
My ex- wife used to say, ‘It’s just music- music- music! He’s always music- music- music!’ I have about 12,000 LPs. I’ve just collected records my whole life. If it’s not playing music, it’s listening to music. I don’t know what it is, it’s just a passion. You understand I’m sure. It just takes hold of you.
“I went out on a few tours, mostly in country bands and in all the different places, there’s always be a record store. I would go through the whole record store and I would find every single record, especially blues, that I didn’t have and I’d just take them up to the front, they’d give me a deal, you know $400 or something like that. There goes that week’s pay. I come back with no money two feet of vinyl and my ex-wife was fine with it. She understood. We weren’t broke, and I’d go right back to work busking again as soon as I got home. I used to order from catalogs and from a couple of places in England and even in Australia and all over the U.S.
Right now, I’ve got records where I live and records at my ex-wife’s house. It’s too much to put them all where I live, so she’s allowed me to keep a room there. I’ve got between four and five thousand blues LPs. My real focus was the blues but then you know I’d buy collections from people too and they’d mostly be rock or country, so I’ve got a very large rock collection as well, probably three or four thousand, as well as probably a thousand country albums. It just all adds up. We all have passions, it’s just some people are more passionate than others I guess. I’m a pretty passionate person and I wear my heart on my sleeve. It gets me in trouble sometimes.”
Having spent 45 years in the scene, we were curious what has changed since Dave got his start.
“I’m sure everyone here is aware that there’s no work for musicians these days. It’s like there’s almost nothing. Clubs are folding and becoming other things or not having live music anymore. In the 90’s, I was working three nights a week at Swan’s Hotel. I played with Al Pease, Clark Brendon and Charles Gates in Barrelhouse every Monday night. Wednesday night I was there with the Chance Brothers which was a Bluegrass band. Sunday was Little Marty playing straight up Chicago Blues.”
There was seven nights a week live music and now there’s zero nights a week at Swans, Steamers folded up, Hermann’s is still going but they’re struggling, Logan’s closed. I mean the music scene here has just gone down the tubes. I don’t think it’s just here either, I think it’s probably a lot of places.
“Everybody’s got their phone in their hands. There’s so much available online and so many ways of enjoying entertainment at home that you don’t have to go out, and of course it’s expensive to go out. It’s also hard to get people to focus on something actually happening. It used to be that on the lower causeway, people would come sit down on the steps and they’d be paying attention. We’d be talking in between the songs and I’d be putting on a show. I’ve watched that change so that now, they sit down on the steps and they grab their phone and they might film you but they’re not really present in the same way. They still tip when they leave but there’s a more demeaning element to it than there used to be and I stopped talking between songs because what’s the point if nobody’s paying any attention. I lost that drive to try and grab people’s attention I guess. Maybe I just felt like I couldn’t anymore.
I feel lucky to even have a gig really to be honest because there’s so few available, so busking has become almost more important for me now with even less of work available.”
I went busking a lot during the pandemic and people were surprisingly much more generous. Nice local people stepped up and were very supportive. I’ve never gotten so many 20 bills as I’ve gotten since the pandemic. People have really stepped up. I have got to hand it to the citizens of Victoria. They’ve been absolutely wonderful and super supportive.
It takes a lot of heart and a lot of energy to do what Dave has done for so many years and we wondered if given the chance, he would do things differently or would do it all again.
“Well, as I said before, t was like a eureka light bulb moment for me. I just knew I was going to be a musician and that was all I was going to do, and I set out to do it. Some of it was out of necessity because I didn’t want to go out and get another job and really I have no real other skills. I mean I didn’t go to university, I didn’t get a degree of any sort and I didn’t really take any training courses or learn how to do other things. I mean I have learned how to do other things obviously but they’ve mostly been music related, like I did my own recording studio for a while and recorded other people. You have to have lots of revenue streams to make a living as a musician and so my main one was busking so it was a kind of a necessity. I loved it and I still do but you know it was also necessary.
Maybe I wouldn’t recommend people going into a career in music anymore. I hate to say that that, it seems so negative, but I just don’t recommend it. Have a back-up plan if you’re a young person that’s driven to do music. Have a back-up plan. I didn’t have a back-up plan and I’m lucky I came along when I came. If I came along now, it’d be a lot harder.
I turned 65 this past year, so I’m starting to think about slowing down a little bit. My hands are paying for it now. I’ve got problems with my fingers folding in on me, they just naturally want to go like that all the time. It’s a little disconcerting and I’m trying to adapt and learn to play through it.”
Things have gotten tough at times and I have kept going. You just have to dig deep in yourself. I guess you just have to have enough belief that what you’re doing is the right thing for you. Follow your passion and do what makes you happy. Happiness is worth more than money.
Dave is currently playing every Tuesday night at the Loft and he would love to invite you to come down and hear him play. If you get the chance to go and see Dave or any other live music in the coming months, spread the word, bring friends, support the musicians by paying cover and tipping, buy something to eat or drink to help support the venue. The only way our arts community can survive is with your support.
Author: Christina Morrison
Photographer: AL Smith