Through rain and snow, the musicians of State Street shine to bring joy to the community
On any given day in Madison, Wisconsin, State Street is alive. Alive with students, alive with workers, alive with pedestrians and alive with musicians. Even on the most miserable of days, whether that’s days dripping in sweat, or days dripping in snow, there are always musicians and singers out busking.
On this particular day, everything was drenched in cold sludge. The gray sky was spitting a slushy mixture of rain and snow, coating everyone and everything. A day that for lack of a better term was miserable. This however didn’t stop the musicians of Madison from pounding the pavement and getting out to play.
So, come and take a stroll down State Street. I think you will be delighted with what you find.
The Capitol Chordsmen
At the top of State Street an array of voices can be heard bouncing between buildings. These voices belong to The Capitol Chordsmen, a group of individuals who perform acapella in choruses and quartets around Madison and beyond.
On this specific day the group was found caroling along State Street in matching Santa hats singing classic Christmas tunes accompanied by smiles. The group gathers quite the crowd, attracting enough people to completely cover the storefront they were singing before.
The Chordsmen are a local chapter of a national organization called The Barbershop Harmony Society. This means that all of the chapters learn a number of the same songs, so therefore they can stop in at any rehearsal across the country and join in.
They were asked to come carol downtown by The Downtown Madison Association to spread the holiday spirit around the city. The group carols on the street inside of shops and wherever they know they will draw a joyful audience.
“It's a great way to expose people who necessarily wouldn't come to our music otherwise,” said Todd Frisky, a member of The Capitol Chordsmen.
The Capitol Chordsmen draw in new members from their performances, sparking the interests of people who wouldn't necessarily become aware of their group had they not been performing in such an accessible way. Many of their members have joined because of a performance they had seen by The Chordsmen.
This group takes pride in being able to bring acapella to Madison. As they perform it’s clear that the groups of holiday shoppers and students cannot help but be delighted by the classic nature of a Christmas carol.
More than anything, The Chordsmen enjoy music because of its accessibility. They love that it’s something that can be done by anyone. It is a community easy to be a part of for anyone and everyone. The Chordsmen just love brightening up a day, whether that day needs brightening or not.
“Last year when we were out here, we happened to be sitting next to a homeless woman and her young child. The little kid just beamed. As we were singing, none of us could take our eyes off this beautiful little boy,” Frisky said.
Just about anybody at any age from age 5 on up to 100 can sing,” said Todd Fletcher, another member of the Capitol Chordsmen.
The beauty of sharing their music in such a public forum like this is their ability to reach everyone. Performing on the street means being able to sing to anyone. People who weren’t expecting to play to the audience, but will gladly stop to listen.
As everyone slowly tiptoes and shuffles between blocks, the rough twang of a guitar can be heard piercing through the sleet. Standing on the corner of State and Gilman stands Samuel Johnson with his guitar, completely unfazed by the weather.
Johnson is a guitar player and graduate of Madison Area Technical College. He finds himself out on various corners of Madison playing for the community every day.
“I just play guitar because I like to promote myself as a musician. I love to play music. It's my life’s calling,” Johnson said.
His set up consists of him and his guitar, while his guitar case sits in his shadow collecting money that people offer him. A classic well practiced set-up for musicians out busking.
Johnson plays anything from Blink-182 to The Beatles to Johnny Cash. Johnson has a large library of music in his head, allowing him to quickly choose what he wants to play at a moment's notice.
Beyond music, Johnson considers himself a photographer as well as a comedian. He shares that it’s the art in the world that drives him more than anything else. He loves to be able to share what he creates with others.
Even on days that are cold and rainy like today, Johnson still prioritizes coming out and playing for people. To him, playing his guitar in the rain for strangers is what makes him happy.
“I do stand up comedy, music and I make videos and do photography and I blend it all together to make music. It heals myself, but it also heals the world,” Johnson said.
The Madison Carolers
As the Capitol comes closer into view another round of Christmas carols can be heard, this time the sound was coming from a much more rambunctious and silly group of carolers. Each person had themselves decked out in some way for Christmas, whether that was wearing a Santa hat or simply just wearing red.
These sounds belonged to The Madison Carolers, a group of friends who had started caroling together about five years ago.
“We're a bunch of friends who like singing and need an excuse to sing together. We’ve just grown over the years, friends just invite friends as the group gets better and bigger,” said Elise Russel, a member of The Madison Carolers
The group only comes out to sing Christmas carols two times during the holiday season, but spends a couple months preparing for their outings. The bulk of their time, however, is spent in practices that begin in the fall. Russel notes that more than anything it’s an excuse to get together with her friends, eat snacks and sing.
Beyond Christmas, The Madison Carolers also vocally celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The group once again meets around the Irish holiday to learn festive songs and hang out before hitting the streets to spread their cheer.
“We do Irish caroling just because we're not done singing after Christmas. So we get together and learn Irish songs, and then on St. Patty’s Day we will go to a Killarney Blarney concert and will pound beers on the bar,” Russel said.
Whether they’re singing Christmas songs or Irish songs, this group of carolers has fun watching the joy on people’s faces as they sing. People will get very excited at the sights and sounds of a caroling group such as The Madison Carolers. The group will often stop into businesses to sing for whoever’s inside to listen, bringing their cheer from the streets, across thresholds and into intimate shops, boutiques and restaurants.
“We walked into a burrito joint one time and there was nobody there, but the people in the kitchen. And they were like,‘carolers!’, we're like, ‘yes!’ So we came back to the kitchen and sang a bunch of songs for them, and they were so happy,” said Russel.
There aren’t that many opportunities for adults to come together and sing, but The Madison Carolers have happily made the space for themselves. Bonding over their shared love for music, making people smile and of course singing in harmony.
“Singing in harmony feels great. When you hit the notes right, together, people stop and see you and all your friends. So then getting to do it with other people is also really joyous and fun,” said Russell.