Descend the escalator into the Harvard Square T Stop, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear not just the screeching of an approaching train but also music from one of Boston’s many street performers. Among the most buoyant and whimsical of the local buskers is Ramblin’ Dan and his one-man band.
Playing dozens of instruments stitched together with pipe cleaners and tie-dye duct tape, Ramblin’ Dan cajoles people to pause.
“I’m a traveling music man on my way around the world,” Ramblin’ Dan sings while kicking pots and pans, tapping drums, banging a xylophone, strumming a guitar-ukulele hybrid, and playing about ten other instruments with great exuberance.
Street performers in many major U.S. cities vie for attention and a few dollars. Their interactions are fleeting. Their histories often unknown. But not many of these street performers have been at it as long or are as well traveled as Ramblin’ Dan.
“I’m a gonna sing a song for you about the places I have been,” he belts out his song to the transient audience that gathers and disappears with each arriving train.
Indeed, Dan Friedman’s lyrics are based on a true story. He’s performed in about 40 countries over 40 years: Guatemala, Australia, Singapore, Israel, Fiji, Mexico, the list goes on.
“Unfortunately, the English barred me from their country,” Friedman said. “They said I was going to work there. I said, ‘No, I am going to make people smile.’ Anyhow, they fingerprinted me, arrested me and sent me back to France. The French said, ‘Oh, welcome to France. Bon Voyage. Have a good trip!’ ”
When the Iron Curtain fell, Friedman went to Eastern Europe. As one of the first Americans in local schools, he was a cheery ambassador of sorts.
He lugged his musical contraptions to refugee camps in Bosnia and Croatia, handing out toys and chocolate when he sang.
He remembers Italy fondly. He played music dressed as a peaceful cowboy: a banana in his holster, an arrow in his hat, and a rope on his shoulder.
“I once lassoed a policeman with it!” Friedman said laughing at the memory. “He was coming to stop me, and I couldn’t – I had a good crowd of people.”
The policeman let him off and Ramblin’ Dan kept hopscotching around, improvising his career as a street musician.
Now in his 60s and gray, Friedman says he wasn't always destined for an itinerant musical life. He shows me a black-and-white photo covered in plastic, proof of another path he might have taken.
“There’s me with a cowboy hat and an electron microscope," he said.
Friedman was a graduate student studying biology in Austin, Texas. It was going well. But, one day, he spotted a family of hitchhikers on the side of the road: Steve, Joanne, their nine year-old son River, their dog named Buffalo Elk, and something else they had in tow.
“All these instruments,” Friedman said. He remembers thinking, "What are you doing hitchhiking with all these things?”
The answer is they were on their way to play street music. Friedman started joining in on their sidewalk jam sessions between classes.
These new friends reminded Friedman of his childhood. His parents used to host musicians for hootenannies in their family home. He remembers them vividly.
“The fireplace going, us kids were always in pajamas sitting on the steps because we were supposed to be in bed," he reminisced.
It wasn’t long before Friedman left graduate school and became Ramblin’ Dan. He set out on the road where every street corner was a stage.
“That was a real thrill,” he said. “Sometimes I slept under bridges. That was also lovely. It was just an adventure.”
The adventuring stretched from years into decades. He crisscrossed the country, then the world. At some point along the way he gave up hitchhiking and got a rusty old Volkswagen bus and a band name: The Professor World Band.
That’s when he realized he needed more than a few bucks for food. He needed money for bus repairs and, for that, he needed an audience. So, Dan concocted a two-part plan.
First, get people’s attention. He wanted people to pause and think: “Wow, what is that thing? What does it do? It’s so outlandish looking.”
And that's how Ramblin’ Dan went from street musician to inventor. He constructs complex music machines from colorful items he pulls from dumpsters or salvages from the gutter.
"I have rubber chickens,” he said. “See, this is Henrietta. But Henrietta, as you can see, has kinda lost her voice."
The second part of his plan? Make kids happy.
“When kids are having fun, old people stop and look and they have fun, too,” he said.
Wherever Ramblin’ Dan plays, there’s always an assortment of shakers and tambourines around his tap-dancing, drum-hitting feet.
He’ll call out to the crowd, “I’m looking for a tambourine player. Are there any tambourine players out there? Come join the band!”
Soon, the one-man-band expands. With toddlers in tow, it's a two-or-three-man-band.
The kids are boogying along as Dan sings out his songs. “I am just trying to make you smile. And it’s hey, hey, hey, let the music play,” he croons.
Ramblin’ Dan says he’s just barely getting by financially, but he continues to play his jolly, uplifting flavor of street music. He says the world needs it now more than ever.