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Street Music: A Busker's Tale

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By Elise Vider

 For someone who's only been a fulltime busker a few months, Jim Costello (aka Yaakov Yisrael or Uncle Jimmy) has the tricks of the trade down to a three-step plan:

(1) It is essential to stake out a good spot. Just in from an entry to Rittenhouse Square is good, because people can see you from a distance. Folks are in a giving mood on South Street after the bars close, for reasons that should be obvious. Tourists queuing to take a photo with the Rocky statue at the Art Museum have money in their pockets and are feeling generous. But Costello didn't feel the love at Love Park.

(2) Start out with a clear container and a few bucks of your own - it gives passersby the idea.

(3) Most of all, Costello says, "you got to be confident, you got to be smiling. You got to be clear and easy for people to give." He smiles big, clear and easy, as he says it.

Costello, 34, has been busking most every day since moving to Philadelphia in March, playing children's, folk and Jewish music with a guitar, harmonica and his own melodic voice. His musical influences, he told the Albany Times Union, his hometown paper, are Woody Guthrie, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Shlomo Carlebach, a New York rabbi who wrote and performed music worldwide. (Costello is his Irish father's name; his mother is Jewish.)On a typical good day, Costello says he can make $10 an hour; his personal best so far was Easter Sunday where, by the goat statue in Rittenhouse Square, he cleared $108 in six-and-a-half hours. But the recent heat has been a disaster for him and his fledgling business. "When it's 105, people are just thinking about where they can get into air conditioning," he says. (At the worst of the recent heat wave, Center City was a virtual no-busking zone.)

Jimmy Costello Performing In the Square

Thumbnail image for Jimmy Costello pix.jpg

Before Costello was a busker, he worked in law.  He explains his journey from that profession to street musician in this way:

"I did work in law for four years.  I passed the bar and worked doing electronic discovery, but ultimately decided not to pursue admission.  Artists and spiritual folk often are poor business people.  I went to law school to learn skills and ways of thinking that I could then use to promote my art.  But on a deeper level, law and folk music are both really storytelling.  Both sides of a legal case have he same facts, and it comes down to who tells a better story with those facts...so lawyers are fundamentally storytellers.  I got the experience and insight I wanted from that world, and left it to pursue holier work."

A self-taught musician who's been playing for 20 years, Costello writes and performs children's music ("folk music for kids, kid music for folks") as Uncle Jimmy.  He can, he notes, can play "Jenny Jenkins" fast for fourteen minutes, and "The Foolish Frog" for fifteen.
The other part of Costellos' repertoire consists of "spiritual folk-hop ... an eclectic blend of spiritually uplifting and soul-searching music." 

"Jim's original songs explore the universal truth of Torah, the depth and power of Chasidic niggun [melodies without lyrics, based on liturgy], the groove of Phish and the Grateful Dead, the lyrical mastery of Dylan, Eminem and Talib Kweli, the uplifting optimism of Bob Marley and the unprecedented love of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach," says one of his two websites (jimmy-costello.com and yaakov-yisrael.com).

With his law school degree and experience in business, Costello is a savvy marketer. Besides his web presence, from which you can buy and download tunes, he sells CDs and is available for kids' parties, Jewish services and celebrations and other gigs.

Busking, Costello hopes, is a temporary thing until he lands a job here in Jewish social services or outreach.

For the time being, you can find him, often in Rittenhouse Square, with a yarmulke on his head, a guitar and harmonica around his neck and an infectious grin, making music designed to enlighten and entertain.

 "People give depending on how they feel," he says. "It's the only constant thing out here." 

Here is a video of Jim Costello performing in Rittenhouse Square on a recent afternoon:
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