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  • Writer's pictureColin Phelan

Ever see this guy in Boston Common? - The Professor World Band plays more than just catchy music...

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

BOSTON, March 2020 – Perched-up in either the Boston Commons or one of Boston’s T-stops for most weekends of the year, Dan Friedman straps his bright green harmonica around his neck, slides his rugged white shoes into his self-designed mallet attached slippers, and plays multiple instruments at the same time. Seated behind his painstakingly decorated, ostentatious ‘Peace-Wave-Generator,’ 66-year-old Ramblin’ Dan – most commonly known as the founder, leader, and sole member of The Professor World Band -- is still at it, still working as a busker, still determined to as he puts it “broadcast peace waves to all the troubled spots of the world.”

“I love making people smile. I’m still loving it,” Friedman said as he reflected back on his nearly four-decade journey to over forty countries.

Aside from being what several people refer to as an “interesting guy” with a quite remarkable, motion-picture-worthy life, Friedman does more than merely play catchy street tunes. Playing in a city with a history of strong support for street musicians, Friedman is increasingly mobilizing Boston’s streets and public spaces as sites where he can articulate political messages, especially ahead of the impending 2020 election. Although always perceiving his own music as apolitical and in pursuit of world peace, Friedman plays to the fullest extent which Boston’s streets enable him.

As the world travelled, New Haven born-and-raised Friedman enthusiastically pointed out, “Boston is an oasis for street musicians.”

Friedman’s journey has taken him from the U.S. to Europe, and back again; after a several-decade stint in Europe, Friedman returned to the the Americas. Whether this was a consequence of a failed relationship, dwindling financial prospects, or maybe a longing to return to his country-of-birth, Friedman shipped his van overseas and, after living in South America for a short time, moved up north. Primarily, Friedman notes that changing European laws factored into his decision, “ever since 9/11 Europe got a lot tougher and made more laws. They check you out.”

Quickly, though, Friedman found that laws in the U.S., especially in Boston were most suitable for his profession. Boston Common, in particular, the oldest city park in the U.S., in one of the most historic cities in the U.S., proved to be an immensely friendly and productive playing space; there, he could do what he loves. He chose a home.

On one end, Friedman attributes Boston’s supportive busker culture to Stephen Baird, a street musician turned legal advocate.

“He sued the city... and the judge ruled that Boston’s laws against street music were a constitutional violation of our free speech,” Friedman explained.

Baird, the founder and executive director of Community Arts Advocates, has been involved with Boston community arts and music for several decades. According to his website, Baird has been featured in several premier publications for his legal activism to protect first amendment rights in Boston. The historian Patty Campbell, whose definitive book on the history of street performers in America even lauded Baird as the “national authority on the history of busking.”

Baird’s legal advocacy for street arts dates back to the early 1970s, when, according to a letter he wrote to the Boston City Council in 2016, “the Boston Police arrested members of my own street audience during a performance on Boston Common.” Over the next few decades, Baird challenged existing law, and eventually founded the Street Arts and Buskers Advocates in 1996. Over the past ten decades, Baird has “consulted with city officials and artists in Chicago, Saint Louis, New Orleans, Hartford,” and even served as an expert witness on Federal Court cases about street performances in other cities such as New York City, Washington DC, and Las Vegas.

For a busker whose flamboyant ‘Peace-Wave-Generator’ music-contraption raises some brows and even blinds the eyes of any passerby’s, Friedman dresses somewhat nondescriptly, especially when – so to speak – removed from his office. His simple clothes reflect his modest circumstances. His tight-fitting, short brimmed, rugged black cap and black pants don’t beg for attention; his bifocals present him as yet another older-aged man who both wants to read and see (Imagine?!). Sure, he could use a shave -- as some of his grey neck hairs bust from his ever-so-slightly unzipped tie-die zipper hoodie -- but overall Friedman simply blends in as one of Boston’s many residents.

However, separating Dan Friedman from The Professor World Band is an impossible task: The Professor World Band is Dan Friedman just as Dan Friedman is The Professor World Band (while it is unclear where the plurality in his ‘band’ comes from – whether Friedman himself views himself and his instruments as multiple musicians, or whether the ‘band’ is created when passersby swallow their pride and ring a tambourine or rattle a grate).Even while walking Boston’s streets in his somewhat laymen clothes, Friedman sustains this fused identity, as he pushes some rendition of his ‘Peace-Wave-Generator’ – of which he has several, ranging in size and capability. By easing the weight of his contraption by strapping it to a two-wheeled dolly, and by colorfully consolidating his miniature guitar to the suitcase’s top with an array of bungee chords, Friedman can’t help but look a little bit different from the rest, and can’t help but clumsily put any nearby, somewhat fragile objects in danger.

If his math is correct, which I should be led to believe it is despite my catching a few miscalculations during our time together, Friedman was born in 1954 in southern Connecticut, the son of two folk-music lovers. Friedman, too, always loved music, and attended many concerts in his youth, always dedicating a special adolescent reverence to Pete Sieger.

Once he entered college – studying botany at the University of Wisconsin -- Friedman kept his love for music close-by, frequently having jam sessions with his roommate with whom he often played a then-recently purchased 75 cent broken guitar, one which he quickly – and as we now know, characteristically -- finagled into playable form. After undergrad, Friedman continued to study and pursued a graduate degree at the University of Texas. There, his love for music flourished, as did his convictions for peace. Intermittently, he experimented with a Jack Kerouac inspired life on the road; as a dabbling street-musician, he crisscrossed the country with one of his earliest iterations of his unique, personally industrialized music contraptions.

Having been inspired but not fully moved by the Vietnam War protests preceding the 1975 Fall of Saigon, Friedman’s late 1970s studies at the University of Texas escalated his concerns about society and pushed him further in the direction of peace. Then working in a lab, Friedman says he “had a professor who discovered a growth hormone,” one now known as gibberellic acid. As Friedman discovered more about this chemical, and about others either affiliated with his lab or his aspirant profession, Friedman said that a “cocktail of chemicals” encouraged him to investigate; and investigate he did, when he discovered gibberellic acid was one of the several components used in agent orange, the chemical weapon waged by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

“It just made me wonder sometimes, what we are doing with science,” Dan recalled.

Naturally, Friedman’s at-best dubious comments about science reminisced Kurt Vonnegut, some of whose books’ would have been Friedman’s contemporaries, and whose perceptions of science largely paralleled Friedman’s. Vonnegut, older than Friedman but whose books such as Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five betrayed a somewhat contrarian perception of science, regarded science not necessarily as an unquestioned marker of human progress, but instead as a sort of zero-sum-game. In Slaughterhouse Five, for example, Vonnegut considers how the advancement of nuclear technology, despite its potential, also inevitably leads to nuclear warfare.

Dan even cited Vonnegut’s logic as inspirational to his life’s trajectory, “I love his stuff. He is one of my favorite authors.”

Having considered these negative implications of science, Friedman quickly realized that music was his best chance at affecting change in this world, to make people happy in this world. In his mid 20s, he shipped off to Europe where in the 1980s he played for a few years, and was encouraged yet again to push for peace.

There he bounced around, and spent considerable time in Cold-War West Germany amidst widespread condemnation for U.S. defense policies. Following Reagan’s tension-broiling comments which regarded the USSR as the “focus of evil in the Modern World,” and subsequent contemplations to station nuclear weapons in West Germany, Friedman joined in on the protests.

“We were stationing nuclear missiles in Germany and a lot of other places and the Russians were aiming back at us. There were a lot of protests back then,” Friedman cloudily remembered.

Although noting that his free-wheeling time a busker was only going to last for “one year, originally,” eventually, on his 30th birthday in 1984, Friedman put a name to his act and incarnated The Professor World Band; Friedman remembers “wearing one of those graduation caps, a professor cap, while waving a sign that said ‘stop the bomb’,” and says that his band’s title, the whole professor thing, just “kind of happened,” and clearly, has just kind of stuck.

For the next few decades, Friedman travelled back and forth from the U.S. and Europe, but spent most of his time in Europe, playing on Europe’s busker-friendly streets, wooing a few lovers along the way, and even buying a house in Ireland. He remembers ripping around the continent in an “old Mercedes truck with a terrace on the roof and a stage on the side.”

As Dan shared pictures of this old glory-day van, he shrugged that his present-day, smaller-red van pales in comparison; even more so since he sleeps in it occasionally.

However, when not living in his red van during his weekend business trips to Boston, Friedman stays in nearby co-ops. Friedman says that unlike many other major cities, both Boston and Cambridge have retained friendly co-op laws which contrast those of other major cities, where normally no more than four non-related people may live in the same apartment space.

In addition to his identity as Ramblin’ Dan of The Professor World Band, Friedman also strongly identifies himself with these Boston and Cambridge area co-ops which he has frequented – and even called home -- for almost two decades now.

Fran, a volunteer with the Harvard Tourism association who has seen Friedman perform and even once had a few drinks with Dan at a happy hour, recounted her surprise when she discovered Friedman lived in a commune. “Somehow,” she said, “Dan still does it.”

Although Friedman just recently bought a property in Western Mass, he still spends many nights in his red van, and most others in the co-ops.

According to Friedman, he has befriended many people in these co-ops – mostly buskers. Despite obvious competition between all of the city’s buskers, one of them even recently showed Friedman “how to sign up for Venmo,” in order to compensate for the fact that people usually don’t carry change anymore.

Repeatedly, Friedman emphasized Baird’s legal work against the state and the uninterrupted tradition of affordable co-ops in the city as instrumental to Boston’s becoming this “oasis” for buskers.

As Friedman finished his first set on a clear-blue skied Saturday morning -- a set which consisted of:

12:05 PM: Can’t Help Falling in Love, Elvis Presley,

12:11 PM: This Land is Your Land, Woodie Guthrie,

12:20 PM: I Walk the Line, Johnny Cash,

Sometime shortly after I Walk the Line: Imagine, John Lennon,

12:30 PM: Take Me Home, Country Roads, John Denver,

he seemed visibly upset that many phone-gazing, air-pod distracted passerby’s either ignored – or failed to appreciate – his performance. This same perception was offered by New Hampshire visitor Scott Bryan, who, in addition to saying Friedman was the “most interesting thing he’d seen all day,” noted how surprised he was that people could “keep their heads down on their phones” as they walked by the show.

Friedman then turned to his right and faced me as I sat on the concrete ground beside him, finding a rhythm on the tambourines in-step Dan’s present song-choice, Tambourine Man. He lifted his harmonica strap above his head, and said to me, “I need a puff to put me in the mood.”

I felt like a member of the band.

And so we walked just outside the venue, underneath one of the several signs which pays homage to the Boston Common’s rich tradition as a public space, Boston Common 1837. Friedman asked me if I wanted “in” with him –if I wanted to smoke with him – and leaned his five-foot-five frame in the direction of his shabby red van parked at a nearby meter. I quickly responded with an almost premeditated, unevaluated “no thanks,” instead opting to run and find a bathroom, my bladder about to explode from too much time on the tambourines trying to prove my day’s membership in The Professor World Band. Undeterred, Friedman looked to me and said, “I never thought I’d see the day you could smoke pot in Boston,” before casually shouldering off to his van.

While The Professor World Band began as both a response to a hostile-world order and as a means for Friedman to travel the world, Friedman now says that while he “tries to stay unpolitical in his show (because) its about peace and environmental things and so-forth,” with the impending election, Friedman shows how he uses Boston’s comparatively supportive busker-culture to best express his views.

This shift was seen in one of his later Saturday mid-afternoon acts, a rendition of Bob Dylan’s The Times they are a Changing, whereby Friedman seamlessly substituted the lyric “The Climate is a Changin’ ” into the song’s catchy refrain, all the while channeling his inner Bobby D. through his harmonica, but as is his style, playing the song with much more than one instrument. As usual, Friedman played his colors, and as he propelled the contraption’s second-tier circular platform with his powerful left leg, he rotated his ‘Peace Wave Generator’ counterclockwise, seemingly without effort. He belted his message across the Commons, aided by his Boston-permitted amplifier, to both visitors and Bostonians alike.

In another recent instance, too, Friedman sang Willie Nelson’s Vote em’ Out, seemingly targeting President Donald Trump, according to Mia Stegner, a Media Arts Production student at Emerson College who recently produced a min-documentary about The Professor World Band.

While Friedman noted that, “I’ll probably start getting a little bit more political towards the election,” he quickly assured me that despite political invocations, The Professor World Band is intent on “getting people to smile.”

As we spoke Friedman’s veiled, relaxed eyes wandered, and often his mind followed – but always settled upon the arena of politics. On one occasion, he even said he was considering “travelling out to swing states to try and register some voters.” Following this statement, he once again quickly, but calmly assured, “Mostly, though, its about making people laugh and smile.”

Of course, these sorts of considerations are extremely tricky to navigate. While some might classify Friedman’s playing in tie-die clad in Boston Common on his “Peace-Wave-Generator” as a political statement in itself, Friedman’s calibration of what he considers to be political and what he considers to be apolitical differs from others. Peace, climate change, and even the support for pot, Friedman would say, are not politically charged messages.

When considering if Friedman’s The Professor World Band is political, Stegner stated, “I think the pursuit of ‘world peace’ is inherently anti-war, so even though it’s a very wholesome point, it can also be viewed as a form of protest. While the music he performs isn’t always outwardly political, there is an underlying activism in what he does.”

Nevertheless, the lines are blurred, especially considering Friedman’s remarks which demonstrated his discontent with the present American political scene. He even stated if our “so-called president wins reelection,” he might just travel back to Europe. “(Trump is) pretty bad now but he’d be even worse if he gets re-elected.”

While his political convictions of the past – such as for peace or denuclearization – and even those of the present might be debatable, Friedman’s music shows that he leverages Boston’s busker-friendly situation to his own ends. He shows that even nearing our country’s quarter-millennia, there remains hardly a better place to practice first amendment rights than in the city of the revolution – especially for buskers.

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