What are some great songs to play on the street?
November 8, 2010 1:51 PM   Subscribe

What are some great songs — well written, widely popular, up-tempo — to play on the street?

I recently started busking on the street, singing along with my acoustic guitar for spare change. I’m mostly in it for fun, but I love watching people sing along and it sure is nice when someone pitches a bill into the guitar case.

I’m finding it difficult to come up with songs that consistently get positive reactions, so I’m looking for suggestions. Here are my criteria. The ideal busking song is

- very widely known
- up-tempo
- positive in outlook
- solidly written: well constructed words, catchy melody
- about something other than how much I love my girl/boy
- not too demanding technically (my guitar skills are rudimentary)

So far, I’ve had the most success with Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Richie Valens’ “La Bamba.” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” comes in a distant third, with lots of duds after that.

I’m well familiar with pop/rock hits of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and to a lesser extent ‘80s, but sketchy on anything after that and would appreciate more recent suggestions. Some current songs would be great.
posted by Greenie to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Can you whistle? Maybe PB+Js Young Folks?

Or King of Wishful Thinking? But maybe you need to be Lauren Zettler to pull that one off?

American Pie by Don McLean.
posted by Siena at 1:59 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mr Jones by the Counting Crows and Breakfast at Tiffany's by Deep Blue Something jump out at me as the kind of thing you might be looking for. Fun stuff that everybody knows.

Also, maybe some Paul Simon? Call Me Al might be fun.

Elderly Woman [...] by Pearl Jam could also work. So could You Can't Always Get What You Want by the Stones or Me and Bobby McGee.

You can also find pretty easy guitar tabs for lots of non-guitar pop songs online. A cover of a Lady Gaga song (maybe Bad Romance) would probably bring the house down.
posted by auto-correct at 2:06 PM on November 8, 2010

Ooh and can you sing fast? Maybe It's The End Of The World As We Know It?
posted by Siena at 2:08 PM on November 8, 2010

'Till I Kissed You.
posted by Danf at 2:17 PM on November 8, 2010

There's a guy that plays the saxophone on a bridge in Pittsburgh who sometimes plays the theme to Sesame Street. It's very well known and brings back good memories to people. Maybe throw that in every so often?
posted by amicamentis at 2:20 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Back in the day, one of my best friends used to play Nirvana songs out in front of our high school. He confided that this was largely because they are super easy to play. To hear him tell it, they are also catnip to the ladies. On a recent camping trip he broke out the old catalogue playing "Breed", "Molly's Lips", etc. Everyone loved it. He said he hadn't played them very much in the 10 years since high school, but that's how easy they are to play/remember. The content may be a bit dark, but the songs are pretty bouncy and have a pretty high "Oh, I loved that song!" value which maybe equals tips!
posted by troublewithwolves at 2:23 PM on November 8, 2010

Thanks for all the suggestions so far! Lots of songs I haven't heard, which is great. I'm psyched to expand my repertoire in some new directions.

I'd been avoiding "American Pie," but I suppose there's no harm in trying!

I've been singing "You Can't Always Get What You Want," but I must I find it tough going. Not much of a melody and precious few chords. The whole thing is carried by inflection and dynamics, and I haven't yet mustered the charisma to pull it off.

"Sesame Street" - nice.

I've been meaning to look into Nirvana, just knowing how much they mean to a lot of people. I'll definitely check out the songs you mention.
posted by Greenie at 2:37 PM on November 8, 2010


Dexys Midnight Runners - Come on Eileen


Oasis - Wonderwall


The Arcade Fire - Wake Up

Those should be pretty easy to strip down to basic guitar chords, though the chords are surprising enough that you'll probably want to Google the tab.

Seconding "Mr. Jones" — that would be perfect.
posted by John Cohen at 2:38 PM on November 8, 2010

- about something other than how much I love my girl/boy

Apologies for suggesting "Come on Eileen" since the lyrics are pretty much "Gee, you're really attractive and I'd like to have sex with you," but to my ears it has a universal "Let's all unite in joy" effect that transcends its literal message.

posted by John Cohen at 2:44 PM on November 8, 2010

I've been meaning to look into Nirvana, just knowing how much they mean to a lot of people. I'll definitely check out the songs you mention.

Then check out this mostly acoustic rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
posted by Danf at 2:58 PM on November 8, 2010

Plastic Jesus?
posted by IndigoJones at 3:00 PM on November 8, 2010

I've been meaning to look into Nirvana, just knowing how much they mean to a lot of people. I'll definitely check out the songs you mention.

Well, don't play the Nirvana songs mentioned above. If you want to play Nirvana, consider "Come As You Are," "Lithium," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," or "All Apologies."
posted by John Cohen at 3:01 PM on November 8, 2010

Play Freebird
posted by imjustsaying at 3:13 PM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Theme tunes to things
Here Comes The Sun
Hey Jude
The Eagles Hotel California
John Denver Country Roads
Simon and Garfunkel Mrs Robinson
James Taylor You've Got A Friend

John Prine, James Taylor, Neil Young

If you're a man try some of Dolly Parton's upbeat numbers, especially the girly ones. Doesn't matter if you play them straight or ironically, I've never seen it fail.
posted by shinybaum at 3:16 PM on November 8, 2010

Violent Femmes - Blister in the Sun
posted by davey_darling at 3:16 PM on November 8, 2010

Sam Cooke - Cupid

The Kinks - Lola

The Band - The Weight (you can play it a bit faster than on the recordings)

Smokey Robinson - You Really Got a Hold on Me

Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues

Pretty much anything The Beatles ever did. Stuff of their earlier albums is probably less complex "please please me," "I wanna hold your hand," "ticket to ride," and "help!" should do nicely, as would later songs like "Octopus's Garden" and "Oh! Darling" work pretty well aslo.
posted by Jon_Evil at 3:26 PM on November 8, 2010

Peace Train by Cat Stevens, (now known as Yusef Islam). Every place I've heard it lately, people are singing along with it!
posted by 6:1 at 3:44 PM on November 8, 2010

more 90s classix:

"No Rain" by Blind Melon
"You Get What You Give" by the Иew Radicals
posted by King, in the hall of the mountain at 3:51 PM on November 8, 2010

Oops, you wanted more modern stuff. You could try folking up some rap and pop, like this:

Poker Face (Lady Gaga) Chris Daughtry
Straight Up (Paula Abdul) Andrew Garcia
Hey Ya (Outkast) Obediah Parker
My Humps (Black Eyed Peas) Alannis Morrisette

But I still say girly gets money.
posted by shinybaum at 4:11 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Johnny cash - I've been everywhere man

Outkast - Hey yah!

Mack the knife
posted by jcwilliams at 4:17 PM on November 8, 2010

This may be all meme'd out but Kelly Clarkson's Since U Been Gone? (with a bit of Yeah Yeah Yeah's Maps)

White Stripes - Fell In Love with a Girl
Madonna - "Express Yourself"
They Might Be Giants - "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)"
The Greatest American Hero theme song
Survivor - Eye of the Tiger
TLC - No Scrubs?
Crowded House - Don't Dream It's Over
posted by zix at 4:54 PM on November 8, 2010

IndigoJones, Plastic Jesus was my first thought. It would really make my day to hear a busker sing that song onmy way to work.
posted by InkaLomax at 5:05 PM on November 8, 2010

I always think the song sort of belongs to Paul Newman though
posted by InkaLomax at 5:07 PM on November 8, 2010

posted by Lutoslawski at 5:38 PM on November 8, 2010

Many of the newer songs that people are suggesting would ruin my day if I heard a busker singing them. I propose a 20 year rule. That's long enough for the bad associations to wear off and the nostalgia to kick in.

I propose -

Wake Up Everybody - Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
some Bill Withers
Mary J Blige - Family Affair
some Kool and the Gang?
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 8:06 PM on November 8, 2010

I believe Stand By Me by Ben E King is a standard.
posted by wayland at 8:22 PM on November 8, 2010

Sweet Jane by the Velvet Underground (everyone knows it, instantly recognizable riff, lyrics involve standing on streetcorners)

The Passenger by Iggy Pop (dead simple to play, has a "la la la la" chorus to encourage crowd participation, will evoke sympathy from people heading toward and from public transit)

Stepping Stone by The Monkees (can be sped up for punks and slowed down for boomers)

Ain't No Fun Waitin' Round To Be A Millionaire by AC/DC (encourages tipping)

Problem Child by AC/DC (just because I think a bluesy acoustic version would be cool)

I Wanna Be Your Dog by The Stooges (because it's a deeply heartfelt sensitive love song. OK, it's not. But it would grab you some attention. And it's also easy to play.)
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:35 PM on November 8, 2010

Our local busker played Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" this morning, and it cheered me right up.
posted by judith at 9:28 PM on November 8, 2010

Sly & The Family Stone - Everyday People
Sly & the Family Stone - Hot Fun in the Summertime
Never Can Say Goodbye (Michael or Jimmy)
I Go To Rio (Muppets or Peter Allen)
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Froggie Went a Courtin'
You Are My Sunshine

And you will soon need some Christmas-season songs, so start working on them. Put a Little Love in Your Heart and The Power Of Love are good non-Christmas songs people associate with the holiday for movie or video reasons.

And once you've gone there, you have to sing What The World Needs Now: Jackie DeShannon or Dionne and Burt or ...
posted by pracowity at 12:15 AM on November 9, 2010

Big Star - In The Street? (though this version is the (sadly) more recognizable version)
posted by namewithoutwords at 5:21 AM on November 9, 2010

Fuck You - Cee Lo Green (you'd probably want to do an expurgated version)
Rehab - Amy Winehouse
Blister in the Sun - Violent Femmes
Should I Stay or Should I Go? - The Clash
Complicated - Avril Lavigne
Octopus's Garden - The Beatles
Boys Don't Cry - The Cure
Runaway - Del Shannon
Seven Nation Army - The White Stripes
Come as You Are - Nirvana
Wouldn't It Be Nice? - The Beach Boys
posted by h00py at 6:27 AM on November 9, 2010

I think what you’re looking for is the kind of stuff DJ’s play at weddings. Like:

Sweet Caroline – Neil Diamond
Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
YMCA – Village People
My Girl – The Temptations
Oh Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison
What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
Summer of ’69 – Bryan Adams
I Want You to Want Me – Cheap Trick
Life is a Highway – Tom Cochrane (made popular recently by Rascal Flatts)
Into the Groove - Madonna

Some (fairly) newer stuff:
Umbrella – Rihanna
I’m Yours – Jason Mraz
Baby One More Time – Britney Spears

Also, do not underestimate the power of the Sound of Music. EVERYONE knows the words to Do Re Mi, but if I saw a busker singing The Lonely Goatherd, I’d drop him a twenty on the spot!
posted by yawper at 9:59 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the great suggestions.
Some are in my repertoire already:
"Sweet Jane," "Steppin' Stone," "Everyday People," "Lola," "Country Roads," lots of Beatles. My MJ tribute is "Man in the Mirror," though the tempo is on the slow side.

"The Lonely Goatherd" - I never would have thought of that.

"I Wanna Be Your Dog"?!

posted by Greenie at 12:37 PM on November 9, 2010

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