Elijah “Eli” Harris has been busking in Syracuse, NY for as long as I can remember. Busking, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the definition of anyone who performs on the street for money. Every once in a while, you’ll meet a person who inspires you; Not because of the money they make or the people they know, but because of their non-stop hard work and dedication to their craft.
Light or dark, rain or shine, sleet, snow, or hail, chances are if you’ve ever been to an SU game, a concert, or a bar in downtown Syracuse at night, you’ve seen Eli. If you haven’t, get your eyes checked immediately. From the streets and of the streets, Eli has managed to record and release music, consistently compose new material, and has a catalogue of cover songs in his arsenal to get ANYONE moving.
Life has thrown him many curveballs in his day, and for a while I did not know if I’d ever see my friend again. Thankfully, Eli is in a much better place than when I last saw him, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and right back to the streets he went. I’ve never seen someone as driven or dedicated to performing music in all my life, but then again, this is how he makes his living. I don’t think I could do it myself… could YOU? So, when you see him with his guitar in hand, shuffling all over the sidewalk, toss him a $5 and tell him to “Take it to the bridge!” I caught up with my old friend on Westcott Street where he was doing what he does best.
The full, unedited conversation we had is below. It’s a long one, but if ever there was a story worth sharing, this’d be the one. Read along and always, ALWAYS, support your grassroots musicians.
G- Ok so what’s going on, Syracuse? It’s September 26th and we are at the Westcott Theater for Papadosio and Dopapod, but I happened to run into an old and dear friend of mine named Eli Harris. Eli is a street musician of the purest form; We’re talking about a guy who literally makes his living busking on the street, playing music for people and crowds wherever he can. He’s been doing this… I’m 34 years old and I can remember him downtown when I was 16, strutting around playing James Brown riffs and making it happen for himself.
For a while there, I didn’t think he’d be coming back to Syracuse. He finished off a little respite to take care of his body and his mind, but he has returned and is back with guitar in hand, and I wanted to introduce you all to him. Eli, how has everything been going, man… It’s great to see you.
E- It’s been a blessing. I just love being back in Syracuse and having such a warm welcome back.
G- You are a local legend in this town, and though you might not be world known, if anybody needs to know what a legitimate, busking street musician looks like, you are the benchmark. You make rounds like some of the professionals don’t even know how to… You’re playing in front of venues, ball games, bars… How do you keep up the pace that you manage to keep?
E- Well, I find out where things are by looking at the Syracuse New Times, and sometimes word of mouth. People will say “Eli, can you come to my party?” or “Eli, we’re having a big, big, big celebration,” and so I just listen to a lot of conversations. People tell me by word of mouth.
G- So, do you spend a lot of time on the Facebook or Twitter, or are this is all really just putting your eyes to paper and making it happen wherever you can?
E- Well, here lately I’ve just been getting involved with twitter and the computer and stuff like that, so this is a new area for me. I’m trying to ‘Keep up with the Joneses’ in other words. Everybody is on the internet and everything, and I have a pretty good growing fan base on the internet. I do a little bit of work for Marshall Street Records, and I’ll be doing another cd.
I have 3 cd’s. One is called “Eli’s Alleyway,” another is called “Eli’s Christmas Mission,” and my third cd… I haven’t come up with a name for it, but I’ll be up there in the winter just selling my cd’s, t-shirts, and also hoodies, whatever. And I’ll have mittens on.
I’m going to be having an operation on my wrist and forearm. It comes from extensive playing of my music, and it’s one of those things that most musicians, or even people that use their arms and legs and limbs get… It’s called carpel tunnel.
G- Ok, and is that going to be a pretty quick recovery time for you? Are you going to be able to come out here and play for us after that?
E- Yea yea yea. I’m trying to get it done during the crucial parts of the winter, so I can rest and take it easy, you know not get around to all of the venues. It’s gonna stop a little bit of my basketball playing and stuff, but I’ll be out there with my cd’s and stuff, and being on twitter and facebook communicating with people and just trying to drag people into my sound of what I’m doing.
G- That’s very good and you recently… You’re a musician through and through, and you’re a creative type, and you just got back from rehabilitation…
E- That’s right.
G- How has everything been going with that?
E- I’m still blessed to be sober and still in recovery, and that’s a lovely thing, because… It’s been a long road. I’ve had a lot of things happen to me… Death of loved ones. Lots of things have happened to me that have kind of bogged me down. Although people see me playing my music on the streets, and they swear I’m the happiest dude in the world, the only way I’m able to be happy is to see the joy of making other people happy, so it’s an inspiration to see people jumping around and having a good time, and it makes me happy inside. I’ve had troubles with drugs and alcohol, and I’ve come to a point where I have to take care of myself, and I want to live.
This is a very important part of my life, and to stay sober, it’s kinda tough. You see people drinking when you’re performing and they offer you drinks, and people offer you drugs, but, you know, just for people that are listening and people that know me… I’m clean, sane, and sober, and it’s a blessing.
G- And we are very glad of that. We want to see you around here for years and years and years to come. I’ve been following for a long time, and there’s always been something missing when you weren’t out here.
What I want to know is, I’ve been watching you for almost two decades. I was about 16 up on Marshall Street, skipping school and eating Cosmo’s pizza and all that…
G- What got you started busking for a living?
E- Well, I played in bands, you know. I’ve been playing since 1969 and we’re talking 44, 45 years. So what I did is I played in bands and in this city, it’s kinda hard to get gigs when you’re doing, not to say the type of music I do, but you know certain venues got their own picks of who they want playing. And so when I was playing in bands, we struggled.
We did all of the practices and… There’s 3 things that really hurt a striving band. One is staying together. Guys sticking together, practicing, rehearsing. And then the equipment that it took to pull off the songs. And another thing is getting gigs, man. You can practice and practice and practice, and you can end up spending so much time rehearsing, and you don’t get any gigs. Gigs are few, so you end up putting a lot of time in doing the practice and rehearsing, and you don’t get your livelihood out of it as far as monies or financial, so it kinda ended up driving me to play guitar on these streets to hold my own and get my own gigs, you know?
I consider myself my own agent because when you get out and go to these venues, like I said reading the New times or sometimes people give me gigs right off the street. People will say “Hey man, I’m having a party,” so I started doing that because, you know, I just wanted to make my own income… Entrepreneurship type of thing.
G- And I’ll betcha you’re making a lot more money than a lot of the bands touring around that have to pay gas. What you’ve got right here in Syracuse is a local fan base that knows you, you’ve got friends and family who are always anxious to see you, myself included, and we like seeing you out here. It provides a nice little respite from the bars and loud venues and basketball games.
But one of the things that most impressed me about you is that you’ve got a catalogue of songs that you can just pull out and mix together… You’re better at playing acoustic guitar and singing mixes than some of the dj’s that are making thousands of dollars.
E- You noticed that… That’s good!
G- How do you gauge your original compositions with your covers, and how to you make everything flow and integrate into one and other like you do?
E- It’s because through the years, I’ve listened to a wide range of music, you know? I can mention some artists, you know… Black, White, Spanish, and all kinds of people. Like Jose Feliciano, Bob Dylan who I met, and you know, lots of things. The Motown era, you can even get into stuff like Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash. I would see those people perform and hear the type of music they do, so I just incorporate that in my sound. A lot of people say I have a style or a unique sound of my own, but to tell the truth, I just use a lot of the stuff that I hear from people that have become trademarks in the music industry.
G- And for your original stuff, where do you draw the inspiration to write your new material, and what’s on your mind lyrically and when you put chords down on your guitar.
E- It mostly comes from what I feel inside. I’ve had things happen to me, certain traumas in life, so. And when someone says they write the blues or something that happens to them, I write what I feel. Things go wrong, I write about it. When things go good, I write about it, and when I want to send a message to help someone, cuz I’m a people person, lots of things I do from inside… Feeling.
G- Good. Now, aside from the covers, what I would like to know personally, is since you’ve been doing this since 1969, and have probably been writing the whole time, is there a particular favorite song that you’ve written to date, or if you were to give somebody who’d never heard you play one song that you’ve written, that tells them exactly who Eli Harris is, what song would that be, why, and when did you write it?
E- Ok, uhh..
G- I told you I was gonna hit you with questions!
E- Yea yea yea… There’s a song that I wrote called “God is Merciful” and it’s on my cd. And it’s kinda where I’m heading with my music. People see me as an RnB artist, some people see me as a jazz artist, some people see me as a contemporary folk artist. I know I’ve been labeled a few things, but there’s this song called “Merciful” which just displays, you know, that God is merciful. Through all your sins and all that you do wrong, you have to make amends with it. I don’t shove religion down people’s throat, but I’m just so blessed to still be alive and it’s because of god’s mercy.
G- Very good. Now, you’re always out playing. Sun, shine, sleet, snow, it doesn’t really make a big difference… If there is a happening in Syracuse, you’re always out. For all of your vast years of experience playing music on these streets, what would you say is the most memorable, or the craziest, experience that you’ve had to deal with?
E- (laughs) That’s two sides of the coin!
G- Well, gimme both.
E- I’m gonna give you both.
E- The best thing I’ve experienced is meeting Bob Dylan, you know? I was playing music on the streets one day when Bob Dylan was due to be playing, and I said ‘Oh my goodness… Bob Dylan’s bus is parked over there at the Syracuse Sheraton!’
Always on the hustle because this is his livelihood, Eli hears a small commotion in the street.
E – I think they’re letting out of the Westcott over there. Looks like it, I don’t know.
G- They’ve got one more band going on after.
E- Ok. But anyway, I was playing my guitar, just to tell this story because some people didn’t catch it when it came up currently… This was like 1998, and, you know, Bob Dylan was gonna be playing at the War Memorial. So, I’m playing my guitar and this guy walks up to me, and this is like October or November or something like that… It was kinda chilly. So the guy goes ‘Hey, do your fingers ever get cold?’ And I didn’t know who bob Dylan was personally, looking at him. I’ve seen pictures of him way back in the day, you know, with ‘All Along The Watchtower,’ but that’s all I remember were the pictures.
My record is -42 degrees windchill factor.
G- (laughing) Oh my god… Jeez.
E- That’s heavy, man.
E- I’ve been thinking about calling Guinness Book of World Records to see how cold as someone played and how long and all of that…
G- You gonna fly to Siberia and try to break that record?
E- I don’t know. It’s gonna take a lot of money, but anyways. So the guy ended up walking away and he said ‘Sounds good. Good luck, and keep playing!’ He walked away and this lady comes up to me and says ‘What did he say to yoou?! What did he say to you?!’ and I had no clue what she was talking about. She says ‘Do you know who that was?! That was Bob Dylan!’ So I said ‘Yea?!” You heard this story before?
G- No I haven’t.
E- So, I ended up snatching a dollar bill out of my guitar case and running towards that bus that was parked at Syracuse Sheraton, cuz I was on University and Marshall Street. So I ran towards that bus… I was gonna get Bob Dylan to autograph that dollar, cuz he just gave me some serious props!
E- I ran toward that bus, and there was this tall Asian dude that was putting stuff underneath the bus, and I asked him if he could get bob Dylan to sign this dollar, cuz he gave me compliments and people are NEVER gonna believe that he gave me, the Bob Dylan, gave me the thumbs up for my music. He said ‘I’m sorry I can’t go interrupt him. He’s running late.’
E- Anyway, the story gets better.
E- So, I tell the guy ‘What can I say, man? Can I just say something? What can I do? I’m honored that he talked to me.’ And the guy says ‘Look, he did like your music, so we can give you a ticket to the show,’ and I got my hand out after that. He says show up to the will call window with your identification so I can get it, and he says ‘What’s your name?’ I say ‘My name is Elijah Harris Jr..’
And mind you, cuz this guy was Asian, and that’s what makes this story so rare and why I have to tell it, because the guys said “Elijah Harris Jr.,’ but he said it so fast that it came out (indecipherable). So…
G- (laughing) And that’s not racist, folks.
E- Cuz that what he said. So anyway, I get down there and he told me to show up at 6:30 that evening, and I get down there at 5:30 and, believe it or not, people had already heard that I had met Bob Dylan! So I’m out there busking, and people are hitting me off saying ‘Man… Tell me about it!” and they’re almost paying me for the story!
G- Good good!
E- They’re handing me money and putting money in the case, and they asked if I knew any Dylan songs, and all I knew was “All Along The Watchtower.”
G- Good choice!
E- So anyway, I go to the point of playing, and I go to the window and show my identification, and the lady goes looking for the papers, and she goes ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t have a ticket for you.’ And people are in the background saying ‘GIVE ELI HIS TICKET!’ Protesting, man! Because they believed that I saw Bob Dylan, you know? So, I said ‘Can I see that sheet?’ and I looked at the sheet and I didn’t see Elijah Harris Jr. I saw ‘(indecipherable). It was how this guy spelled my name, you know, cuz he did the best he could and was loyal when he said he was gonna give me a ticket. So I said ‘When (indecipherable) shows up here, tell him I want my ticket!’ And people were still saying “GIVE ELI HIS TICKET!’
So, they must’ve have been like ‘this guy is telling the truth,’ and someone up above them must’ve said ‘Hey man, this guy is that good.’
G- Real deal!
E- And they gave me my ticket. The beautiful thing about it is it was second row! People would die and kill to get a bob Dylan ticket second row. And, dead center! There was 5 seats to the left, nobody. 5 seats to the right, nobody. I’m looking at him playing, and he’s playing his second to last song ‘All Along The Watchtower,’ and I gave him a thumbs up, which is approval from musician to musician. So, he hit me right in the heart… It was just a connection, man. But he knew who was in that seat when I did that thumbs up. So homeboy actually gave my the black power sign. That’s not racist or nothing.
This is from way back in the 60’s when… I don’t know if you know back in the Olympics when they held up the black power sign…
E- And when he did that, that gave me a certain heart, and I ended up using the chords from ‘All Along The Watchtower’ to create a song called ‘You Syracuse,’ which became our national championship song. And on the day of the championship game, I was playing on that corner and the Syracuse news and tv came up and said ‘What do you have to say,’ and I played that song. It was on the same corner that I met Dylan, and I really believe in my heart that he saw that little guy play that song and play those chords to “All Along…’ and it made him happy. So, that was one of the greatest moments.
Of course, I’m not a person of what they’d call idolatry, but when you feel kinda honored to have somebody recognize you as a musician, someone in a high place in music, such as Dylan, when something like that happens, it’s a glorious story.
G- Right on.
E- And on the other side of the coin, it’s a toss up on 2 stories, but I’m gonna tell you the shortest one, cuz if we come to a point when we have a secondary interview or extension…
E- Cuz like I said, I always liked talking to you and you are a special part of me. This is a story about how well I’m known by Syracuse officials and police. I was playing at a place called Slices down of Fayette Street, and this may… I’m gonna try to clean this up a bit because…
G- We’re uncensored here, man. You can say whatever you want. I publish the truth.
E- Ok. Anyway, so I’m playing my guitar in front of Slice, I forgot what year it was, but it has got to be 17 years ago. I’m playing my guitar and this guy… They were out of towners because they didn’t know who I was. So this one guy was walking around drunk and said “Nigger,” and I was like “Oh My Goodness!’ This guy just called me the N word, but I’m still playing and trying to get the words through my music to change his attitude about me. So I’m playing ‘Put a little love in your heart, think of your fellow man,’ just like me. Cuz I can see people acting out now and just trying to change the atmosphere. And his buddy was trying to hold him back, saying ‘No man, stop,’ and he was still doing it. He reached over and he reached beyond his buddies shoulder and hit my guitar. When he did that, I said ‘Don’t touch my guitar. You go on about your business… You go on.’ So, his buddy was still trying to hold him back, and I’m saying ‘Why don’t you just chill,’ and some guy comes from the back of me and says ‘What’s the problem?’ and I said “This guy, man… He’s got a rude mouth. And the guy says “No… YOU’RE the problem!’ I didn’t know this was guy was with the other guys. So he goes, ‘You’re the problem,’ and he punched me in the chest. And that did it… This guy hits my guitar and the other guy pushed me.
So, I put my guitar inside Slices pizza, and I put my guitar in the case right by some people. Some people are standing around ready to fight for me…
G- I’d have been there.
E- They were like ‘Eli, what are we gonna do, man?’ And I was like ‘I got this.’ So I walked to the door, and the door pushed outward, and when I was trying to push the door out, he was trying to push it towards me. So, I pushed it right back at him, and it hit him right in the nose!
E- And he’s bleeding like a hog, man.
E- (laughing) And there was a policeman inside that kinda monitors the activity, like security. So when he saw that guy get smashed in the nose, he was kinda like watching to see what was going on. When he saw that, he stepped up and started walking, and he was gonna go talk to the dude. And the dude ended up grabbing the policeman by the arm before he grabbed his… This is a true story, man… He grabbed the policeman. And before that, the policeman was grabbing his lapel thing to talk, like when they talk to say ‘We got trouble going on here.’ So they picked the policeman up and slammed him on right down in the middle of the sidewalk, and… this is the whole moral of the story when I said the support of the officials and the police…. It wasn’t even a minute from when these guys were wrestling with the policeman, I mean seconds. I saw SWAT coming and people were coming out the woodwork, coming off ropes and coming down telephone poles! But it was like, mad cops… Just instantly. So they came and when they came, they wrestled and grabbed these guys, and there was one guy, the one that pushed me, he walked off whistling…
E- Like he didn’t do nothing.
G- Take your lumps, bitch.
E- (laughing) Right! So the police scuffled. I mean this guys face, he was bleeding from the nose already anyway, but his face was like raw meat. They scooped him up, boy. So they asked me what happened, and asked if I wanted to pack it up, because the way it looked, they didn’t see me doing anything, and I didn’t hurt anybody. But the police…
G- When have you ever?
E- Well, I have in defense. Cuz I have come to the point of defending myself, and those are some stories, too.
G- That’s for next time.
E- So, everybody was saying “Eli, we had your back.” So the police is making his statement to his superiors, and I made a little statement about what happened, and those guys were hauled off to jail. I go back in the pizza shop to check my guitar, and there’s $10’s, $20’s, $5’s and people were like boom boom. There was like $95 or $100 dollars in my guitar case, and people just cheering “Eli! Eli!” and it made me feel like a hero in a way, and it made me feel honored to have so much support, and that’s why I had to give you both of those stories.
G- The negative 42 degrees was terrible, the guy calling you racist slurs when you’re just trying to irk a living is terrible, but the Bob Dylan story, uh, is great! We’re going to continue this on another time, of course, but I just have one last question for you. You’ve been doing this for a long time, and you’re working a lot harder than most, and there are kids out there that want to play guitar and kids that want to make it in music and on the road, but you’re doing this from a street level, very organically. What advice could somebody like you give to some of the kids that want to try to make it in music?
E- First of all, you have a will to play music, so you have to consider it something from the heart. Like with anything, you do it without giving up. Continue. Persistence, consistency, perseverance, all of the above… You just gotta go at it. You practicing and you’re just starting out and your parents tell you ‘Put that thing down! You’re making too much noise!’ But you get over that.
Learn to take criticism, learn to be watchful of people shooting bullets at you, sometimes literally (laughing). You know when someone’s onstage like the Gong Show, and they grabbed you and pull you off stage or gong you, get past all those gongs and not being accepted, and that’s what it comes down to. Just sticking with it. That’s my advice… If you really love music, stick with it.
G- This has been about 30 minutes, and I have a feeling we have a lot more to talk about, so why don’t you open up that guitar case and get back to earning your living! We’ll talk again soon and thank you so much, Eli. We love you, Syracuse loves you, Live High Five loves you, and we want to see you keep doing this for years and years to come.
E- Even after I’m gone, I’m quite sure I’ll be well remembered here, cuz when you gotta go, you gotta go.
G- (laughing) Not for years, Eli. Not for years.
E- I’m very health conscious these days, and I just want to spread that message to everyone else. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going on inside until you keep checking. You want to keep your health first and foremost.
G- Beautiful. Thank you Eli!
Follow Eli on Twitter and on Facebook, and drop a few bucks in his case when you see him jamming on the streets!