There have been performances in public places for gratuities in every major culture in the world, dating back to antiquity. This art form was the most common means of employment for entertainers before the advent of recording and personal electronics. Prior to that, a person had to produce any music or entertainment, save for a few mechanical devices such as the barrel organ, the music box, and the piano roll. Organ grinders were commonly found busking in the old days.
The term "busking" was first noted in the English language around the middle 1860s in Great Britain. Up until the 20th century buskers were commonly called minstrels in the United States, Europe, and other English-speaking lands.
The word "busk" comes from the Spanish root word "buscar", meaning "to seek" – buskers are literally seeking fame and fortune. The Spanish word "buscar" in turn evolved from the Indo-European word *"bhudh-skō" (to win, conquer) via the Celtic word "boudi-" (victory).
Busking is common among some Gypsies, also known as the Romani people. Romantic mention of Gypsy music, dancers and fortune tellers are found in all forms of song poetry, prose and lore. The Roma brought the word busking to England by way of their travels along the Mediterranean coast to Spain and the Atlantic ocean and then up north to England and the rest of Europe.
In medieval France buskers were known by the terms troubadours and jongleurs. In northern France they were known as trouveres. In old German buskers were known as Minnesingers and Spielleute. In obsolete French it evolved to busquer for "seek, prowl" and was generally used to describe prostitutes. In Russia buskers are called skomorokh and their first recorded history appears around the 11th century.
Mariachis are Mexican street bands that play a specific style of music by the same name. Mariachis frequently wear ornate costumes with intricate embroidery and beaded designs, large brimmed sombreros and the short charro jackets. Mariachi groups busk when they perform while traveling through streets and plazas, as well as in restaurants and bars.
Around the middle 19th century Japanese Chindonya started to be seen using their skills for advertising, and these street performers are still occasionally seen in Japan. Another Japanese street performance form dating from the Edo period is Nankin Tamasudare, in which the performer creates large figures using a bamboo mat.
In the United States, medicine shows proliferated in the 19th century. They were traveling vendors selling elixirs and potions to improve the health. They would often employ entertainment acts as a way of making the clients feel better. The people would often associate this feeling of well-being with the products sold. After these performances they would "pass the hat".
One man bands are buskers who perform a variety of instruments simultaneously. One man bands proliferated in urban areas in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but they continue to exist in the 2000s (decade). A typical 2000s-era one man band set-up is a singer who plays acoustic guitar, while also playing a harmonica (attached to his neck with a rack) and tapping a tambourine with his or her foot. Many new one man bands are using karaoke recordings on CD or sequenced MIDI recordings for backup.
Folk music has always been an important part of the busking scene. Cafe, restaurant, bar and pub busking is a mainstay of this art form. Two of the more famous folk singers are Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez. The delta bluesmen were mostly itinerant musicians emanating from the Mississippi Delta region of the USA around the early 1940s and on. B.B. King is one famous example who came from these roots.
The counterculture of the hippies of the 1960s occasionally staged "be-ins", which resembled some present-day busker festivals. Bands and performers would gather at public places and perform for free, passing the hat to make money. The San Francisco Bay Area was at the epicenter of this movement – be-ins were staged at Golden Gate Park and San Jose's Bee Stadium and other venues. Some of the bands that performed in this manner were Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish, Moby Grape and Jimi Hendrix.
Christmas caroling can also be a form of busking, as wassailing included singing for alms, wassail or some other form of refreshment such as figgy pudding. In Ireland the traditional Wren Boys and in England Morris Dancing can be considered part of the busking tradition.
In the 2000s (decade), some performers have begun "Cyber Busking". Artists post work or performances on the Internet for people to download or "stream" and if people like it they make a donation using PayPal.