Heard on the Street: New York Subway Guitarist

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The music of Don Witter Jr. is the daily soundtrack for scores of New Yorkers who pass through the city's subway system. For Witter, it's proven to be a labor of love. NPR member station WNYC serves up this week's Heard on The Street.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And we're going to end today with our segment we call Heard on the Street. This is where we go out and find people making music, making noise, being heard out in public. Today, we travel to Union Square Station in New York City, where WNYC producer Spencer Wilking(ph) found this gentleman playing classical guitar.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. DON WITTER, Jr. (New York Subway Guitarist): Well, my name is Don Witter, Jr. I was born here in New York. I was born in the Bronx. I grew up as a classical pianist and switched to guitar in the '60s when the folk songs came about.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. WITTER: So I became a musician after I was 20 years into the computer field as a network analyst. I left in '94 after just being disgruntled. I decided that I was going to quit and just become a fulltime musician. I spoke it over with my life, and it's just what I do seven days a week between performing in a subway system on the (unintelligible) in New York and getting other gigs.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. WITTER: I plant the seed in their ears and their minds. You know, they may turn around. I see a lot of people who'll turn around and check out my sign and my name even if they only have a split second. And they actually - you know, they do listen. They do listen. They do hear it. Matter of fact, I was walking around in Harlem after a gig, and one guy stopped me. He started talking to me and said, oh yeah, you're that guitarist. And then he said that he used to hear me, but he would never come and approach me but would just stand in the back at Times Square. I find that I'm recognized around the city every so often by people who have heard me at different stations.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. WITTER: The tips can get very good. I've just got a guy who was listening to me just for almost an hour, and he was reading a book, had his lunch, and he gave me a $20 bill. People are really gracious. I've had a situation where a homeless man gave me his cheese that he had for the day. About a week ago, a guy gave me a pillow to sit on.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. WITTER: I think I'm doing a good job, and even when I have to get up very early and perform like 7:00 in the morning and I'm dragging myself and saying, why am I doing this? The first couple of people usually tell me I need you today or thank you very much for this. It is doing something, even when I don't think so. It's doing something really good for the city of New York.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

MARTIN: That was Don Witter, Jr., talking about his experiences as a classical guitarist in the subway stations of New York. And we'll go out today with a little more from Don and his guitar. Thanks for listening. That's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE. I'm Michel Martin.

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