By GAUTAMA MEHTA
You may have seen the signs around the neighborhood advertising a weekly “Healing Harp energy medicine” performance at Salonica by the self-proclaimed “Bard of Hyde Park.”
The Bard is Ronald L. Grant, a Minnesota native who’s been a street performer and local character for decades, but he goes by the stage name “Ron the Piper.” These days he’s mostly retired from busking but every Saturday, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. he can be found in a corner booth, gently plucking mellifluous tunes on an Irish harp over the dinner conversation of college students and Hyde Park families.
In addition to the Irish harp, he plays the harmonica, bowed psaltry, concertina, ocarina, hammered dulcimer, and tongue drum. His genres of choice are old Christian church songs, folk, country and western, Japanese, Irish, Russian, Spanish, and Mexican traditional music. He also listens to the Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but says he doesn’t know how to play that kind of music.
Grant just turned 70 last January, but credits his youthfulness to “hands-on healing”, meditation, and alternative medicine. He mostly lives off disability checks from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which he gets due to Agent Orange exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder. He was drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers shortly after his high school graduation and sent to Vietnam for a year.
“I don’t like being around guns,” Grant said of his military service. “I prefer to play music.”
After returning from Vietnam he spent three years living in Austin, Texas, as a “dope-smoking hippie.” This was “right about the time of the Kent State shootings,” he said as he spoke about this time of his life in greater detail. “Right about that time is when I became a hippie. I’d just gotten back from Vietnam and I was kind of unwinding from being over there. And so I spent about three years on the streets, playing music and making beaded jewelry.”
He made a decent living, he said, but “my profits kinda went up in smoke.” He mimed smoking a joint. “After a while I got arrested for smoking marijuana.” After a month and a half in Travis County Jail, he was let out, because “the judge said that they couldn’t do anything because of lack of evidence—by the time the cops had gotten me I had smoked it all up.”
Asked what jail was like, he said, “It wasn’t really all that bad. In one way, it was kind of an interesting experience, but I don’t care to repeat it.”
“Anyway, I got out of jail, I met up with the Hare Krishna people.” Thus began an 11-year immersion into the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, during which he lived in various temples around the country, sometimes dressing up as Santa Claus and playing a concertina to solicit donations for the religious organization. Eventually he wound up at the Hare Krishnas’ commune in West Virginia, which infamously descended into a sordid sex and murder scandal soon after Grant left. “Everything kind of went sour for a number of years,” in Grant’s telling. An acquaintance of his was murdered.
“I didn’t participate in their fun and games, so to speak,” Grant said. “I knew personally some of the players who did get involved, and it bothered me. But by that time I was getting kind of disillusioned with all the political bickering.”
So he went to Chicago, and took on the moniker “Ron the Piper,” sometime around 1982, and started playing on the street. At the time, unlicensed street performance was illegal, making busking like a game of “catch me if you can” with the police, he said. “We used to go to jail all the time.”
One of his regular performance spots was outside a Stop and Shop on Washington and State streets, long since shuttered, which had singularly good acoustics. Every day, he said, the same pair of police officers would come by this location and demand that he stop playing. “One day, they said, next time you come here, we’re going to arrest you. So of course I went back the next day.” What happened next was a surprise: “Those same two cops came back, and one of them says, ‘You wanna go? To a party?’ They ended up hiring me to play at a Polish wedding.”
Eventually, he and a small number of other buskers met with then Ald. George Hagopian (30th) and helped effect the legalization of Chicago street performers through their advocacy.
During his busking years, “Ron the Piper” was interviewed by Studs Terkel on WIND and Harry Porterfield on his television program “Someone You Should Know.” He was also featured in a 1985 profile article written by Ron Grossman for the Chicago Tribune.