Arts & Culture

The Street Musician Known as Merdalf is the Mayor of 32nd Street

The 69-year-old busker is at home at the Waverly Farmers Market.
—Photography by Matt Roth

A dragon lives forever but not so little boys. Painted wings and giants’ rings make way for other toys . . . Oh! Puff the magic dragon.

Sitting next to Zeke’s Coffee stand, the street musician known as Merdalf puts down his guitar as he finishes the Peter, Paul and Mary folk classic about the loss of childhood innocence and an ageless dragon. He reaches into his case and glances up toward a wide-eyed little boy and his mother, who is pushing a younger daughter in a stroller around the Waverly farmers’ market. “How about a balloon?” he asks with a grin, now reaching for a small hand pump. “Let me get you a balloon.”

The sun is smiling on the 69-year-old busker this morning, but the previous weekend, an unexpected spring snow had curtailed his typical three-to-four-hour set.

“I lasted two songs. My fingers couldn’t move,” he explains. “I’m here every Saturday no matter what, though. I play the JFX farmers’ market on Sundays, too, but this is year-round and it’s different, you know? It’s a neighborhood thing. You see the same folks every week. There are people here I’ve known go from single, to married, to having kids, to I’m performing for their kids. A few children, I’ve even taught how to play. Someone called me the Mayor of Waverly and sometimes I feel like that.”

The softhearted Mayor of Waverly’s all-ages playlist includes Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, and Beatles’ tunes like “Hey Jude,” “Yesterday,” and “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which he first heard growing up in rural England. “Easy songs,” he says. Others, he’s penned himself since he began coming to the popular market here about a dozen years ago.

Not that he was given the key to the city right away. At first, since he had no permit, the manager of the farmers’ market told him he could only play on the sidewalk. He hadn’t been performing long at that point, having just learned to play guitar when he was in his early 50s at a drug rehab for veterans. He’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the VA hospital at Perry Point years before and this wasn’t his first trip to rehab.

“My girlfriend had dumped me and she was not taking me back,” he recalls. “And a guy who is in rehab with me, he looks at me and says, ‘Take this guitar, man. You’re already writing poetry,’ and he showed me some chords. Then I wrote a song called, ‘All My Life.’”

Born in Baltimore, Steven Johnson spent most of his childhood overseas, where his serviceman father, with whom he had a very difficult relationship, was stationed. Moving back to Baltimore for his last year of high school in the early ’70s proved a culture shock, including experiencing racism unlike anything he’d gone through in England. He left school and joined the Navy, but was honorably discharged after 15 months when both parties agreed it was for the best. It was a challenging coming of age. (His stage name is a mashup of Merlin and Gandalf, reflecting his childhood fascination with King Arthur and alchemy, in his case, turning pain and sorrow into song.)

“These things stay with you, so I wrote a song called, ‘Heal Myself.’ I’m going to help myself so I can sleep at night. I’m going to heal myself. So love can come along. So many songs are cathartic and some of the songs are happy playful songs. Some songs I write are message songs.”

Since he began playing and performing, life has stabilized, he says. Years of therapy, meditation, and spiritual and philosophical readings have helped, too. A few years ago, he performed at the Creative Alliance’s Night of 1,000 Dylans—“All Along the Watchtower” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” remain two of his favorites to perform. He’s recorded a CD with a Baltimore producer and has been featured in a couple of local TV commercials. He also performs elsewhere from time to time, including along The Avenue in Hampden and York Road in Towson.

“To tell you the truth, if you had caught me 15 years ago and said then I was going to be playing guitar and making money at it—and I don’t do it for the money, that’s not important—I would have called you crazy. I had no thought that I was going to do this. No aspirations. I’ve just been following the thread since that day in rehab. You know what I mean? You follow the thread. You just keep following it.”