On the 23rd of August, in a white Volkswagen Beetle, we drove to Walterboro to meet Jim Hadley. We didn’t notice the earthquake because the car was Richter scale eight on wheels, windows rolled down and rattling in the doors. It was a surprise to hear the reports on the radio, tales of dislodged roof tiles, and prophesies that South Carolina was overdue a ‘big one’.

In the Beetle the fuel meter, barely visible behind the steering wheel, was stuck on empty. We recorded mileage and volume (gallons) on a small scrap of paper in the glove box, but topped up every hundred miles to be safe.

“What year’s that?” asked some guy at the next gas station.


“She’s a beaut.”

“It’s her Dad’s,” I said, pointing at Belle.

“Treat her good.”

I wondered if he meant Belle or the Bug as his dinted truck bumped back onto the highway, tailgate hanging off, a Homosexuality is a Sin sticker in the back window. This was the southeast, where the terrible Japanese earthquake and tsunami were considered divine punishment by some.

We crunched into first and drove for another hundred miles, the Carolina trees thick and green with August, drawing stares in a car that was born before both Belle and I. Blue skies and sunshine, and Leonard Cohen singing through the speakers.

Jim Hadley worked at Sonic fast food restaurant and our aim was to meet him at the end of his shift. We wanted shots of the other side of buskers’ lives, the second job, the ‘real’ income. But the old Bug wasn’t happy above sixty and the gas stops wasted time. Jim was on his bicycle and halfway home by the time we arrived. Phoning him was infuriating because his phone, in ironic opposition to Jim, ‘Wasn’t too good with signals.’ In fragments, we arranged to meet him in front of a white church – Jim seemed to navigate solely by churches, which is actually quite sensible in the South. We spotted him by his florescent jacket, torn trousers, and a bike that looked as old as our car.

The Christian Church in the South had been buying up cheap houses, in preparation for the end-times. When Jesus rises again, he’ll have a choice of affordable accommodation. Jim lived in one of these houses, in the suburbs of Walterboro, just off a quiet dirt track, surrounded by pine trees. We entered through the back door. He dug out his instruments and sat on his wooden porch, playing mandolin and guitar, and singing gospel songs to the setting sun.

Jim talked at length about his songs and his music, their meaning and history, the movement of the banjo from Middle East to Africa and across to America on the slave ships. Jim’s studied his genealogy and his father worked at a black history museum. It was mesmerising to hear him speak even if, at times, we had to fight him back to the topic of street performance.

Jim Hadley used to be a successful street performer. But his new minister, who he first heard on the radio, told him playing on the streets wasn’t God’s will. The Church offered him a new outlet for his music, one that God approved of, but it also took away his income. This is why Jim now serves bite-sized burgers to over-sized Americans.

In Columbia, South Carolina, from 1994 to 2000, Jim Hadley became a local legend. He was a talented one-man band, playing banjo and harmonica and tapping percussion with his feet. He knew his music was a gift from god and not to be wasted on hedonism.

The streets are neutral ground: a drunk wouldn’t bring a beer to a church, and a minister wouldn’t bring a bible to the bar, but on the streets anything can happen.

Jim Hadley

In Jim’s fan-cooled church-owned bedroom, he sat on his bed and talked us through a carefully kept scrapbook. The newspaper and magazine clippings chronicled a successful career of music, gigs, festivals, and interviews. He played self-written spiritual songs, hymns, and gospel music. When street performing was legally challenged in Columbia it was Jim who researched the law and went to the courthouse to assert his First Amendment Rights. Jim said he thought he’d won the right to play because outlawing street performers would cast doubt on the legality of street preachers, and this was an enemy the City did not want. Years since he stopped playing, people still remember him for the music he played in Five-Points and the Vista.

He played us a song, One Day I’ll be President. It was the first song he’d sang on the streets:

It was late when we shook hands and said goodnight. The old Volkswagen shuddered into action and rumbled out of the drive as Belle waved through her open window. The dark silhouetted trees and oppressive humidity matched our moods. At the time I thought we were tired and hungry, facing a long drive home, but now I think it was sadness at the loss of something great, sadder all the more because Jim did not see it.

That old ’74 Bug that I so enjoy driving deserves the love and praise it receives in its old age, even if it is from a redneck at a gas station on the I95. It upsets me, very deeply, to think that anyone would tell Jim Hadley – with all his talent, spirituality, intelligence, kindness, and art – to stop doing what he does so beautifully, even if that anyone is an evangelical Minister from the Church of the end-of-times.