Ethan Rooney: A melodic piece of downtown folklore

Edited by Laura Ingalls

At the beginning of summer, I originally intended to write up a non-scientific, but qualitative, observation of Fargo’s numerous street performers. They flood downtown soon after the ice of winter recedes.

Well, for more than one reason (the daily job grind and weekends of alcohol mostly), that never happened.

I did, however, keep the recordings and interviews I gathered and sat on the material for a reasonable time to write something of substance. One interviewee, Ethan Rooney, has recently given me such a reason as he gears up for a bit of travel.

On July 29th, Ethan, and fellow musicians Channing Minnema and Jack Alacka, will be performing at the Red Raven prior to touring around the Midwest for the tail end of the summer. So consider this little write-up a bon voyage note to my favorite local artist.

Ethan is a 100 year-old soul from Appalachian country. He has multi-instrumental talent and a mental rolodex of songs. At jam sessions, I’ve watched him proficiently play everything from banjo to ukulele to a washtub bass (the weird ass tub instrument with a broomstick and string attached).

When you see Ethan on the streets performing, chances are he’ll have a stool and an arsenal of different instruments. With his brim hat and tall presence, he exists more as a living piece of Fargo folklore than a singing pedestrian.

“My whole idea was, if I bring a bunch of instruments, people will just join in,” Ethan told me as we conversed in the alley of Dempsey’s. “Two guitars, a banjo, a mandolin, harmonicas… You’re bound to run into someone who can play one of them.”

Going strong for three years, I wondered why a guy who plays live shows and gigs on the regular wouldn’t give up the street hustle. Sidewalk performing can be tiresome. To get a decent spot filled with foot traffic, such as that little nook neighboring Dempsey’s in front of the uniform store, showing up early is a must, which means you can be stuck playing music for five or more hours.

Nonetheless, the social environment it produces is apparently the payoff. The sidewalks and alleys, for the most part, are a loud carnival of fellow downtowners. Interaction with the strangers of Fargo’s nightlife was a common theme among the reasons Ethan went out weekend after weekend. I have found myself stopping at the sound of music and picking up the banjo to play a song or two.

“I feel like music should be so much more interactive,” Ethan said. “You run into really good people and you run into really shitty people. With street performing, it’s a lot easier to see the encouragement. Sure, you get the people who say ‘Hey, stop being homeless’ or ‘You suck.’ But most come up to you face-to-face and say what you do is wonderful. They just hope that everything good happens for you and it’s really nice.”

Playing tunes everyone knows verbatim brings in more money, sure. But, as Ethan noted, it’s about fostering community. One night, he recalled a guy picking up the guitar and strumming out the chords to “All Along the Watchtower”. The sound traveled from the little underpass by Metro Drug, drawing a crowd of roughly 20 people.

In addition to an empty case and an assortment of instruments, Ethan would sometimes provide other objects to keep folks entertained.

“I bring out a white board for people who want to hang out and I tell them to draw a picture. Or if people say, ‘Ah, I don’t have money to tip,’ I ask for a picture. Interactive stuff like that.”

Ethan actually had one illustration of a man’s profile inked on his back.

“One I liked so much, I got it as a tattoo. He drew it and walked away and I was just like, ‘Holy shit!’ I call him cigarette man.”

"Cigarette man"
“Cigarette man”


Unfortunately, everyone downtown isn’t as appealing as the creator of cigarette man, however. There’s scum that love to ruin a good time and Ethan has seen a few in action.

“Only time I’ve had real run-ins with the cops was to provide statements,” Ethan stated when I asked him if cops tend to bother street performers. “One time there was a wedding party out late. The mother and father of the groom had got way too hammered and the bouncer at Dempsey’s wouldn’t let them in. After they were done bitching to me about that, the wife went to distract the bouncer and the husband went up behind the bouncer, got him in a headlock and cold clocked him. So I had to sit around and give a statement.”

I have no idea where Ethan’s touring adventure will take him, and I think that’s all the better for the folklore character schema I hold for him. With the luck of raising enough money, I’m sure he plans on traveling and sharing his musical performance with as many crowds as possible. The journey starts at the Red Raven this Wednesday, July 29th, with music beginning at 7.