Bill Schustik came to Sarasota from New York in 1989 because of the sand. He says he was having a tough time in life and wanted to just escape and play in the sand for as long as he needed to heal.
But, instead of just constructing run-of-the-mill sand castles, Schustik built castles using the Romanesque and gothic styles, the way the buttresses were really built. He made keystones from sand; they were large enough to walk through. He built every day for three or four months, and at one point, he decided he should move here. He’s been living and performing here ever since.
Schustik’s passion for history is no surprise considering his occupation as a troubadour, one who sings historical songs and tells the stories that belong to them. He will perform a free Christmas-themed concert Dec. 11 as part of the Sarasota Concert Association’s Munchtime Musicales series. His performance will include a popular Christmas carol that has nothing to do with Christmas; a song about the Christmas truce of 1914; and he will reveal the darker side of one Christmas carol about a mother who murdered her son.
The songs’ stories can be love songs, or they can be songs someone sang before he was hanged — there’s a whole range of emotion and topics involved. Schustik is particularly fond of Civil War music and pirate songs, but he’s also great at songs ranging topics from Abraham Lincoln to Jesse James.
Schustik’s voice sounds like Johnny Cash’s with less twang. The tenor excels with his vocals and says he can play enough of his accompanying instruments to get by. He plays the guitar, banjo, concertina, dulcimer, mouth harp, harmonica, badhrán and the bones.
More than 50 years ago, when this interest in combining history and performance began, he was strictly a singer. When he was 15 years old, his then-girlfriend stole a Burl Ives folk-singing record and songbook from her older brother to give Schustik as a present. He still has it.
“That’s when my life started to go in a divergent path than most of my contemporaries,” he says. While skirts and rock ‘n’ roll interested his peers, the lived-in songs of his American predecessors captivated him.
He has performed for three presidents: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. And he performed the national anthem at game seven of the 1979 World Series when the Baltimore Orioles played the Pittsburgh Pirates. The governor of Maryland at that time had seen him perform his historic version of the song and was so moved by it, he personally invited Schustik to perform.
Nowadays, Schustik has less of a set performance schedule. True to his troubadour self, there’s no website or email blast to keep track of him. He says you can see him weekly at Pastry Art bakery café.
“But tell them to call first in case I’m not there that week,” he says. He typically plays there from 7 to 9 p.m. every Saturday.
He’s working on another regular gig with the Historical Society of Sarasota County to initiate monthly performances at Crocker Memorial Church. He performed a pirate-themed concert there in November.
Schustik hopes to enchant his audience with the stories of history in a way that goes beyond reading them in a book — with his stories, there’s a particular emotion.
“Troubadours connect people with the past,” he says. “When I sing, I spark memories.”
IF YOU GO
Munchtime Musicales: Bill Schustik ‘A Troubadour’s Christmas’
When: Noon Wednesday, Dec. 11
Where: David Cohen Hall at the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, 709 N. Tamiami Trail
Call: Call 351-7467 or visit scasarasota.org
The free series continues at the same time and place on the following dates:
Jan. 15 — Jerry Eckert Jazz Trio
Feb. 19 — Lee Dougherty Ross and Joseph Holt
March 19 — Studio Artists from the Sarasota Opera
April 16 — Gloria Musicae singers
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