Arts and Culture

‘I chose community’: Stone Arch Bridge musician reflects on the magic of the Minneapolis landmark

A man stands for a photo on a bridge-1
Mike Sawyer, more commonly known as Clawhammer Mike, played music on the Stone Arch Bridge more than 100 times in 2022 and 75 times in 2023.
Cari Spencer | MPR News

Clawhammer Mike and his banjo are Stone Arch Bridge fixtures.

When the sun is out, the 51-year-old always sets up the same: white bucket for tips, foldable metal chair one scootch over from a lamp post on the St. Anthony Main side of the bridge, baseball cap on head. 

Then, the busker strums, picking quickly, sometimes slower, different Appalachian mountain music tunes. Kids stop, adults stop, the birds and bike wheels seem like part of the soundtrack. 

“Sometimes people laugh at me, sometimes people will tell me it’s the best music they’ve ever heard,” he said. “Some people look at it like I’m kind of a bum — and I used to be a bum, so I really don’t have anything against bums. But there’s more to it than that.”

For the past few years, the bridge has been Clawhammer’s second home. In 2022, he played at the Stone Arch over 100 times. Last year, 75. He’s got familiar faces he loves, even if he doesn’t know their names. He’s taken pictures of marriage proposals and exchanged life stories with people more times than he can count.

People walk across the bridge.
Pedestrians walk, scooter and bike before the temporary closure of the Stone Arch Bridge.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

But this week, with two-year bridge construction beginning, Clawhammer — aka Mike Sawyer — had to say his temporary goodbye. It was a tough one. 

On the final weekend before the bridge closure, his rescue dog Cora was by his side, lapping up water in the heat of an unseasonably warm April day. Clawhammer reflected on the meaning of the bridge, grateful that summer snuck in for a final send-off.

He knows, firsthand, just how magical the bridge can feel when people finally take off their headphones to lock into the present. That’s when the conversations happen. 

“Some days people have stories that are really tough to hear, but most days I get home feeling fulfilled by the stuff people tell me,” he said. “And people always stop me on the bridge —especially here — to talk about whatever’s on their mind.”

This weekend, he said a father who had just lost his son came by for company. He remembers a time last year, when a frequent passerby trying to kick his heroin addiction would stop by to listen.

“He would just sit with me, and we talked about it,” he said. “I consider it part of my work down here to talk to people and make real connections.”

People dance during a bachelorette party holding umbrellas.
Bridesmaids dance during a bachelorette party for Amy Gravdahl as Bridge Band MSP plays the Friends theme song for them on the last day before the temporary closure of the Stone Arch Bridge.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Beyond the music, that’s why Clawhammer does what he does. He said community drives everything for him — from busking on the bridge to preserving and sharing old Minnesotan musical traditions through his Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project and Upper Midwest Folk Fiddlers group.

But he didn’t always have a strong sense of belonging. He said his mom and stepfather were in the bluegrass community, but never fully integrated.

“Really, I was mostly by myself,” he said. 

Then, for about three years in his youth, he was homeless and pseudo-homeless, as he put it — living in a former environmental newspaper building he worked at past close and finding spots in Cedar-Riverside and Phillips to stay out of the rain. 

Clawhammer said he was fortunate to have resources to help him get out of that spot. Now, he’s living in a house in St. Paul. He has adult children. He quit his 23-year job as a co-op grocery manager a few years back, and has been pursuing his passions of making music, preserving tradition and printmaking

A man stands for a photo on a bridge-2
“Some days people have stories that are really tough to hear, but most days I get home feeling fulfilled by the stuff people tell me,” he said. “And people always stop me on the bridge —especially here — to talk about whatever’s on their mind.”
Cari Spencer | MPR News

“What I should have done is, according to the world, made CDs and toured, got my band together. Instead, I chose community,” he said. 

Back on the bridge, where he’s one of the last regular buskers, he’s found that in the guy who would bike by and yell “I love banjos!” nearly every day. And in the weekly evening dancers of all ages and backgrounds, grooving to his snug banjo runs and nostalgic voice.

“The young Muslim women wearing the hijabs come out and they dance every time I’m playing,” he said. “And there’s a group of the youngsters coming by. They dance and they dance passionately … it only lasts ten minutes or so, but it’s always a really special thing.”

He’s going to miss the regulars, he said, but there’s something lovely about relationships that exist in such a liminal space. He remembers one woman who would routinely stop by last year to chat for 15 minutes — oftentimes 20, sometimes 30. 

“And she’s not here this year at all. I never saw her outside the bridge, so I don’t know if she’s in town, if she’s away,” he said. “There’s a lot of these things I don’t take for granted. I know they’re special connections I have here, but they might not last more than somebody’s commute through this area.”

People stand along the railing of the bridge.
Pedestrians look over the edge of the Stone Arch Bridge after sunset on the last day before the temporary closure.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

He’s feeling apprehensive about the future of the bridge — “a lot can happen in two years. Am I still gonna be here?” he pondered aloud.

“Is it gonna be cool with half the bridge shut down? Will the vibe be the same? Is it gonna be one of those places that kind of dies after unuse for a long time?”

Still, he said, he’ll find a new spot on the downtown side. He’s hoping he can hold on to some of the same magic over there. 

“It’s rare you can get some real interactions anymore in this world, especially in the city,” he said. “Everybody’s plugged into their phone. It’s important to make real connections with people.”

He knows, personally, just how meaningful that can be. 

“It’s my nature to be closed off and I really had to work hard on it,” he said. “Being up here with people has been the most therapeutic thing in my life … I can play my music, I can just be with the people. They’re doing their thing. I’m doing my thing. The birds are doing their thing. The sky turns beautiful every night.”

A band performs, backlit by the sun.
Musicians who call themselves Bridge Band MSP play together on the last day before the temporary closure of the Stone Arch Bridge Saturday, April 13, 2024.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

As the sun softened over the bridge Saturday evening, Clawhammer loaded up his wagon, packing up his banjo and dog Cora’s water bowl. Holding her leash, he stopped to listen to a band play New Orleans style jazz — a swelling goodbye.

The sun would set soon. He stood in the middle of a small crowd. In two days, no one would be able to stand on that end of the bridge for a while. He’ll be on the other side.

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