Busking with Howlin’ Hobbit

Howlin’ Hobbit on the Desimone Bridge

Seattle is well known for its contributions to the American music scene, from Jimi Hendrix to garage rock to Sir Mix-A-Lot to grunge, and Pike Place Market is also humming with the sounds of the Northwest via our thriving community of buskers.  What, you may ask, is a busker?  Busking is the art of street performance, often music but also magic shows, mime, performance art, spoken word, juggling and dance.  Most of the Market’s buskers also perform in local clubs, tour regionally with bands and some have even gone on to popular stardom, such as Brandi Carlisle who got her start performing at the Market before she was old enough to play in bars and clubs.  Artis the Spoonman has been a Market fixture for decades and rose to worldwide fame through the Soundgarden song “Spoonman.”

One can’t just pick up a guitar, put out an upturned hat for tips and start strumming and singing on any corner at the Market.  Buskers must apply for and purchase a yearly busking license from the Pike Place Market PDA.  Over a dozen spaces that are zoned for busking are marked with a big red musical note painted on the concrete along with a number inside the note that indicates how many performers in a group are permitted in that space.  Amplified music and percussion along with certain types of instruments or performances are not allowed for reasons of noise and public safety.  No fire spinning or chainsaw juggling or adult language please!  Buskers are given one hour each for their show and line up early in the day to stake their claim for a specific time slot in the space of their choice.  Their pay is completely reliant on tips from the public and, for some, CD and merchandise sales.

One of the most illustrious buskers currently performing at the Market is a diminutive fellow with a jaunty mustache, a collection of handsome fezzes and a fabulous facility with the ukulele who goes by the intriguing sobriquet of Howlin’ Hobbit.  On a break between sets at his favorite busking spot on the front of the Desimone Bridge, Hobbit sat down with me to answer a few nosy questions about his life as a Market musician.

Now in his 28th (!) season performing at the Market, Hobbit started out at ol’ Pikey with a magic act that has evolved over time into playing the blues and, currently, he plays several ukeleles and the harmonica and sings, mostly jazz and popular standards from yesteryear.  Hobbit has a great affinity for the Weimar Berlin period between the two world wars and his style, both in fashion and song, reflects that.  He’s got a pleasantly raspy voice that sounds like it would be right at home in a smoky basement jazz club somewhere in New Orleans and is a versatile instrumentalist who counts not only the ukelele, harmonica and guitar in his arsenal but also plays piano, pocket sax, flute, bass and percussion.  When not busking solo at Pike Place, Hobbit performs with his band Snake Suspenderz at local clubs, festivals and other farmers markets around the Seattle area. They’ve performed at the Pike Place Buskers Festival, at the CanCan club in the Market, the famous Moisture Festival and even at Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony.  Hobbit has also graced a number of burlesque stages in the area, another art form Seattle is known for.

I asked Hobbit what he’d consider his most memorable busking moments.  He replied that seeing Billy Gibbons, guitar god of ZZ Top, give him a nod of approval from the crowd during a blues set at the Market was a real high point. He’s also spotted Gregory Hines grooving to his music while leaning against a pillar under the Market clock. Hobbit briefly considered calling out, “hey, this act could use a hoofer!” but thought the better of it, preferring to give the legendary dancer and actor his privacy.  When asked if he had any words of wisdom about the world of busking he’d like to share in this post, he replied, without missing a beat, “Busking is not for wimps!  And tipping for photos and videos is de rigueur!”  Having only experienced the world of busking from the sidelines of the crafts tables, I would definitely have to concur.

If you’d like to hear some of Howlin’ Hobbit and his band Snake Suspenderz’s music, visit his website at www.howlinhobbit.com  He’s got videos online and CDs for purchase.  He’s also always available for gigs!

by Lynn Rosskamp