Photo by Jerry Gay
Howlin' Hobbit, right, pictured with his bandmate salamandir, has been busking in the Seattle area for 28 years, and he's not about to quit. They both play in the band Snake Suspenderz.

Ballard busker still buskin' away

If you go to farmers markets, you've probably seen him. Ballard, Fremont, Magnolia, Madrona, Queen Anne, Pike Place, or whatever other market you might frequent -- he's done it all, or just about.

His name is Howlin' Hobbit (www.howlinhobbit.com) and he plays the ukulele, sometimes solo, sometimes with his band, the Snake Suspenderz. He wears felt hats and fezes and flat tops and dresses up like a dapper gentleman from the '20s or '30s. His website says he specializes in old-skool jazz, hokum, novelty tunes and original songs on the ukulele (though he plays a bevy of instruments, including guitar, harmonica, keyboard and even the washboard). And he's been on the streets busking and entertaining passersby in the Seattle area for 28 years now. He's 54.

When asked why he busked, instead of perhaps pursuing a more lucrative career, Hobbit replied:

“It’s the most honest work in the world. It’s you and your talents and skills, whatever they happen to be, and the passing pedestrians. If you can’t convince them to give out some of their money, then,” he gave a small shrug, “you make no money.”

Hobbit is a Northwest native through and through. He grew up in Portland and Vancouver, moved to Everett when he was 18, and has lived in Edmonds, Burien, West Seattle and now, for the past five years, Ballard -- among other places. At one point, he worked in the high-tech industry at Microsoft in customer service, but those days are gone and now he's focusing full-time on his music, busking nearly every day, sweat beading on his forehead out in the baking summer sun.

Not that busking makes a decent living for him. Far from it, in fact.

"You know what you call a musician without a girlfriend?" he half-joked. "Homeless."

Luckily, Hobbit does have a girlfriend who is supportive. He said he brings home what money he can, but these days busking has been a hard business. While some might blame the economy, Hobbit said it was more because people don't respect busking in America.

"A lot of people think that buskers are the same as pan handlers, and there’s a vast difference," Hobbit said. "A busker gives you something, and you can return something, or not.”

In Europe, he said, busking has been a tradition going back hundreds of years and people give it its due respect. Whenever he hears of other buskers coming from Europe -- and even with the economic woes the continent is going through right now -- they always say, he said, "Man, it's like Heaven!"

Meanwhile, in America, he said people will walk by him drinking five dollar lattes, maybe smile, and walk away without giving a dollar. Others, strapped with thousand-dollar cameras, will get right up in his face and take a hundred pictures, but won't give a cent otherwise.

Furthermore, even if someone is an extremely talented musician, it doesn't necessarily mean that that person will bring in more money on the streets. In fact, Hobbit said, people often are more sympathetic toward people who look dirtier and scruffier, even though appearances doesn't necessarily equate to level of wealth or poverty.

Hobbit used the example of Joshua Bell to illustrate his point. Bell, a world renowned and Grammy award-winning musician, once played incognito in a Washington, D.C. subway as an experiment arranged by the Washington Post. The idea was that people should take notice of the quality of music being produced and gather in crowds and pitch money, but instead hardly anyone stopped. Bell made only 32 dollars and some change.

“He made less money than I did,” Hobbit said. “Let’s face it, the boy can play circles around me any day of the week.”

In the end, like many musicians, Hobbit doesn’t do it just for the money, whatever scraps they may be. He does it for the art.

“You can make just about every aspect of your life into art – how you dress, the foods you cook and how you do it and what plates you serve it on – all of it can be an artistic endeavor,” he said. “So if I can do that for me, that could make me a lot happier, and maybe I can spread it out around the area”

Hobbit is optimistic about his future and said he isn’t about to quit. He said that he hopes to start doing more gigs at music venues and house parties, and hoped that he could make money in other places rather than playing on the streets.

“I see tingles of seeing it turn around every now and then," he said. "(It's) just like golf. You make just enough good shots in a game to make you want to come out and try again.”

When asked what he thought of the busking business after so many years of doing it, one word summed it up for him: “Spotty.”

“There’s up and downs,” he said. “But you know, there’s ups and downs pretty much anywhere. No matter what you’re doing. I can’t imagine it being all roses and isinglass.”

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