Busking on the Brain

Elvis on the Square, Knoxville, June 2012

I’ve written about buskers before and even if you haven’t read those older posts, but you’ve read more than a few of my current posts, you might guess that I’m generally pro-busking. I think it adds a flavor to the city that we otherwise miss and I regularly give them a dollar or two. Of course, not all buskers are created equally and, particularly since we have a pretty limited downtown area in which to ply the trade, it seems to me we are increasingly in a position to make some decisions about who to support.

Alexia Pantanizopoulos and friends play Beatles and more

We all know that businesses downtown will succeed or fail depending on the support given. I suspect the same is true for various buskers. While some seem more marginal economically than others, their continuation of “services” depends on the dollars that get dropped into their bucket, hat or instrument case. The more marginal their situation probably the less it takes to keep them coming back.

Old City Buskers, Knoxville

I started thinking about this recently when I confronted our very own Elvis impersonator. The first time I saw him was in the middle of the square and the next time was beside the outdoor seating at Cafe Four. I like Elvis and I like busking, so this should be a good thing, right? Initially delighted, my reaction soon turned much more negative. The guy is awful. He sort of barely sings and his sound system is atrocious. I would hate to settle in for a dinner outside on the square and have to listen to him. Which means I have to hope no one gives him money or he’ll keep coming back.

Xylophone Guy, Krutch Park, Knoxville

The same is true for several other buskers, in my opinion, though I’m certainly open to debate: we all have different tastes and different reasons we hand out our money. The fellow with the small, always colorfully dressed dog is another one that needs to go. He doesn’t play music, simply strumming the same three chords repeatedly (G-C-D for those keeping score at home). This does nothing to elevate life on the street.

Dave Perkins Busking, Knoxville

Here are a few others and my vote:

  • Alexia Pantanizop0ulus (and various stringed combinations playing classical versions of Beatle’s Songs): Give her money! She is a Cellist with the Johnson City and her rotating group – sometimes called Norwegian Wood – adds immensely to the ambiance.
  • Old City Buskers – Young retro-players give the Market Square Farmer’s Market a definite bounce: They get my money.
  • Bill and Jake: The grandfather of all buskers, Bill is a crusty old, nice guy with a good voice and a good spirit: Gets the money.
  • Lady/Person telling fortunes on a blanket: I’ve got no reason to wish her to be gone if you want her on the square, still I’ve always been creeped out a little by Fortune Telling and this person doesn’t give me good vibes: Keeping my money.
  • Xylophone Player: Give Him the Money! He’s excellent, friendly and his music is perfect for hanging out in the park and dining out.
  • Person playing the modified (wider neck) stereo guitar, usually found outside the Market Square Parking Garage: Nice guy, lives in Virginia as I recall and plays some very cool licks: He gets my money.
  • Harvey the Magician: I’ve blogged about him before, I think he’s very good at what he does and I like to see him supported.
  • Balloon making guy who also plays clarinet and some very loud horn: Mixed feelings on this one. I like the balloons and the clarinet and absolutely hate the horn. Also, he’s got a little creepiness factor if you look back at older News Sentinel stories about him.
  • Travelers: These are the young people who come through in groups of a half dozen to a dozen, sprawl across the ground and sometimes play music. They always have a dog or two on a rope or unleashed and they look as if they purposefully wallowed in mud. They are aggressive in panhandling as well as busking, block pathways and smell really, really bad. I never give them a penny.

Young Busker on Krutch Park, Knoxville: Definitely Support this Guy

There are others, of course, some of which I’ve forgotten and some of which I don’t know their names or enough detail to get across who I”m talking about. It’s worth a mention, also, that many of the artists who play in bars around town are playing for tips, so please tip them.

Jazz on the Square, Knoxville, June 2012

Jazz on the Square, Knoxville, June 2012

One regularly performing group that falls somewhere in the middle is the Jazz quintet that plays on Tuesday nights through the summer. Readers of this blog know that I dearly love this weekly event and the music is absolutely world class. Their music is loud enough to be heard at every restaurant on the square and I strongly feel the people who come to listen and the people who eat outside should drop money in the bucket.

Jazz on the Square, Knoxville, June 2012

Jazz on the Square, Knoxville, June 2012

Now maybe you coincidentally happened upon the square, didn’t ask for the music and maybe even don’t like it: OK, fine. But if you bring a chair or plan your meal to enjoy the jazz from an outdoor table, stop by the stage and drop off a little money.

It turns out there are sponsors helping out, but the organizational driving force for the shows, as well as awesome trumpet playing, comes from Vance Thompson. Vance also happens to be the director of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. If I understand it correctly, he’s used the sponsorships (notably from Eddie Mannis) to pay the band, but his only payoff comes from the tip jar. I’ve carried the tip jar around to various seats before, but I really wish people would simply step up and give them their due.

Saxophone Busker on the Square, Knoxville, June 2012

So, what do you think? Do you never give money to buskers because you consider them a nuisance and didn’t ask them to play in the first place? Do you think we should give money to all of them because at least they are out there trying? Do you think I missed the mark on my giving or not giving? Leave a comment and we’ll talk about it.

Bronze Guy Busking, Knoxville: Did they tip him?


  1. We give the guy identified above as Sax Busker some change every weekend when we brunch downtown. He’s friendly, entertaining and not at all bad. We love to see him chase people and children (children aren’t people right?) with his sax.

    This past weekend an offensive rapper was on the corner of the (alleged) Urban Outfitters future home with an amp. I was happy to see KPD shut him down for using amplified sound.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      I like that guy, too. The rapper bit sounds like a good thing, but it makes me wonder why the offensive preachers who use the square are allowed to use amplification.

  2. Agreed – In fact, I’d be fine with banning preachers period!

  3. Maybe the rapper was using profanity and the preachers don’t?

    I love the Old City Buskers! They do such a great job. I also miss the flute man. I haven’t heard him playing in a long time now.

    • No profanity, the policeman specifically told him “no amplified sound.” Maybe it was just because the Farmers Market was going on. Anyway, I’m glad he shut the guy down.

  4. Kelewele says

    I enjoy buskers. And I enjoy busking with my ukulele. When I do go downtown to busk, I try to play so that people can only hear me if they stay close enough to listen. Support the JAZZ ON THE SQUARE. You’re getting a chance to hear some of the best musicians in the country, for FREE!!

  5. Joe Chaisson says

    Living an hour from New Orleans & spending a lot of time in The French Quarter, I really like the idea of street musicians. Many of these people rely on tips and I do believing in tipping them. HOWEVER when I come upon an entertainer that puts on a really good show, I give a really good tip and when I come upon a terrible one (and they are out there) I do not tip. The ones that fall in between will get a couple of bucks. New Orleans require street entertainers to have a permit to work the streets which keeps the Quarter from getting to crowded with them. So, should you walk upon one that you like, drop a buck or two. It’s the right thing to do…………

  6. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

    Andrea – Good point on the profanity. Maybe that was it. As for the flute guy, the other buskers hated him and said he was a hard-core addict. Maybe he crashed.
    Kelewele – I’ll have to watch for your ukelele. I agree on the jazz, as I’ve said enough times to really irritate my regular readers.
    Joe – that’s about how I play it. Our quality and quantity of buskers no where near approximates New Orleans, but the same idea applies. It’s definitely the right thing to do. They are working hard and making our lives better.

  7. I like Bronze Man… The sound of silence. I have to agree about Tuesday’s jazz on the square – world class and I can’t believe it’s FREE (playing for tips). Our downtown postal clerk Randall told me today to be present in World’s Fair Park Saturday Aug 18th for some jammin free blues & soul.

  8. Your post has made me want to look more closely at these casual entertainers! I like the painted, silent guys, but now I’m ready to hear the Tuesday night crew! You’ve got me thinking . . . And that’s not a bad thing!

  9. I despise the man that always dresses up his sweet little dog. He is rude in general, but he also treats that dog horribly. I have seen him kick that dog before. I wish he would leave and never come back

    • If you see him abuse his dog you should call the police on him. Maybe try to get the animal abuse on video. He could go to jail. People need to stop whining about animal abuse and start DOING something about it.

  10. What about the guy with the dog with the bird on it’s back? Does that guy count as a busker? I’m not really even sure if he asks for money. A few weeks back that dog was looking pretty hungry, and I know people gave him some cash for food for the dog, but he’s filled out a little more of late. And are the dog and bird really “best friends” as I’ve heard the guy say?

  11. so am I right that you don’t need a permit to busk in Knoxville? Where can one find the rules and regs? I’ve thought about going down to the square to practice juggling/diabolo and throwing down a hat for the heck of it…but never seriously enough to try.

    and if possible, can you do a followup post on the “rose guy”? I read on here a while back that he was leaving…but I know I saw him downtown a few weeks back and his flowers were always a favorite of my girlfriend.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      You definitely do not need a permit. I’m beginning to wonder if that might not be a bad idea, but so far, no. The city could hire me to do the talent screening, though and that would be cool! As for “the rose guy,” that’s Taylor and I reported what was reported elsewhere, that he was leaving. Then I saw him and he said “not until the universe speaks” to him would he leave. I’ve seen him recently, too, but he must be doing other things because he’s not around as routinely as he used to be. Other than that, unless I run into him and he’s unusually talkative, that’s about all I know.

      • As busking becomes increasingly popular, I could see a permit being necessary, so long as it’s based on skill and not money. It would be just plain wrong to shut out talented poor people who are desperate for money and want to earn it instead of begging, while letting less talented attention whores do their thing, and any well-off person who’s new to an instrument practice noisily in public, which is exactly what an expensive permit would do to the busking scene.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.