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Huey West: Paying It Forward.

June 27, 2013

HueyWhiteCheddar01SmallText and image by Jumah Chaguan.

It’s cold outside the Spread Bagelry on South 20th street. A busker with his accordion plays the tune from “The Godfather” to customers. Huey sees him but walks away. The owners of the shop gave Huey permission to play today, not this guy. However, Huey’s not going to fight with an elderly man, especially a man in need of tips, like himself.

Huey needs the money bad. The rent has not been paid for the past two months. Luckily, the sun is out and the Farmers’ Market in Rittenhouse Square has a decent turnout. Perhaps Huey might have a shot after all.

William Huston West is his full name but he feels more comfortable with Huey. His baby sister gave him that nickname.

“Friends tell me that Huston West is a great country name,” says the 28-year-old. “Maybe I’ll go with that name some day.”

Born in Atlanta, Huey moved north during his teens, settled in Wayne, PA and now lives in the city. Surprisingly, it was here that he discovered his devotion to banjo music when a high school friend played him the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?

“It was like lightning,” says Huey.

Like a traditional banjo song, Huey has had his share of ups and downs.

“I am a man of constant sorrow/ I’ve seen trouble in my day,” sings Huey, covering Dick Burnett’s song used in the film that originally inspired him.

He left college after one year because booze battered him in a bad way. In search of a fresh start, Huey moved back to Georgia with his father but the bottle beat him again. He got in trouble for drinking and driving and did some time in the local county jail.

“It’s like Jekyll and Hyde,” says Huey about his past experiences with alcohol.

A tattoo of a bomb with a short fuse is prominent on top of his right hand. A vodka bottle with the slogan “never again” is visible on his forearm – one of 25 tattoos that serve as reminders of past wild days.

If alcohol is a poison to Huey, he now delights in a different drink—melancholia.

“Say alcohol, why do you treat me so/ You’ve done me so dirty/ I won’t mess with you no more,” sings Huey in his song “Jacquin’s Liquor.”

Pigeons circle above while the sun casts its rays behind Huey. Few shoppers pay attention to the banjo man singing Appalachian blues.

Huey puts his ear closer to the strings and adjusts the banjo’s pegs. He forgets about the people, the need to earn money or the fact that the temperature outside won’t stay warm for long. He refuses to sing out of tune. It needs to be right.

“When you play on a stage, it’s more controlled,” says Huey. “All the banjos are tuned.”

Huey is no stranger to the stage. MilkBoy in Ardmore, World Cafe Live and Kung Fu Necktie have given Huey a space to play. But it’s just not always steady and busking has its own rewards.

“You are your own boss,” says Huey, who also sometimes strums in a band called The White Cheddar Boys. “When people started paying me, that’s when I realized that I was a musician. That was a big revelation to me.”

Finally, with his eyes closed, the right hand beats the strings up and down with intensity. It’s Huey and his banjo on the concrete stage. A long press-on nail glued to his finger helps him achieve the clawhammer style – a raw and fast sound in which the player creates notes by striking the strings using the backs of the fingernails.

A couple of feet away from Huey, a woman stands with a yoga mat and a Buddha smile. Shoppers pass in front and behind her. She’s undisturbed and caught in a blissful moment. The woman walks over and drops a $5 bill.

“He is particularly soulful,” says Laurie Taylor, a local resident who has seen Huey around town. “He has a unique sound and a lot of energy. It’s a treat when he comes out.”

Huey soon decides to pack it up. The busking session earns him $13.68 – not enough for rent but enough to for a pack of Mavericks and food for his rabbit, Roscoe. Today was not the luckiest of days. The previous week, a man gave him $50.

Huey hasn’t eaten lunch but he does have a bit of luck is on his side. The Good Spoon owner offers him free chili. With a peaceful resignation, Huey goes to get the promised free food.

He drops some of his earned money in the tip jar. He didn’t have to tip but decides to pay it forward.

2 Comments
  1. July 11, 2014 4:10 pm

    Walking through Rittenhouse Square today with my guitar, I ran into Huey. Tattoos, the rabbit, and all. His banjo is fitted a skin head and Huey sports a brass thumb ring; both have a pleasing effect on the banjo strings.

    So I pulled out the guitar and we played for 45 minutes. Very nice, it was. Hope to run into Huey again sometime soon.

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