Is it legal to play music on the street?

A homeless musician’s run-in with the law

Clem Edwards (shown here with his dog, Mud) says he was playing music, not panhandling, when a police officer told him to move on.

Clem Edwards (shown here with his dog, Mud) says he was playing music, not panhandling, when a police officer told him to move on.

Photo By Shannon Rooney

A homeless musician’s run-in with the law

Since 2004, Clem Edwards has lived on the streets and entertained passersby in downtown Chico with his lively guitar tunes and memorable harmonica riffs.

Having played in five local bands over the years before he chose, he says, to live on the streets, he’s no amateur musician. The guy can play.

Occasionally people hand him what he calls a donation. He doesn’t put out a hat or an open guitar case, and thus isn’t panhandling, he said.

Accompanied by his docile and well-trained chocolate lab/pit bull mix, Mud (after Muddy Waters), Edwards said his needs are simple—“dog food, a burrito and a beer. Not a lot of beer—just one.”

He says that recently, as he sat on the sidewalk with his harmonica in his hand and guitar in its case at his side near the florist shop on the first block of Broadway, a police officer told him he had to get a permit.

“Clem, we like you, but we have to wipe you off the map, too, because we can’t show favoritism,” Edwards said the officer told him. Edwards put his harmonica back in his pocket, picked up his guitar case and moved on.

When he went to the city offices to inquire about the permit, he discovered something a little perplexing: “They said there is no such permit.”

Calls to City Hall confirmed that fact. One city employee said people playing music on the streets “is a matter of free speech” as long as there are no code-enforcement issues, such as blocking sidewalks or getting too loud. There also can’t be an open guitar case, which would constitute panhandling, a Chico Municipal Code violation.

The officer who contacted Edwards, Bill Dawson, remembers the incident somewhat differently. He said it was a Thursday Night Market night in crowded downtown. Edwards’ guitar case was open on the sidewalk. Edwards looked up and said, “I have to have a permit to do this, don’t I?” Dawson didn’t know about that, so he simply agreed and said, “Yeah, you do.”

“I didn’t know there wasn’t one,” he told this reporter.

His issue, he said, was with Edwards’ open guitar case, which constitutes panhandling and obstructs pedestrian traffic, and his dog’s not being properly leashed when its owner was playing an instrument.

Dawson said it’s OK for street musicians to perform downtown as long as they don’t have open guitar cases or animals on the sidewalk. “There’s a guy who plays drums all the time on Broadway,” he said, “and nobody tells him to stop.”

A check of the municipal code, however, revealed that it says nothing about open guitar cases or, for that matter, dogs on the sidewalk. There are numerous restrictions on how and where a person can panhandle, said City Attorney Lori Barker, but unless one or more of those restrictions are being violated, it is a legal activity.

“I’m a man of few words when it comes to cops,” Edwards said when told of Officer Dawson’s account of their encounter. “I always let them talk first.”

Edwards said he didn’t have his guitar case open, that it is never his practice to have an open guitar case. He said he wasn’t even on the sidewalk. Instead he was in the little alcove in front of the florist shop, completely off the sidewalk.

On a recent Sunday morning, Edwards sat as usual on the little wall next to Bidwell Presbyterian Church on First Street. He was dressed like a working man in jeans, boots and a khaki shirt, a ball cap covering his head, hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. Mud lazed in the bushes nearby.

Bidwell Pastor Steve Schibsted came by on his way to church and greeted Edwards, shaking hands with him and clapping him on the back. “Clem’s a good guy,” he said.

A former Marine, Edwards worked for many years as a mechanic and in other trades until he chose to be homeless in 2004 after a number of financial problems left him broke. For one thing, he learned he owed back support for a child he didn’t know he had until the child was 16. He says the government took most of his paycheck and every tax return, leaving him with not enough money to live on. As soon as his son turned 18, he says, he quit paying.

“I choose this life—I don’t have to do this. If I had access to money, I wouldn’t take it. The more you own, the more it owns you. I don’t need four walls. I like to be outside. I just want to be outside and make people smile.”

Edwards said he’s unsure what he’d do about playing music downtown. “Right now, I’m waiting for [the farmers’ market] Saturday,” he said. Nobody’s ever bothered him there.

He’s trying to get permission to play at the Thursday Night Market, he said. He has the paperwork, but he also has to submit a CD of his music, and right now he doesn’t have access to recording equipment.

“I just want to play music,” he said. “I don’t even care about the money. I really don’t.”