THE WALT ROBERTSON I KNEW (Part 2)
By Bob Nelson, guest columnist
been a-wanderin’, early and late,
New York City, to the Golden
And it looks like
Ain’t never gonna’ cease
In my first article I described how I met the late Walt Robertson in
1953. He became an early icon of the Seattle folk scene as well as a
pivotal person in my life. It's been twelve years since his passing and
I'm enjoying remembering many times and lessons.
So just what was it about Walt's performing that caused so much
attention? It was a combination of many things.
Taken alone, his voice was not great though it certainly was pleasant.
He could sing on pitch. And he could sing with great power and force.
And he knew how to make himself, "hisself" as he used to say, easy to
listen to. He did this by singing very clearly. His diction was
excellent. He knew how to spit out the final consonants. You never had
to struggle to understand the words he sang. Never!
His guitar work was clean and simple. He never let the guitar get in
the way of the song, but it always added with it's strong and clean
rhythms. And could use amazing chords to surprise and delight you,
chords you wouldn't expect, but you knew were a perfect fit when you
He looked you directly in the when he sang. No staring at the ceiling,
struggling to remember the words. He was fully prepared or he wouldn't
sing that song. If you were giving him your attention, he felt an
obligation to perform well. I was often amazed to watch as his eyes
seemed to make contact with every person in the audience. You were left
with the feeling that he was singing just for you and you were the only
person in the room.
He had a certain vitality. His eyes would fairly sparkle and shine. He
could mesmerize you with a look. And when he had you in his grip, there
would be a twinkle in his eye, as if to say, "I've got you, don't I?
And ... ain't it fun!"
His energy was something to behold. When he sang of a love lost, and
looked inside you, your heart bled. When he sang "Sam Hall,"
those bastards down below,
Said Sam, we told you so,
God damn their eyes!
you felt a chill.
Whenever he picked up his guitar, whether on stage or in a room, I
always felt a sense of excitement. I knew something wonderful would be
coming. He never picked up his guitar casually. If he reached for it,
it was because he had something to say and he was worth the listen. He
never played his guitar when someone else was playing. He felt this
would be disrespectful to the other performer.
This total combination of voice, guitar, diction and acting made a
powerful presence. He could sing loud and robust and yet, within a
verse, bring the volume down to a whisper that would have you on the
edge of your chair. Another telling aspect of his performing would be
the total silence that often followed his songs. Many times we just sat
there stunned at what we'd seen and heard.
Early on, in the 1950's, Walt became so closely identified with
particular songs that they became "his." Even his closest friends
wouldn't sing them. "What? You can't sing 'Wanderin', that's Walt's
song!" Other such songs were "Life Is A Toil; Rich Gal, Poor Gal"
'goin' cross the mountain, sweet Betsey,
'Goin' cross the mountain,
Cora Lee, poor girl,
And if you never ever see me again,
Poor gal, remember me!
And he had a Pennsylvania Dutch version of "There's A Hole In My
Bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza", that would put you on the floor with
laughter, no matter how many times you'd heard it.
As I think back on those hours we all spent together, I smile to
remember the dynamics of a typical hoot. Someone would start a song.
Slowly others would get out their guitars and start to tune. Someone
might set a jug of wine on the floor. Then perhaps Don would sing, and
maybe Moose would follow him. Dick, with his tenor guitar, might add
something. Stan might follow that one, and that would trigger something
to remind Walt of one. And on and on it went, all night long.
Toward the end of Walt's life, when he knew his time was short, he sent
me a letter suggesting the songs and singers he'd like to hear one more
time. I quote from that letter:
songs I'd like to hear ... Bob, 'La Llorna'; Don, 'Bonnie Dundee';
George, 'Ramblin Boy’ and ‘Minstrel Show'; Gary, 'Ayree
Peaks'; Patti, 'Come A Landsman'; Stan, 'Handsome Cabin Boy'; Richard,
'Sully's Pail'; Nancy, something French; Larry, 'Moon Man'; Utah, 'I
Have Led a Life'; Guy, 'Old Blue'; Don, 'MacPherson's Lament’ ...
let there be plenty of cheap red wine, and let there be a joyful noise.
Still let the amenities and courtesies of the old hoots prevail. honor
each other and let the music honor all ..."
Those of us that knew him well often tell "Walt Stories" when we get
together. And we still wonder where his drive and energies came from.
He was a man of incredible talent: an actor, a dancer, a singer, a
world traveler, a storyteller and a writer. He knew how to get the most
out of a piece, be it a song or a part in a play. One hint of his
talents came from a conversation I had recently with his sister. As we
were remembering him, she mentioned that one of her more vivid memories
of him was when he was just five years old. “He had a part in a
children's play at church. When he made his entrance, he did it in
spades. He ran up the aisle toward the pulpit, brandishing a sword and
dressed in a Roman toga, yelling at the top of his lungs. I guess he
learned early on!”
For more reminisces about Walt see Tales of Walt
Robertson at Mudcat.org:
Walt recorded two LP's (now available on CD):
1. "American Northest Ballads," Smithsonian Folkways FW02046(1955)
list and sound bites are available on the internet:
2. "Walt Robertson," Smithsonian Folkways FW02330 (1959)
list and sound bites are available on the internet:
Photograph of Walt Robertson by Gary Oberbillig
Bob Nelson was a Seattle folksinger
in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He now lives in Everett, WA. Contact
him at <firstname.lastname@example.org> for comments and more
information on the early folk music scene in Seattle.