Steve Guthe – folksinger, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and consummate showman who led the Northwest folk scene for over twenty-five years – died suddenly on April 1, 2005. He was fifty years old. His many friends and fans are left stunned and saddened by his unexpected passing. We have built this webpage not just to grieve our friend, but to celebrate and remember the many happy moments he added to our lives.
Steve was born in Utica, New York on June 5, 1954. Steve spent most of his youth in Boston, where he learned to play guitar from the teenager who lived down the hill: a guy named Bill Staines. They both were southpaws, but neither played guitar in the traditional manner. Teacher Bill had learned to play a right-handed guitar upside-down and backwards. That enabled him to borrow a guitar at any jam session and play it; unfortunately, it made it darn near impossible for any other “jammer” to recognize Bill’s chord patterns. So Teacher Bill taught Student Steve to simply play right-handed. As you’re probably aware, Bill Staines went on to become one of America’s best-known traveling folksingers since Woody Guthrie. Steve Guthe went on to become a leader of the Northwest folk scene for nearly thirty years.
Steve relocated to the Puget Sound area in 1977, where he earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in public administration from Evergreen State College. His true love was music, and he had the skill and courage to become what many dream of, but few dare try: a fulltime, lifelong professional folksinger.
His first unsuccessful effort was “busking” on the streets of Seattle. Although it’s a folk-friendly town, Steve quickly learned: “ You can starve to death playing the guitar!” Although a skilled guitarist and street-singer, he changed both instruments and venues. He learned to play Irish melodies on the hammered dulcimer, hooked up with a partner named Alan Levy, and jumped aboard Puget Sound’s unique public transportation system: the Washington State Ferries.
The Ferryboat Musicians became an overnight sensation. Playing for commuters and tourists on a 35-minute passage between Seattle and Bainbridge Island, they created a joyful music experience with the vistas of water and mountains as backdrop. They depended on tips for their living, but tips were good. Steve picked up playing several new instruments, including three types of banjo (plectrum, tenor, and 5-string). A natural showman, he effused energy and humor as he tied together instrumental tunes, rousing songs, and corny jokes into a thoroughly enjoyable show. The contacts they made led to bookings for private parties, music festivals, corporate banquets, and the like. They were finding the path to commercial success as musicians without having to resort to the noisy, smoky bar scene in which most of their contemporaries were struggling.
Steve’s prominent public performances with his dulcimer gave welcome publicity to its builder, the Dusty Strings shop in Fremont. A steady string of customers entered the store saying, “I want a dulcimer just like the guy on the ferry!” Dusty Strings built a new prototype specifically for Steve, and asked for his feedback on design issues. That 57-string prototype remains unique for its outstanding volume and remarkable ability to hold its tuning. Other musicians were also influenced both by Steve’s dulcimer-playing and his demonstrated ability to earn a living performing aboard the ferryboats. Tania Opland, Mark Geisler, and later Robby Thran all took up the hammered dulcimer and ferryboat-busking, literally in Steve Guthe’s wake.
When partner Alan Levy moved on to Alaska, Steve engaged a series of new partners into the act. All were talented and entertaining, but Steve was always the heart and soul of the show. With Kat Eggleston, he recorded two albums: “The Ferryboat Musicians” and “Overboard”. By the mid-1980’s they were clearly the top performing folk musicians in the Northwest. When music co-op Victory Music issued a two-disc sampler of top Northwest songwriters in 1984, it included not only the music of the Ferryboat Musicians in the collection, but their photo graced its cover. Steve’s leadership of the folk community extended to serving on the Board of Directors for both Victory Music and the Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival. Steve also became a founding member of the Victory Sings At Sea chorus, contributing several leads and many harmonies and instrumental licks to their two CD projects.
Steve and Kat Eggleston married, but the marriage was short and unhappy. Kat left both Steve and Seattle for Chicago in 1990. That was an especially bad year for Steve, as he developed some health problems as well. He nearly lost the ability to play his instruments, because of persistent numbness in his fingertips. With gritty determination, he re-learned to play by watching his hands move on the fingerboards, and associating sensations in the back of his hands with finger position on the frets. It took time and effort, but Steve not only re-mastered the instruments he already played, but added mandolin, tenor guitar, and concertina to his repertoire.
Bouncing back from both divorce and illness, Steve kept the re-christened Ferryboat Band rolling along with an ensemble of other performers. In varying combinations, they included Susan Welch, Mike Saunders, Tania Opland, Teresa Morgan, Robby Thran, and Hank Cramer. Steve appeared as a sideman on an album of originals by songwriter K.W. Todd, played a major role in recording Hank Cramer’s “West By Northwest” CD, and cut a new Ferryboat Band album (“A Fine Time Indeed”) with Mike Saunders. He also appeared as guest artist on The Cutters’ “Live Aboard The Wawona” disc. Several of Steve’s original songs found popularity with other artists: Neal Woodall recorded “I-5 South”, while Hank Cramer performed “It’s About Time” on his “Days Gone By” CD.
In the mid-90’s, Steve briefly flirted with a day-job in the Seattle metro area. Though he had lampooned commuter life in his “I-5 South” ballad, Steve had become an expert in Linux operating systems. Both he and his brother Carl hired on as programmers for GE Capital in Bellevue. Although he enjoyed using his computer skills (and receiving a predictable paycheck), Steve longed to try the life of a traveling folksinger. He had always wanted to be, in his words, a “rambling, gambling guy”-- not only doing music full-time, but traveling as well. He and Hank Cramer had performed continuously together on the local scene since 1993. In 1998 they convinced each other to quit their day jobs and take to the open road.
It was the adventure they’d waited for all their lives. They dropped The Ferryboat Band moniker and called themselves The Rounders instead ( the Ferryboat name was meaningless to audiences outside the Puget Sound area). They took their road-show east to Baltimore and New York, west to Hawaii, north to Canada, south to Arizona and Texas. They polished a well-established act. It always opened with Steve’s dulcimer tunes. Once the audience was totally immersed, they’d jump up with guitars and banjos to play rousing folk-songs laced with side-splitting comedy. Wherever they went, they drew favorable comparisons to famous folk-comic groups, including the Smothers Brothers and the Kingston Trio. They became notorious with Budget Rental Car. To reduce the wear-and-tear on their own cars, and to keep clear expense records for tax reasons, they began renting Ford Ranger pick-up trucks from Budget at $149 a week, unlimited miles! Their record on one road-trip to Texas and back: 6,500 miles in two weeks. The rumor spread that Budget was posting their photos at rental offices with the warning “don’t rent a truck to these guys!” Steve and Hank recorded a CD together entitled “Brave Boys!”, and played (among other places) at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV; the National Festival of the Sea in San Francisco; the Phoenix and Tucson Folk Festivals; and the annual Saint Patrick’s Day parades in Honolulu.
Touring together was fun, but was also a great deal of work and a lot of stress. In May 2001, Steve and Hank reverted to working as solo acts again. After twenty-plus years in the Northwest drizzle, Steve began wintering in Florida at his mother’s home. Returning in the spring, he would load his gear into his RV and travel a circuit of favorite gigs in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. He made his last known recording, “What Did The Deep Sea Say” at Philip Morgan’s home studio in October 2004, then headed south to Florida for another winter. He had plans to record a fresh album with Mike Saunders when he returned to Washington this spring.
Steve was alone at his mother’s house in Jensen Beach, Florida on April 1, 2005 when death came suddenly. He was found by a neighbor lying on the floor, phone in his hand, fresh-brewed pot of coffee untouched on the kitchen counter. In that sad moment, the Northwest folk scene lost one of its leading lights. Steve would never cut the next album with Mike Saunders. But he left us a legacy of well-crafted songs, witty humor, beautiful melodies, and happy memories that will last a long time to come.