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Tuesday, September 27, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Walt Robertson, Known For Folk Singing

Walt Robertson once heard of an old woman who still remembered the folk tunes of her English ancestors who'd settled among the Kentucky foothills.

So he set out to find her.

He drove as far as the roads would take him. Then he walked farther. After three days - asking directions from neighbors along the way - Mr. Robertson found the woman.

She taught him the songs, and the stories and traditions behind them.

"He had a love of the music and of preserving folk music in its true forms," recalled Mr. Robertson's sister, Elisabeth Robertson, of Willamina, Ore.

Mr. Robertson died at his home in Kingston, Kitsap County, Friday after decades spent singing, playing and preserving folk tunes from throughout the world. He was 65.

A writer, musician and actor, Mr. Robertson gained a reputation early as one of the region's, and nation's, premier folk singers. He played with such renowned folk singers as Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He recorded two collections of songs for Folkways, a New York-based record company.

"The thing about Walt was he was the first. He did this in '52, '53, and '54," said Bob Nelson, a long-time friend and fellow folk singer. "He really was a giant."

Throughout his career, Mr. Robertson was intrigued by the stories that stood behind the tunes, and he was always certain to include a little history with each song, whether it be a sea-shanty, railroad working song, English ballad or some Mississippi Delta blues.

Seattleites may remember Mr. Robertson for a live show of folk music - titled "The Wanderer," after a trademark tune - he hosted on KING-TV.

During the show, "he just sat on a stool and played the guitar and sang genuine folk music," Elisabeth Robertson said. "It's a thread that ran through his life all the way."

Indeed the earnest tone of his voice, as it changes from upbeat, light-hearted songs, to bluesy ballads, speaks to a life spent learning about people and the music they've left behind.

On the dust cover to his album "Walt Robertson Sings American Folk Songs," Mr. Robertson tells of his experiences living on the East Coast and West Coast, in the Midwest, and in Canada and Europe. He tells of working as a lumberjack, grocery clerk, ranch hand, painter and cab driver. He also once owned a coffee house in Vancouver, B.C., and worked regularly as a technical writer - including a stint with The Boeing Co.

"And all along the way, I've been finding out about people, and they all like to sing, or listen to a song," Mr. Robertson wrote. "Folk music is alive everywhere in the world today and is about the best medicine the world has got to ease its aches and pains."

Mr. Robertson was born in Omaha, Neb., in 1928. One of the earliest stages of his wanderings brought him to the Puget Sound. He attended Bainbridge High School and later Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

After the close of World War II, Mr. Robertson served in the Army Special Service as part of the Seventh Army Repertory Theatre Company. As an actor, stage manager and singer, he entertained troops with more than 200 productions, including "My Three Angels" and "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial."

Mr. Robertson continued his interest in the stage throughout the past several years. He acted in productions in Seattle, and with the community theater in Honolulu, where he lived for several years until last year.

Pat French, who directed Mr. Robertson in a production of "The Rainmaker," recalled an evening when he showed up for an acting class dressed in character. Mr. Robertson chose the dark cloak and knife of a cold-blooded killer.

"I could see then definitely that he had great, great potential," said Pat French.

To many of his friends and fans, though, Mr. Robertson always will be remembered for his contributions to folk music. His renditions of "Life is a Toil," "Devlish Mary" and "Wandering" were standards at Northwest concerts and hoots - informal house parties where folk singers gather to share their favorites, sometimes running days on end.

"Set aside the fact that I'm his sister," Elisabeth Robertson said. "His voice was warm and rich. He acted the songs. He got into the songs and sang the story. If there was a story there, you felt it."

Mr. Robertson is also survived by four daughters: Stephanie Landaas and Lisa Robertson, both of Seattle, Tania Robertson of Ellensburg, and Laurie Robertson of Mercer Island, and two nieces, Carol Bennett-Bertrand and Paula Bennett, both of Seattle.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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