Steven Gene Wold, commonly known as Seasick Steve, (born 1941) is an American blues musician, although he prefers to be called “a song and dance man”. He plays guitars (mostly personalized), and sings, usually about his early life living rough and doing casual work.
Wold was born in Oakland, California. When he was four years old, his parents split up. His father played boogie-woogie piano and at five or six years old Wold tried to learn but couldn’t. At age eight, he learned to play the guitar (he later found out that it was blues) from K. C. Douglas, who worked at his grandfather’s garage. Douglas wrote the song “Mercury Blues” and used to play with Tommy Johnson. Would leave home at 13 to avoid abuse at the hands of his stepfather, and lived rough and on the road in Tennessee, Mississippi and elsewhere, until 1973. He would travel long distances by hopping freight trains, looking for work as a farm labourer or in other seasonal jobs, often living as a hobo. At various times, Wold worked as a carnie, cowboy and a migrant worker.
Of this time he once said:
“Hobos are people who move around looking for work, tramps are people who move around but don’t look for work, and bums are people who don’t move and don’t work. I’ve been all three.”
Early musical career
In the sixties he started touring and performing with fellow blues musicians, and had friends in the music scene including Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell. Since then, he has worked, on and off, as a session musician and studio engineer. In the late 1980s, while living in Olympia, near Seattle, he worked with many indie label artists. Kurt Cobain was a friend. In the 1990s he continued to work as a recording engineer and producer, including producing several releases by Modest Mouse. including their 1996 debut album This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About.
At one time, living in Paris, Wold made his living busking, mostly on the metro. After moving to Norway in 2001, Wold released his first album, entitled “Cheap”, recorded with The Level Devils (Jo Husmo on stand-up bass and Kai Christoffersen on drums) as his rhythm section. His debut solo album, “Dog House Music” was released by Bronzerat Records on 26 November 2006, after he was championed by an old friend, Joe Cushley, DJ on the Ballin’ The Jack blues show on London radio station Resonance FM.
Breakthrough and subsequent career.
Wold made his first UK television appearance on Jools Holland’s ‘Annual Hootenanny’ BBC TV show (broadcast on New Year’s Eve 2006) where he performed a live rendition of “Dog House Boogie” on the ‘Three String Trance Wonder’ and the ‘Mississippi Drum Machine’ (see below). After that show his popularity exploded, as he explained in an interview:
“I can’t believe it, all of the sudden I’m like the cat’s meow!”
He was well received in the UK, winning the 2007 MOJO Award for Best Breakthrough Act and going on to appear at major UK festivals such as Reading, Leeds and Glastonbury. In 2007 he played more UK festivals than any other artist.
Wold toured early in 2008, playing in various venues and festivals in the UK. He was joined on stage by drummer Dan Magnusson, formerly of his backing band the Level Devils. KT Tunstall also dueted with Wold at one concert (Astoria, London, 24 January 2008). Wold also played many other festivals throughout the world in 2008, including Fuji Rock in Japan, East Coast Blues & Roots Music Festival in Australia (also in April 2008), and Roskilde in Denmark.
Wold’s major-label debut, I Started Out With Nothin and i Still Got Most of it Left was recorded with Dan Magnusson on drums, was released by Warner Music on 29 September 2008 and features Ruby Turner and Nick Cave’s Grinderman.
He has toured the UK extensively since 2007 being supported by Duke Garwood, Gemma Ray, The Sugars, Billie the Vision and the Dancers in January 2008, Amy LaVere in October 2008 ( Melody Nelson at the Brighton Dome on 7 October) and Joe Gideon & The Shark in January 2009. His tours in October 2008 and January 2009 were all sold out and included performances at the Royal Albert Hall, The Edinburgh Queens Hall, the Grand Opera House in Belfast, the Apollo in Manchester, the City Hall in Newcastle and the London Hammersmith Apollo.
In 2009, Wold was nominated for a Brit Award in the category of International Solo Male Artist, That same year, BBC Four broadcast a documentary of Wold visiting the southern USA entitled Seasick Steve: Bringing It All Back Home. On 21 January, Wold hosted “Folk America: Hollerers, Stompers and Old Time Ramblers” at the Barbican in London, a show that was also televised and shown with the documentary on BBC Four as part of a series tracing American roots music.
Seasick Steve participated on Australian television show Spicks and Specks in April 2009, wearing a beaten up John Deere cap. Wold admitted to having enough money to finally buy a model 60 John Deere Tractor, and joked that he could now really hold up traffic, a reference to the joke of his 51 Chevy breaking down at a music festival and requiring a push from fellow musicians.
In an interview with an Australian magazine, Seasick Steve attributes much of his unlikely success to his cheap and weather-beaten guitar, ‘The Trance Wonder’ and reveals the guitar’s mojo might come from supernatural sources. “I got it from Sherman, who is a friend of mine down in Mississippi, who had bought it down at a goodwill store. When we were down there last time he says to me, ‘I didn’t tell you when you bought it off me, but that guitar used to be haunted’. I say, ‘What are you talking about, Sherman?’. He says, ‘There’s 50 solid citizens here in Como who’ll tell you this guitar is haunted. It’s the darnedest thing – we’d leave it over in the potato barn and we’d come back in and it would be moved. You’d put it down somewhere and the next morning you’d come back and it would have moved. When you took that guitar the ghost in the barn left’. He told me this not very long ago and I said to him, ‘Sherman! Why didn’t you tell me this before?’ and he said, ‘Well the ghost was gone – I didn’t want it around here no more!’”
On January 3, 2010, Seasick Steve appeared on the popular BBC motoring show Top Gear as the Star In A Reasonably Priced Car.
As well as an electric guitar and self electrified acoustic guitar, Wold owns (and plays) several obscure and personalised instruments, including:
- The Three-String Trance Wonder – This is a normal guitar that resembles a Fender Coronado, but with only three strings. It has an old Harmony pickup added (with duct tape) and is tuned to G, G and B using an E string in the A position, a D in the G position and a G in the B position. At his gigs, he often tells the story that he bought it for $75 in this condition in Como, Mississippi from a man named Sherman, who later told him he only paid $25 for it the day before. Wold vowed never to add another string, and that he would tour the world telling his story of how Sherman ripped him off. All in good fun as Sherman Cooper is a good buddy, who gave him the guitar having had it nailed to the wall as a decoration. A lot of the time he also adds (while picking up or putting away the guitar) that it is the “…biggest piece of shit in the world, I swear”.
- The One-Stringed Diddley Bow – This is a one stringed string instrument played with a slide (He uses an old screwdriver for this purpose). It consists of a 2 foot long 2×4, with a semi-loose piece of broom wire nailed to it at both ends. It was made especially for him by James ‘Super Chikan’ Johnson.
- The ‘MDM’ (Mississippi Drum Machine) – A small wooden box that is stomped upon, providing percussion. It is decorated with a Mississippi motorcycle license plate (“MC33583”), and a small piece of carpet.
- Roland Cube Amplifier – Placed on a chair to his left and set to the ‘tweed’ setting.
- The Morris Minor Guitar – When on the TV show Top Gear, presenter Jeremy Clarkson commented that Steve’s car history of over 100 cars included a Morris Minor. Steve then presented a 4-string guitar that his friend had made out of two old hub caps from the Minor joined back-to-back, playing it a little in the episode.
Website: Seasick Steve