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Originally published Friday, October 1, 2010 at 6:01 PM

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Warren Argo, much-beloved Seattle old-time musician, dies of heart attack

Warren Argo, an old-time musician who worked with the Northwest Folklife Festival, Centrum's Festival of Fiddle Tunes and the Seattle Folklore Society, died Sept. 27. Mr. Argo played in the Gypsy Gyppo String Band, which helped spawn Seattle's old-time music revival in the 1970s.

Seattle Times staff critic

OBITUARY |

Warren Argo, a much beloved Seattle old-time musician and a key organizer of musical events for more than 40 years, has died.

Mr. Argo was 67. He died Monday, Sept. 27, of a heart attack, in Olympia, while working on refurbishing an old house there with his partner, Thelma Leuba.

Mr. Argo started out playing banjo and guitar, but when he came to Seattle in 1968 he became a dance caller, the person who alerts square dancers and contra dancers to the next move.

"Warren was a really good caller," said Sandy Bradley, also a major figure in Seattle's old-time music scene who, along with Mr. Argo and others, turned the Emerald City into a nationally known hotbed for old-time music and dance. "Everybody who is on the dance floor has an expectation and an agenda. The caller makes it so that everybody gets a piece of what they want. That's what Warren did. It was a huge talent."

Mr. Argo's talent as a caller is a good metaphor for his capacity as a community organizer. He was noted for bringing people together — even when they disagreed — whether he was running the "Roadhouse" dances at the Northwest Folklife Festival, managing Centrum's Festival of Fiddle Tunes or serving as president of the Seattle Folklore Society. He also played in the Gypsy Gyppo String Band, one of the bands that spawned the old-time music revival in Seattle.

"Warren was inspiring," said Scott Nagel, former executive director of Northwest Folklife. "He could get anything done. He made great music and he made collaborations happen. He was universally liked and a leader in the whole folk community."

A Facebook page honoring Mr. Argo is a testament to the breadth and depth of feeling about him. The page already has attracted more than 800 posts, including this one, by bandoneon player Bertram Levy: "With his unique sense of grace, this giant of a man brought us all together for years. And now even in death, he assembles his community in love and tears and memories of our lives."

Mr. Argo was born in Fresno, Calif., in 1942 and graduated from Fresno State University with a degree in mechanical engineering. After working for Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles for two years, he decided to leave the defense industry to play music full time.

"He said he had been to see some Shakespeare play where they talked about following your heart, and he cried so hard the tears squirted out of his eyes," Leuba said. "He just went blue sky. He got in the Volkswagen van and drove away. And he never looked back."

When Mr. Argo arrived in Seattle he helped found Morningtown Pizza, on Roosevelt Way in the University District. This legendary hippie-era business became the focus of Seattle's old-time music revival. Mr. Argo later became president of the Seattle Folklore Society, a board member of Northwest Folklife, a board member at Centrum at Fort Worden and the manger of Centrum's Festival of Fiddle Tunes.

Mr. Argo had attended every edition of the Northwest Folklife Festival since its founding, in 1972.

With his background in engineering, Mr. Argo was also known for his fastidious oversight of sound systems and for being able to pretty much fix anything.

At Folklife, he organized the bands at the Roadhouse as if he were programming a symphony, paying attention to every detail of every band and the order in which they played.

Mr. Argo was a big, robust man with a mustache and long hair who filled up the room with his presence, voice, a big laugh and good humor.

"He had incredible charisma," said his former girlfriend, Linda Laing.

Mr. Argo is survived by a daughter with Ms. Laing, Polly Argo, of Vancouver, B.C.; and two sisters, Sally Carley, of Seattle, and Ann, in California. He is also survived by his former wife, Cindy Hartman, of Seattle. Mr. Argo also unofficially adopted Leuba's son, Karl.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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