All in the family

The Winter Band

members of the Winter Band stand outside a log cabin

Photo: Ruthi Winter
The Winter Band celebrates and preserves their Norwegian heritage through their music.

COURTNEY OLSEN
Editorial Assistant
The Norwegian American

At many Norwegian heritage events around the Pacific Northwest, you can often find the Winter Band performing. Bringing together the Sundnes, Svehaug, and Winter families, along with a few friends, the Winter Band aims to spread the joy of traditional Scandinavian music, specializing in “gamle Norske sanger” (old Norwegian songs), dance tunes, and old polka favorites. 

“We find that these old sentimental Scandinavian songs are rarely played anymore, so we are happy to preserve them,” explained Ruthi Winter, violin player in the band. “All these songs have stories, which I explain before we play. To my surprise, the audience likes these stories!”

As first- and second-generation Americans, the band’s close connection to Norway keeps them firmly rooted in their heritage. 

“Our Norwegian family came from the Ålesund area of western Norway,” said Winter. “Capt. Ole Svehaug (my great uncle and cousin Chris’s grandfather), along with my father, came to America as teenagers … My father went back to Norway in his early 30s and married my mother, who lived in a neighboring village. After the war, he brought her from Norway and settled down in Seattle.”

The Winter Band got its start playing for holidays and family gatherings, performing songs that the older generation had brought with them from Norway. The current iteration of the Winter Band is comprised of Chris Svehaug on the accordion, Ruthi Winter on the violin, Mike Winter on the string bass, Lyle Leiser on the guitar, and Dusty Tea on the mandolin and accordion. Each instrument played by the band tells a story, from the old family accordion played by Svehaug to the handmade violin Tea’s husband made for her. The bass and violin played by the Winters come from Mike Winter’s family farm in western Minnesota and date back to 1900. 

“They may be old, but they have a lot of character!” Winter said. 

The current Winter Band had their inaugural concert at the Daughters of Norway Solveig Lodge in Burien, Wash., in 2013. Since then, they have performed at countless venues across the Pacific Northwest for many different occasions, from Syttende Mai celebrations in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood to Julefests across the region to anniversary celebrations for Sons of Norway lodges.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, live music came to a screeching halt. The Winter Band, however, pivoted and found other ways to bring the joy of music to their community.

“During the pandemic, all of our practices and concerts were held outside with masks,” said Winter. “In the summer, we practiced on our outside deck, entertaining our neighbors. They would open their windows or peek over the fence to hear our music. They thanked us for brightening up their day. When the weather got colder, we moved into our double-car garage with the door open. We dressed like we were going skiing … [and] had a few propane heaters for warmth. For ambiance, we decorated the garage walls with every tablecloth we could find. We strung Christmas lights everywhere, laid out carpet on the floor, had a living room lamp, and a vase with flowers.

members of the Winter Band in bunads hold their instruments on a beach by the Puget Sound

Photo: Ruthi Winter
When the weather has been good, the Winter Band has moved its act outdoors to spread joy and happiness throughout their community during the pandemic.

“During our practices, people would stop and ask when we would be doing our next concert, so we started giving concerts for the neighborhood every two weeks. We had benches and chairs for the audience. People in cars would also honk or stop to listen. Everyone seemed to appreciate some live music in this COVID year when all live entertainment has been canceled. Some people even danced in the street to our music! We spread joy and happiness through music in a very dark time. It gave us great joy to bring lively, happy Scandinavian music to our quarantining community.”

Now that vaccination is well underway and the warmer weather makes outdoor gatherings easier, the entertainment scene is beginning to open up more, albeit cautiously. The Winter Band performed at the Burien Daughters of Norway Solveig Lodge’s Syttende Mai car parade earlier this month. Other events that had been canceled last year have been rescheduled for this summer, including the Daughters of Norway national convention, rescheduled from last summer to this July in Bremerton., Wash. The Winter Band is excited to be performing there as well.

“When the pandemic is over, we want to celebrate and play our music for every occasion possible,” said Winter. “We know that people are starved for live music. During COVID when we played our outdoor concerts, we were surprised at the positive response we got because people hadn’t heard live music for so long.”

And when things are open again, we can be sure that Norwegian Americans in the Northwest will be excited to dance along to the Winter Band’s tunes once again. Until then, check out The Winter Band online at www.winterbandseattle.com and on Facebook. Questions about the band and their performances can be directed to Ruthi Winter at ruthi.winter@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared in the June 4, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Courtney Olsen

Courtney Olsen is a writer based in Tacoma, Wash. She is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Oxford and has been writing for The Norwegian American since 2020. A historical fiction enthusiast, she spends her free time working through her ever-growing reading list with a cup of tea in hand.

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