Pike Place Market famously has strict controls on street musicians, from permits required to how it delineates 15 spots, marked by red musical notes on the sidewalks, where buskers are allowed to stand.
Just as famously, Jeanne Towne was in a league of her own.
“Her favorite spot was in front of Michou’s deli, where buskers are not allowed, but what was anyone going to do – shoo the blind woman with the soft voice away?” said one of Towne’s many Market friends, Rhonda Guilford, a day-stall jewelry merchant there for the past 38 years.
“She could set up and play wherever she wanted,” echoed Artis the Spoonman, another busker, who went on to play with world-famous rockers during the grunge heyday. He called Towne a “legend.”
Towne, who played 12-string guitar and later autoharp on Seattle streets for more than 40 years starting in the 1970s, died Jan. 1 from complications due to cancer, Guilford said. Records show she was 72.
Generations of Market-goers may recall a small-framed blind woman with an ethereal voice, quietly singing ballads, folk tunes and covers of songs by artists such as Joni Mitchell. Longtime musicians say she stood out in the rambunctious atmosphere of the Market precisely because she didn’t loudly demand attention, but she demanded it nevertheless.
“She was like a bird,” says Artis the Spoonman. “You practically had to put your ear up to her harp to hear her, but you did. There was nobody like Jeanne. At 73 years old I’ve listened to a lot of music, and she was just iconically rare.”
Recalled Jack Strubbe, who has worked at the Market stalls: “The energy (of the Market) is so influenced by who is busking, and her presence always took the crest off the bumps.”
Towne lived off her busking, friends say, and did it almost daily up until the coronavirus first shut down the Market in 2020. Guilford said Towne was asking to be driven there to play as recently as a few weeks ago, but was too frail to go.
For years Towne also wrote stories for the Pike Place Market News, chronicling the merchant community with eclectic articles such as “What is Kosher Anyway?” and “Can Algae be Tasty?”
Friends say she was emphatic that blindness shouldn’t define her. This was difficult because for decades she was known as “the blind harpist at the Market,” and was promoted that way by some Market books and brochures.
“You’ll often be treated to a string quartet or a folk song sung by blind street musician Jeanne Towne,” said a 1992 Market cookbook.
She wrote a letter to The Seattle Times in the 1980s explaining that she felt “underestimated” by the city because passersby would assume her young son was leading her around as she busked, rather than vice versa.
“My proud independent nature balks, and I have to bite back an urge to loose a scalding tirade on my capabilities to the well-meaning person, who knows no better than the way things apparently look,” she wrote. “Dodging obstacles and general navigation are my responsibility, not his.”
The headline on that letter: “Blind street musician: My son is my son, not my guide.”
She did, though, agree to appear as the inspiration for a local comic strip in the 1990s, called “Adventures of a Sightless Streetsinger.”
“She was savvy about it all,” Guilford says. “But she also had a hard life. Busking is tough enough … and nobody was helping her get around the city or take the bus down with her instruments from Ballard every day. She lived for it though, and it just came to be her identity.”
Here are Towne’s own words on the matter, from another letter to the editor that sought to explain to Seattleites how it was possible that a sightless troubadour of the sidewalks wasn’t homeless, or down on her luck, or really disadvantaged in any way.
“I feel that soothing the grind of city noises, raining out peoples’ blues, and kindling some hope and cheer are as useful and challenging an occupation as any,” she wrote. “And far more satisfying than trying to busy myself indoors at a desk.”
Pike Place Market can be a cacophony, the clashing urban racket a major part of its old-school, offline appeal. It won’t sound the same now that its quietest voice has gone silent.