Think of some of the great songs that commemorate events in history: Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage, Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, or the Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Do you remember Johnny Horton singing The Battle of New Orleans? Once you hear them, you never forget them, or the story they tell.
Local musician/composer and emcee of Arts in the Park, Steve Slade, hosted a special event at Arts in the Park on July 27th, called The Heritage Sessions. The objective of this event was for a dozen musical artists and wordsmiths to create a piece of work inspired by a visit to the MacBride Museum.
Suzanne Hingley started off with a reading of a poem she composed about Buzz Saw Jimmy, inspired by the Jim Robb exhibit and the Colourful Five Per Cent. Buzz Saw Jimmy was actually James D. Richards. Jimmy was something of a mechanical genius who built a mechanical saw out of an old tractor and Model T Ford. It cut firewood at 10 cords an hour, but it did not meet any known safety standard. He fell onto the blade about 1915 and lost his leg above the knee. He repeated this accident a few years later, but this time, he only severed his wooden leg.
Annie Avery was inspired by the old roadhouses that were located every 20 miles along the old wagon road to Dawson City. To a clip-clop beat, she sang about the old horse-drawn wagons on their five-day journey to Dawson City.
Kim Rogers appeared in a long black dress with a broad-brimmed hat decorated with feathers to introduce her song about Mae Field, a notorious Dawson woman from the turn of the century. Mae was involved in a court case over a laundry bill for a piece of lingerie. In the song, Field convinces the judge that the bill was too high, and charms one of the men attending the hearing to pay it for her!
Hip Hop artist Kelvin Smoler tackled Kathleen Rockwell, better known as Klondike Kate, after first giving consideration to the large bear in the natural history section: “Yeah, Kathleen Rockwell – known best for acting and Vaudeville – even known better as Klondike Kate; Innocence wrapped up in a long white cape!”
Sarah Macdougall chose Lucille Hunter, one of the first black women to come to the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush. Hunter was pregnant at the time and gave birth to her daughter, named Teslin, after the lake beside which she was born.
Jim Vautor confessed that he didn’t have the time to research his challenge, but he was caught by the tagline: “Mr. MacBride, what are you hiding down in the basement?” What he conjured up was a comical image of the stuffed animals in the natural history gallery coming alive after the staff had gone home for the evening, and partying all night long, with the fox playing the fiddle, the black bear the bass, the grizzly clawing the piano and the trumpeter swan playing her horn until dawn. What a night it must have been!
Joanna Lilley, local poet was captivated by Herschel Island, especially since the new Herschel Island book, edited by scientist Chris Burn, has recently been released. Lilley referred to the whaling that took place at the end of the nineteenth century before reciting her poem, titled The Mosquito and the Whale. Little Joe Tuckfield’s account of the abundance of the whales sparked a blubber stampede that lasted for years. Lilley confessed that she is drawn to this far-away island.
Dan Halen has already written and recorded a song about the sinking of the Princess Sophia. Walking through the galleries at the MacBride, he was at first attracted to the old overland trail to Dawson, but was finally enthralled by the Jim Robb exhibit. His song is a tribute to Robb, Yukon’s pre-eminent “historical” artist.
Halen was accompanied by Chic Callas, a versatile musician who followed up with his own song about the early days, written from the point of view of a riverboat steam whistle, and all the events it had witnessed over the years. Dave Haddock, an accomplished musician and wordsmith, performed a lovely “modern-day love song of older people.” Grant Simpson’s contribution was inspired by Hazel Mulloy – another of Jim Robb’s Colourful Five Per Cent.
Jerome Stueart, the final literary contributor to this heritage potpourri, and an American immigrant to the Yukon, reflected upon the Klondike gold rush, an event on Canadian soils made up largely of Americans.
“Americans stayed because Canadians created a space for them,” said Stueart. ” Further,” he continued, “many long time Yukoners come from an American heritage. I wonder how long it took them to think of themselves as Canadian… It makes me see my relationship with the Yukon much differently – that this place has an American heritage – is part of MY heritage. It was Americans under the control of Canadians – and that agreement – that dominance – worked for Americans in Canada, enough that they wanted to stay.”
While not the same as writing strictly about history, these artists have found moments in our history that have empowered and focussed their creative juices. Dan Halen summed it up when I spoke to him later in the day: “If you have a lyrical motif, it will archive it (the history) in your mind on a hanger… and it just hangs there, and doesn’t require a lot of movement from the other clothes in the closet. (Music is) powerful if you can set something in someone’s mind – a comment or a turn of phrase.”
This session is a good start. We now have to take the concept of adapting our history to music to the next level. How about an album with historical liner notes?
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at email@example.com