The first thing I saw as I approached the Tr’ondek Hwech’in Community Hall in Dawson City last Saturday, May 19, was the people converging on the building, carrying musical instrument cases. Getting closer, I heard the sound of fiddle music echoing off the walls and spilling out the door. People were here to celebrate the life of a musical institution, Willie Gordon.
He died May 7 in Dawson City, only 57 years old. His funeral was held nine days later, with Reverend Laurie Monroe officiating. But it was at the reception held later in the community hall that the real spirit of Willie Gordon emerged, through the music, and through the remembrances of his friends.
Willie was wonderful, kind and understanding, stated pianist and former band mate Barnacle Bob Hilliard. Dawson resident Karen Dubois echoed this assessment, adding that he had no ego at all. Clive Betts, who played with him frequently for 14 years, stated that he was gentle, peaceful, and always trying to help people out.
“His personality came out through his music,” said Betts. In fact, music defined him.
Willie was born in Aklavik in 1955. He attended high school in Inuvik, where he became interested in journalism. He eventually started working for CBC Radio as a reporter, but he was best known for his radio program, The Lovin’, Hurtin’, Travellin’, Drinkin’, Truck Drivin’ and Mom Show, which he hosted in the late 1970s and 1980s.
He left the Moms Show about 1987, and ended up in Whitehorse where he met his future wife, Nancy. They moved to Nancy’s hometown, Dawson City, in 1992, where he started playing his fiddle at the Westminster Hotel (better known as “The Pit”), and eventually became part of the famous house band, the Pointer Brothers. They continued to play there for many years, though recently, the band has become defunct with the passing of band mate Gord Polichek, and colleague Wendy Perry. Pointer guitarist Gil Benoit no longer lives in Dawson City.
The Pointer Brothers were more like an extended family than a band, with musical cousins dropping in to perform with the group. George McConkey described himself, with some pride, as “an extended Pointer,” who would join them whenever he came to Dawson for a visit. Over the years, many accomplished musicians have sat in with the ensemble, thereby enriching the music.
Willie was a self-taught musician with an extensive repertoire. Wherever there was music, he would appear with his fiddle and join in. Everyone agrees that he played with emotion and passion. When not playing his fiddle, he would pick up the bass guitar and provide a solid bottom to the Pointer sound. More recently, when plagued by arthritis in his fingers, he would shift to bass on days when his fingers weren’t nimble enough for the fiddle.
Willie settled down to become a stable musical presence in the community, and even stopped drinking for more than a decade. Alcohol is an occupational hazard in the music business. “People want to buy you a drink,” observed McConkey, “but they won’t buy you a hamburger.” But Willie was doing all right.
Then Nancy died after a long illness. Willie struggled after that, but continued to play. In fact, he and George McConkey were planning to put on outdoor concerts in front of the cultural centre this summer so they could perform for those who liked his music, but didn’t like going to the bars to hear him. That’s pretty much in limbo since Willie died.
Willie left a musical legacy behind. First, there is the work he recorded with the Pointer Brothers. In addition to that, he recorded a number of songs himself, but they were never released as an album. There was talk at the community hall that maybe that would change now that he is gone. The late Buddy Tabor even wrote a song recently about Willie, but it was a little too sad to play at the post-funeral reception.
Perhaps the biggest legacy he will leave behind is the one in the hearts of all his fans and the musicians he played with over the years. Back at the community hall, I watched as the musicians took turns climbing onto the stage to perform. There was a group of fiddle players, including a couple of youngsters still learning the songs, then another group with Jimmy Roberts playing guitar.
Art Johns took a stint at the microphone, and as I was leaving, Barnacle Bob had assumed a position behind the keyboard, while Clive Betts went to take his seat behind the drums. Each in turn played his musical tribute to the missing fiddler. As McConkey said, “It’s going to be a long night tonight!”
The musicians took a break so that Willie’s younger sister, Melinda, could come to the microphone and tearfully thank the many people who had helped make the funeral and the gathering afterward a success. And it was a success. In its own way, the community had come together. Everyone brought food to contribute to the meal that volunteers served to nearly 200 people who were present to celebrate Willie’s memory.
For those who want to create a lasting tribute to Willie Gordon, donations can be made to the Reprise Scholarship Fund, set up in honour of Willie and his friends and fellow musicians, Wendy Perry and Gord Polichek. Donations can be made to the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture either by phoning (867) 993-5005, or online at www.kiac.ca. Simply follow the join/give tab and click on the donation button that takes you to the Candahelps.org website. Make sure you select the Reprise fund for your donation.