The first time Dennis Allen saw the blues performed, it was at a 1986 screening of Crossroads at a Whitehorse theatre.
In the final scene of the film, guitar-boy-wonder Ralph Macchio fights for his soul by squaring off in an epic guitar duel with an agent of the devil.
“I really, really dug the music. I just kept going back over and over it,” said Allen.
It wasn’t much later that he bought his first harmonica.
Back in Inuvik, he soon assembled a band and began playing weekend shows at the Trading Post.
Blues had come to Inuvik.
Now, 22 years later, the Bluesman of Inuvik finally found his way into the studio to lay down some of his best tracks.
Wayward Son, his first album, is slated to be released in late July.
Although its creator is best known among northern communities for his command of the blues, the album walks the listener through a variety of genres, each one a milestone of Allen’s lifelong musical journey.
“We wanted to mix it up — we didn’t just want a bunch of hurtin’ songs,” he said.
One song, Red Skin Indian Dirt Road Reservation Blues, brings a uniquely northern perspective to the common blues theme of crushing poverty and social oppression.
Well it’s 45 below
And the wind whips through the door
Momma stares out the window
Daddy don’t look so good no more
Get Right With Jesus is the album’s foray into bluegrass. A fast-paced blend of mandolin, group vocals and finger-picked guitar, the song stands out for its unique “back porch” roughness — an effect achieved through a live recording.
The song carries a strong religious message.
Get right with Jesus and he’ll save your wretched soul
And take you to that promised land where the streets are paved with gold
Far from being an expression of Allen’s own religiosity, the song is an attempt at capturing the “intensity” and “fervour” of Southern Baptists.
During Allen’s formative years in the 1970s and 1980s, the world was getting its first taste of punk, reggae and hip-hop. But in Inuvik, the music was pure country and western.
“Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, Tammy Wynette, Skeeter Davis,” he said.
It’s a long way from the Arctic Circle to the Mason Dixon line. But even though country and western came from a land over 30 degrees of latitude away, the music struck a chord with his community.
“They sang about drinking and womanizing and desolation and stuff like that — and this was all stuff that we could relate to as native people.”
Allen also enjoyed the “story-like” quality of the music, something that jived easily with the strong oral traditions of his Inuvik upbringing.
“There was no TV, there was no telephones. There was no other form of entertainment other than entertaining one another — with either music or telling stories.”
When Allen wrote his first songs at age 13, they were just that — stories put to music.
“Poetry set to untimed music,” he said.
The rules of beat, rhythm and song structure would come with time.
It wasn’t until his later teens when Allen first encountered the blues. Immediately upon picking up his first blues album, Whoopin’, a collaboration between Johnny Winter and blues legends Willie Dixon and Sonny Terry, he was enchanted by the rawness of the music.
Even today, his eyes light up when asked to describe the feelings he has for blues.
“It’s so full of emotion … it’s a cathartic experience to see (blues musicians) play … If someone has a lot of emotion, maybe a lot of pain, you can see them trying to get it out of their body through their instrument.
“In Inuvik, you don’t really get out without any scars … Nobody really escapes that. It’s a lot like with black people — that’s probably why we can relate so much to their music.”
While at film school in Calgary, Allen eagerly combed the annals of blues music, delving deeper into more obscure albums, such as the library of congress recordings of Muddy Waters or Memphis Minnie — recorded live at their sharecropped residences.
Wayward Son brings together a cream-of-the-crop selection of northern blues artists, including Ed White and Jordy Walker.
Allen puts down the harmonica for Wayward Son, throwing the torch to renowned northern harpist Harmonica George McConkey.
And while the album may strive for southern rhythm and sound, the vocals quickly betray Allen’s northern Canadian origins.
In Big Bad Woman, the “oo” pronunciation in the line “shank in her boot” stands out like a maple leaf at a Fourth of July parade: “boat.”
And while the album’s 11th track may be called Travelin’ Man, the “g” on “travelling” comes through very well enunciated.
Allen admits that his vocal range is limited, and that it may not be the most bluesy. However, he sees his lack of a strong voice as a blessing.
“I can’t hide behind my voice — I’m pretty naked out there,” he said.
Lacking in voice, it forces him to become more engaged in the music: compensating for lack of substance by laying on style and nuance, he said.
Altogether, the songs are a patchwork of Allen’s lifetime supply of song scraps. Music and composition has followed him everywhere he’s been.
Even while working on the oil rigs in Inuvik as a young man, he always had his guitar.
And a harmonica can go anywhere.
Filmmaking is still Allen’s day job, providing another creative outlet for the musician.
His 2005 film, My Father, My Teacher, told the story of his reconnection with his father after years of animosity. The film was given an honourable mention at the International Film and Video Festival in Columbus, Ohio.
Before Christmas, Allen plans to release Hello CBQM, a charming look at a bush radio station in Fort MacPherson.
Creativity seems to come naturally to Allen, another skill he can credit to his Inuvik childhood.
“If there was nothing to do inside, you’d get kicked outside,” he said.
“When you get kicked out at 40 below, you’ve got to be really creative in how you’re going to keep yourself happy and entertained.”
Wayward Son will be available in late July from dennisvictorallen.com.
Dennis Allen will perform at the Great Northern Arts festival in Inuvik on July 17.