Keeping a rare culture alive

Kate Weekes remembers reading about how John Lennon felt bad for Bob Dylan. He was sympathizing with the loneliness Dylan must have felt being a musician all on his own.

Kate Weekes remembers reading about how John Lennon felt bad for Bob Dylan.

He was sympathizing with the loneliness Dylan must have felt being a musician all on his own.

Lennon had Paul, Ringo and George to share the experience with.

Weekes is a young singer/songwriter who now knows how it feels from both sides.

She released her own CD, filled with original tunes inspired by the Yukon landscape and her experiences within it, in 2007.

This week, as the guitarist with the group Home Sweet Home, Weekes will be playing alongside bandmates Keitha Clark and Boyd Benjamin to release their self-titled album.

While some of Weekes’ originals make it on the track list, the focus of the group is the fiddles, and for a good reason.

The group has taken it upon themselves to keep Old Crow fiddling alive.

The Old Crow style is unique, said Clark, an experienced fiddler and instructor.

The reason for that is more than just its “crooked timing with extra beats.”

Old Crow fiddling developed in a distinctive way, she said.

The village’s fiddling style is a group thing. Fiddling generally only happens at dances and gatherings and, so, it stays in a lively, jigging genre.

But the learning process in the northern, fly-in community is a one-person job.

“Every fiddler in Old Crow has their own individual style,” said Clark. “They would’ve learned from going to dances then going home and trying to learn the tunes on their own.”

That self-taught approach is uncommon in mainstream fiddling culture, Clark said.

And the instrument is still fairly young in the remote community.

But while the fiddle was only introduced to Old Crow through Hudson’s Bay fur traders in Fort Yukon around 100 years ago, it has taken over the musical culture of the small Gwitch’in community.

“Fiddle music is much more than the music itself, it’s tied to a culture,” Clark said. “I think in Canada, especially the West Coast, we don’t have a lot of those cultural ties anymore. Whereas in Old Crow, that fiddle culture has been there for 100 years, or maybe a little bit more, and it’s still there and it’s thriving. It’s continued in an unbroken chain.

“To go to a square dance in Old Crow where people are dancing and know all the steps and no one has to teach them – it’s just there cause they’ve been around it all their life, it’s pretty special. That doesn’t happen in a lot of places anymore in Canada.

“Culture comes through in the rhythm of the music.”

That culture’s youthfulness has proven an interesting teaching guide for the fiddlers.

The reason being that every song and every version can still be traced back to its originator.

The group’s mentor, Allan Benjamin, has a very individual sound because he cross-tunes his fiddle, Clark explains.

“You can trace the direct tune genealogy,” said Clark. “Like, Allan will say, ‘You’re the fourth person ever to play this version of this tune.’ So you can trace the version of a tune back that far, directly to someone like Archie Linklater, which you can’t do in other areas that have become so convoluted with outside influences.”

The CD’s track listing pays homage to this distinct characteristic of the work.

After each track, in parenthesis, is the originator’s name.

At least two show the name Allan Benjamin.

The renowned Vuntut Gwitch’in fiddler, snowshoer and cartoonist was intrinsic to the group’s work.

“Allan was great,” Clark said. “I was really worried about how open the fiddlers were going to be in the Yukon with sharing their music with me, and Allan has been super generous with passing on the tradition and he’s just made it clear that he wants it to continue.”

But Home Sweet Home’s songs are not exact replicas of the originals.

The most drastic difference is that there are twin fiddles, unlike the traditional Old Crow style of a sole set of strings.

As well, the group tried to adapt some of the tunes, making them less dance-floor friendly, tweaking them to an audience-style performance.

But the disc’s overall goal is to keep the culture alive.

“Fiddle music, it’s a social instrument and if you can’t get together and have fun and play it, it loses its spirit,” said Clark. “It’s just been great to be able to share those tunes with Kate and Boyd and share them with whoever wants to listen. That’s what makes it fun and makes it relevant. “

Despite it’s remoteness, Old Crow is no different than any other community across the world. Older generations are finding it harder and harder to compete with television, computers and video games when trying to pass on traditional skills to their children.

Home Sweet Home is releasing the CD in Old Crow this Wednesday because they have received funding to visit the community’s school to teach the instrument.

“Keitha has a couple of kids songs that she’s written that talk about fiddling in the North, so when we work with the kids they learn that,” said Weekes. “It’s another way for them to connect to the fiddle history here.”

“It’s a celebration of Gwitch’in fiddle music,” Clark says of the group’s music at large. “It’s fun, it’s lively, you’ll go home feeling good after coming to one of our concerts.”

Home Sweet Home will be released at the Old Crow Community Centre today at 7:30 p.m. and in Whitehorse on Friday at the Copper Moon Gallery. The Whitehorse show starts at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $20 (Adults), $10 (students) and are available at Unitech, Dean’s Strings and the gallery.

The band will also be playing this year’s Kluane Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Whitehorse at 6 p.m. on June 11 and they will be at the Atlin Music Festival in BC from July 8 to 10.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com