by Peter Bowers (excerpt from “Old Time Music in Alaska: Then and Now”):
It may surprise some that Alaska has a long-lived history of fiddle music that
dates back more than one and a half centuries–almost as long as the music from
the hills of the old-time motherland in the Eastern US.
It is a vibrant musical tradition that first appeared in the sub-arctic with the early
traders, trappers, gold miners, fishermen, and missionaries, then spread to the native cultures,
saw a major resurgence in the 1970s, and thrives today in bush cabins, villages,
and towns throughout the forty-ninth state.
According to several accounts, the first fiddler on the Yukon River was a Hudson’s Bay
Company employee named Antoine Hoole, who was among a trading party who established
Fort Yukon in 1847. His French Canadian influence likely helped spread the Anglo-Celtic
music and dance tradition to the local Indians, a rich tradition that continues today as a
unique style of old-time music known as Athabascan fiddle music.
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fiddle music blended with aboriginal
singing and dancing and melodic choral singing of hymns introduced by missionaries. This music
developed largely in isolation, with only occasional injections of new influences, and today is its
own unique style.
Today, Alaskans have a reputation of being among the wildest, most intense players on the
old-time scene. In many ways, it’s still the wild west: few roads, few rules, no sheriff.
Our brand of old-time and bluegrass music is different than back East because of the intensity
of the place we live.
The other part of the experience is the cabin music scene. People get “cabin fever” in the
long darkness of winter and desperately need to socialize with others at the bars or visiting
other cabins. We danced and played in small cabins. We cooked, ate, took
saunas, jumped in the snow.
The dancing and music also reflected that Alaskans are participants, not observers.
Lots of people played instruments, or danced. The music was — and still is- crazy, raw,
intense and exciting. It is really alive.