Athabascan fiddle music lights up Fairbanks each November. In this photo by Michael Engelhard, Gwich’in square dancers cut a rug at the Gwich’in Fiddle Dance.

Boisterous fiddle phrasings grounded in drum plugs and guitar riffs throb through the Morris Thompson Cultural Center overlaid by heat from bodies in motion. Electricity charges the crowd, skipping amplifiers and speakers. Much applauded, preceded by a Gwich’in blessing, the fiddle veteran Bill Stevens 10 minutes ago sat down among the band.

The 87-year-old shuffled there gripping a walker, but the notes his short strokes coax from four strings have the crispness and vigor of youth. He now kicks off “Red River Jig,” a Gwich’in favorite played repeatedly every night. Toward the end of another foot-tapping, hand-clapping, 20-minute round, the symmetrical, swinging melee unravels as couples quickstep, past moose stew and frybread and paper-cup coffee scenting the foyer, into the snowy parking lot for a quick cool-off before, still partnered, sashaying back inside.

A stickered instrument case and the Navajo silver on Stevens’ surgeon-like fingers reflect journeying. So does his repertoire. Born at a Black River seasonal camp and paralyzed briefly in a hunting accident, at 15, long holding it incorrectly, he mastered a fiddle his mom ordered from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. Sent south from Fort Yukon for BIA job-training, Stevens took lessons, won prizes, cut a record, and jammed with California fiddlers, absorbing vintage and bluegrass numbers. He gigged in Oklahoma, the Orkneys, and Idaho, taught workshops in Alaska village schools, and revived fiddling among Yukon Delta Yup’ik Eskimos.

A small band plays, with an elder on fiddle, another player on guitar and a third on drums
Athabaskan fiddling legend Billy Stevens and friends. Photo by Michael Engelhard.

Fiddle traditions

The Interior’s Native fiddle traditions divide into upriver and downriver styles, with the middle Yukon River as reference point. Only since the first Athabascan Fiddle Festival in 1983 have the two mingled routinely, frequently. Upriver, Gwich’in practitioners straddle the Alaska-Yukon border, and this corpus, introduced around 1847 by Hudson’s Bay Company French-Canadian voyageurs and Scots traders, especially from the Orkney Islands, is older. Northeastern Alaska’s remoteness preserved tunes in “purer,” more archaic forms than their European and Acadian counterparts. The Koyukon and Lower Tanana Athabascan downriver music, conversely, arrived after 1896, when American miners swarmed Klondike, Nome, and Fairbanks creeks. Upriver gatherings featured solo or twin fiddles plus a “prompt caller,” adding fiddle-guitar duets, mandolin, mouth organ, and accordion later. Downriver ensembles were larger, bolstered by vocals and piano. Throughout Alaska’s Appalachia, 1940s and ’50s honkytonk and country and western compositions remain popular. The original dances’ as well as the genres’ names—jig, reel, schottische, polka, two-step, quadrille—suggest regional pedigrees and preoccupations: “Ookpik (‘Snowy Owl’) Waltz,” “Happy Hanging,” “Cajun Fiddle,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” or “Varandii” (“Brandy”), a spinoff from the Scottish “Drops of Brandy.” In the “Rabbit Dance,” a male lynx chases a female snowshoe hare through fences of protective dancers. Adapters rather than copycats, Athabascans stamped the newcomers’ gift with their own brand, quilling steel strings, “the metal that sings,” onto the fabric of their woodland existence. “We never grow up without music,” recalls Venetie’s John Erick who sometimes hears it in his dreams.

Melodies often were (and are) learned by ear, from treasured 78s mail-ordered and paid for in skins, by humming or lilting or backing a virtuoso on a rhythm guitar. Gwich’in fiddlers stomped one foot, rolling the other heel to toe, “clogging” voyageur-style to keep the beat. The violin supported the feet, not vice versa—an echo of indigenous drumming traditions.

Mukluk clad feed dance at the Gwich'in Fiddle Dance
Fancy footwork at the Gwich’in Fiddle Dance. Photo by Michael Engelhard.

Athabascan Fiddle Festival and Gwich’in Fiddle Dance

Fairbanks nowadays hosts two similar happenings each November, the Athabascan Fiddle Festival, in its 37th year, and the Gwich’in Fiddle Dance, which, since 2006, has attracted Canadian tribe members too. The separation occurred because Gwich’in square dances far exceed the downriver festival’s 15-minutes-per-set limit that allows a greater number of performers. Still, musicians circulate between the venues, as do devotees afraid to miss out. Both events foster innovation and exchange, breathing life into outmoded tunes and techniques while recruiting teenagers to the ranks and letting friends and families reconnect. Youngsters infuse their own styles and tastes, from country rock to ripped jeans. Formerly unheard-of, women and girl fiddlers today thumb the frog and rosin the bow.

Craig Mishler, the ethnomusicologist author of The Crooked Stovepipe, the seminal work on northern Athabascan fiddling, calls it, “a vigorous and manly art” equivalent to women’s beading. Graphed, certain square dance patterns mirror floral beadwork designs, their dynamics, stitching or sewing. Fur-trimmed, lavishly beaded moose-hide footwear rules tonight’s floor, accenting the whirling, prancing, soft shoeing, shimmying, and seamstresses’ skills. 

It’s demanding work. Think Lord of the Dance without the broomstick postures and spangly costumes. Many an old-time musician would romp for hours, grooving fingertip calluses before passing the bow to another who spelled him. Marten and lynx gut replaced busted strings; rabbit-snare wire fixed battered fiddle necks. People jigged until they wore holes into their moccasins. One 1920s Rampart House hootenanny from Christmas night to January 8 left three fiddlers spent. Instruments absent, someone might sing the dances, winding up hoarse. All-nighters persist, at potlucks in town and village spring carnivals.

A festival classic

Three decades ago, when I conducted interviews for a land use and subsistence study, one Koyukon elder brought out a fiddle and delivered a stirring piece straight to my cassette recorder. I’ve forgotten his name, unfortunately, and, failing to make a duplicate, gave the tape to my professor who later passed away. Nevertheless, “Eagle Island Blues” lingered hauntingly, rising to memory’s surface at odd times, unbidden. That take on dirges born in post-Civil War railroad camps and Southern sharecropper’s farms hooked me. However, before the era of Internet searches, I couldn’t learn anything about its origin or find a recording of it. Now, its unique, high-latitudes cadences evoke carefree days as a grad student new to Alaska.

Mishler discovered the tune’s roots talking to the late Bergman Esmailka, Sr. According to this violinist, Tom Patsy composed it in the early 1940s. Patsy, who’d stayed at a trapping camp on the eponymous island, was snowshoeing to Nulato, roughly 100 miles upstream on the Yukon River, to accompany his girlfriend to the Christmas ball there. Overcome with fatigue on a monotonous, frozen stretch, realizing he’d miss all the merrymaking, he channeled his longing into a Lower Koyukon love song. A Kaltag singer adopted the melody, as did Esmailka, having heard Patsy play it but once in a dance hall. “He was looking at me just like crying, singing it,” Esmailka described that rendition, and “that song sounded so good.” Patsy drowned a few years afterward in a slough when he broke through young ice. Esmailka mushed the body to Nulato, which took three days. Patsy’s lone, cold death deepened the poignancy of already mournful harmonies.

To my surprise, the lament I’d tracked down has become a festival classic. It’s understandable, given its rousing beauty and provenance. “Everywhere, even white people, they really love that song,” Esmailka told Mishler.

At the center, Stevens has ceded his chair to a young Koyukon fiddler from Allakaket. Between them, the tee-shirted girl and the elder in a gray bill cap and scarlet plaid sporting a bald-eagle beadwork pendant bridge the decades, while their licks bridge the centuries. “There is a feeling of magic and fantasy in knowing that we can see and hear the past in the present,” Mishler sums up the buzz for myself and for other fans. If this country’s soul lies in cultural fusion, folk fiddling vibrates its heartstrings. 


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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