Sunday, August 26, 2007

Alaska's Hobo Jim

Hey, culture mavens, Parrot here, reporting from Alaska.

Huh? A parrot in Alaska? Why not, he asked; don't you all go to Amazon? Anyway, the Alaska coast is basically thousands of miles of rain forest, so Senor Parrot was right at home, shaking off raindrops for most of the last 3 days. And Owl? She just hooked up with her Great Northern buddies and everything was okay.

In our first 3 days out we saw a herd of mountain goats, half a dozen bald eagles, a moose family, lots of magpies, a couple of humpback whales, 2 orcas, several dozen sea lions, otters, a huge black bear (from a boat, thank you), jumping salmon and 3 chipmunks. Okay, the chipmunks weren't that exciting. We're here for another week and almost running out of new species to view. Well, no caribou yet, except on the ubiquitous Alaska wilderness videos they show here. On Friday we drove from Seward to Valdez (that's Val-deez, in case you've been saying it wrong since 1989, like me) taking our time to stop at a dozen or so scenic turnouts. The drives here are stunning, 3-5,000' mountains shooting up from the foot of every road, lush vegetation giving way to snow-capped angular peaks, endless rivers, lakes, falls, fjords. Ten miles or less out of any city here and you are in pristine wilderness. We've met lots of people who came to Alaska to visit and never left. No, their cars didn't break down, like mine did back Brooklyn, just in time for me to junk it and not worry about it for the 2 weeks I'm away. The place is addictive. Of course, it's still August. I don't know if a visit in January would be as compelling. Then again, meet the world's only skiing parrot.

With all this beauty I could easily write about the aesthetics of nature for a while. And there is plenty to consider here; for instance, the awesome experience of watching a glacier shed several tons of ice as if it were a dandruff flake, muddled by the contradictory knowledge that global warming is a great destructive force. But that is not actually the subject of this post. The subject, rather, is Hobo Jim.

Our first day on the road (that was Wednesday, August 22) was incredibly rich, but at the end of it, we arrived at the Hostel in Homer too late to eat dinner just about anywhere. The only place open, we heard, was Duggan's pub. "But they have real food, not just pub food." So off we went to Duggan's, looking for a quick and modest meal. (10:00 p.m. Homer time was already 2:00 a.m. Parrot time, so retiring sounded pretty good.) Well, first thing at Duggan's, there's a guy at the door collecting a $2 cover charge for live music. "We're just here for dinner", we explained, and he sort of grudgingly let us pass (it helps to be from Brooklyn sometimes). But the musician had already taken the stage (such as it was); every seat and table was taken except at the counter below the open window to the kitchen. We planted ourselves there and even got them to clean away the dirty trays.

We actually had the best clam chowder we've had in Alaska at Duggan's, and a delicious fresh halibut sandwich. If Alaska weren't named Alaska, and if there were not a competitor known as salmon, the state would surely have been named Halibut. Every port, every diner, every grocery store carries halibut, fisherman stand on docks and mud flats fishing for halibut, and it would not surprise me if the Anchorage City Hall were built in the shape of a halibut. It's tasty and very hardy food, a bit like swordfish but a lot cheaper and easier to catch. So we sat there and enjoyed our first real Alaska meal (breakfast and lunch were about what we would have eaten in Brooklyn) and listened, whether we liked it or not, to a guy who was billed as "Hobo Jim".

What happened as the night went on was as exciting as the scenery along the Turnagain Arm, our route down from Anchorage. First, being a bit of a songbird myself, I had to admit that the guy was good. In fact, the more he played, the more I thought he was not just good, but a unique and incredibly talented performer. And songwriter. Actually, it soon became clear that Hobo Jim was not some local yokel who picked up a guitar every once in a while and did the rounds of the Homer bars playing Dylan covers, which is what I expected. Instead, what we walked in on is an Alaska institution, the unofficial and possibly official state troubadour (he said something about being anointed by the governor in some manner or other, but I didn't quite catch it.) Everyone in Homer seemed to know him by name; he lives there, and it's not a big town, but I get the feeling he's known statewide. A native Alaskan in Valdez, our sea-kayaking leader, knew of him and lamented the fact that he never played there. It is not at all surprising that Alaska should have troubadours; the land and the waters are awe-inspiring, breeding a culture that is perhaps more well-defined than that of any single state in the "lower 48", and this inevitably makes its way into song.

Hobo Jim dramatizes the Alaskan life in song, somewhere between the way Woody did for the dust bowl and Jimmy Buffet does for Florida. Alaska has its own brand of seriousness and its own brand of humor as well. The serious side is captured in songs about the challenges of living in a place that is still perhaps 99% wilderness. Humor emerges naturally when we look at how we respond to these challenges, and catch ourselves playing at our own rituals. Jim brings this out in songs like "The Dramamine Fisher" and "Fishing Chickens". Logging, fishing, sailing, farming, building, hunting, mining, railroads, coping with the weather and travelling across the vast expanses - these are the stuff of folk song, and nowhere are they more the life and culture of a state than in Alaska. Hobo Jim (his real name is Jim Varsos) has written dozens of songs that give this life a voice. If he didn't exist Alaskans would probably have invented him.

As a songwriter he clearly has influences; not only Woody Guthrie, who he seems to admire a lot, but Bill Staines and particularly Stan Rogers. His song "The Lady Lee" immediately brought to mind Stan Rogers tunes like "The Wreck of the Athens Queen" or "Fogerty's Cove", while other tunes conjured up Staines' "Missouri Road Song", "The Faith of Man", and others. But this is not to say that Hobo Jim lacks originality; though he could be compared to everyone from Hank Williams to Gordon Lightfoot, with a slight emphasis on the country-bluegrass sound, he has his own unique voice, and a prolific one at that. His web site lists five recordings of original material, and a compilation from the first four. George Jones and others have recorded some of his compositions.

Hobo Jim plays a guitar style that most closely resembles bluegrass flatpicking, where the melody is sometimes picked out between chords by skillfully articulating individual notes on the downstrum while playing full chords on the upstrum, all at rapid speed. I have known others who can do this well (for example, my friend James Reams, a fine bluegrass musician from Brooklyn, Kentucky) but I have never seen it done with just a thumbnail, which as far as I can tell is all Hobo Jim uses. When not playing in this style he often does a vigorous strum in a manner not unlike that of Bill Staines. Of course he fingerpicks and plays some blues too, all with the clear mark of a seasoned professional. He played a lot of covers, including Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Gordon Lightfoot, not to mention a rendering of the national anthem. In 2004, Jim packed up his guitar and flew to Afghanistan to entertain paratroopers, many of whom were Alaskans. (Small planes are ubiquitous here, the only way to reach many parts of the state, and Alaskan bush pilots are famous for their pyrotechnics.) I don't see any recordings of the covers he played, but that would definitely get my attention. His version of Guthrie's "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" was the best I have heard.

Jim Varsos claims to be a redneck, but he claimed many things that had to be taken with a grain of salt. I didn't see any sign of redneck sentiments in his songs. Alaskans have elected mostly Republicans recently; both their senators and their governor are Republicans; so it would not be very unusual for them to elect a conservative troubadour. But I've never heard of a redneck sounding off about how listening to Woody Guthrie changed his life, playing Dylan songs to his heart's content, or singing about the plight of small farmers or Alaska's native peoples. I think this goes in the basket with his assertion that this was his last concert - according to some locals I spoke to, this is in the spirit of W.C Fields, who found it so easy to quit smoking he'd done it a thousand times. I hope that was not Hobo Jim's last concert. He must have meant "for this summer, in Homer". To my knowledge he was supposed to play at the State Fair in Palmer a few days later.

Anyway, Owl and Parrot finished dining on clams and halibuts, and Parrot went through one darn good pint of Homer-brewed porter, when Owl announced that she was done hooting for the evening. But Hobo wasn't done, and neither was I, so I drove her to the Hostel and came back, thinking I'd hear a few more tunes and maybe say Hey, from Brooklyn. Soon after I got back Hobo Jim said he'd play a couple more and then take a break. A break? He'd already been playing well over an hour, so the bar owner was definitely getting his money's worth. But apparently it was just another brick in the wall of grandiose humor, along with being a redneck and retiring; for he went on for more than a couple of tunes, and then announced again that he'd play two more and take a break. This went on, I kid you not, until after midnight. Keep in mind he was already on stage when we arrived some time after 9:30. Hobo Jim never repeated a song, but went on playing for over 2 1/2 hours. A good part of the time he was standing on a table; good thing the bar didn't have chandeliers, or who knows where he would have been playing. Nor did he seem to want to stop, but he outlasted the audience, which had begun to give up hope of cheering for encores and started to filter out the door. Close to 4:00 a.m. Eastern Parrot Time, the "final" Hobo Jim Varsos concert came to an end.

When I had entered Duggan's I was all but annoyed at having to listen to what I expected would be a night of bad covers or cliched country-and-western drivel. As I began to appreciate him I thought it would be nice to trade CD's if he had one. By the time he was done I had to mull over approaching someone who seemed so much more accomplished than myself as a musician. But shy parrots are hard to come by, and shy parrots from Brooklyn virtually extinct, so approach him I did. Actually I did was browsing his CD sales table, and asked him which he would recommend. There were six disks there and he picked out a compilation and his latest one. So I was ready to pony up the cash for these, and thrust my lonely CD at him (don't get me wrong, I'm quite proud of it, but while I should be the Official Brooklyn Troubadour, I'm just not) asking him to take it as a gift. Well, that was the end up the previous transaction. Hobo Jim sold me one CD, traded me one, and gave me all the rest for $5.00. This is Alaskan generosity; people will invite you over for dinner if you show an interest in them, or, as in this case, hand you their life's work in a picnic basket. Since then, Parrot and Owl cruised down the Alaskan highways with Hobo Jim crooning from the CD player.

Glaciers are amazing; mountains are amazing; rivers, oceans, wildlife, all are amazing. The Alaska pipeline is an amazing feat of engineering. Walking into a pub late in the evening, on a small road in a tiny town, in a state one third the size of the contiguous United States, and happening to discover there a world class local folk musician, is - squawck - amazing.

And yes, I did go back and pay the cover charge. If you ever get a chance to see Hobo Jim for $2, please go.


Heres another Hob Jim web page FYI.


This was originally posted a few days ago while we were in Valdez. We're back in Brooklyn now, where I have a high-speed connection, so the photos have now been added, as well as some changes in the text. (3:10 a.m. Monday September 3, 2007; 11:10 p.m. Sunday September 2, 2007 Homer time)


Anonymous said...

We are an Army family that lived in Alaska for 4 years until this June. We love Hobo Jim and went to see him many times. I was so pleased to read your great comments about him. He is not just a great musician, as you stated, but also a generous man.

H.A. Monk said...

Thank you, Army family. When my partner and I get the time we hope to put up a travelogue web site about our 12 days in Alaska. It was quite a trip! I'll put a link here when we do.

Gracie said...

I'm an Alaskan, and I have to say that I LOVE Hobo Jim's music. It really captures Alaska, from the Iditarod to the Railroad to fishing the midnight tides on the Kenai.