I’m very pleased to share this song with you for week 4 of my Winter 2020 project. It is something a little different, with the story hailing from the mentioned country and state rather than the music itself. The arrangement is a lot more technical and technological with the split screen and multi tracking. I’ve had some fun (and a fair amount of frustration) putting it all together and dipping into these new music-tech waters!
I hope you enjoy, ‘Sailing to Alaska’
‘Sailing to Alaska’ is by the civil rights, labour and community organiser, activist and songwriter Si Kahn. Si wrote the song after spending time working as a musical organiser in 2010, for the campaign against the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
The song tells of the movement of Swedish migrants in the second half of the 19th century. Predominantly young men, they had been badly affected by both crop failure and the disappearance of the offshore shoals of herring. With hunger and starvation widespread and their livelihoods gone, the young men left Scandinavia with hopes of a better life after hearing stories of the successful salmon fisheries over in Alaska. Many settled in locations such as Bristol Bay, married native women and raised families to join them in the fishing trade. The Scandinavian influence on these communities was reflected in boat design and construction, food ways, language, and other cultural forms of expression.
It is the following aspect of the song I was drawn to most, in Si’s words:
“…unlike the usual European colonial model where settlers so often destroyed not just the cultures but the lives of those who were living where they’d always lived, they became part of the Native community.”
I think the lyrics portray this sentiment completely, and I have loved immersing myself in this song.
Fast forward 150 years or so to present day, and the idyllic natural landscape of Bristol Bay is under threat from plans to build the largest open pit gold and copper mine in the world. The absolutely stunning area along the southwest coast of Alaska is a combination of rivers, lakes and wetlands and it provides some of the best wild salmon habitat on earth. With wild salmon runs disappearing from the planet, Bristol Bay is a place of international importance and the mine would be catastrophic not only to the wild salmon population, but to the resident Alaska Native Tribes and Alaska’s economy. It is hardly surprising that the former president of the US was keen to be on board with the plans.
Thankfully, due to recent political developments and unequivocally as a result of the efforts made by campaigns such as Save Bristol Bay, Greenpeace and Musician’s United To Protect Bristol Bay, a permit has been denied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers preventing plans for the construction of the mine. This is SUCH good news, and with hope for the future, beautiful Bristol Bay will be in safer hands under the new Biden/Harris administration.
If you would like to read more about Bristol Bay, this is a very informative site:
Musically, in my arrangement of the accompaniment, I have experimented with a compositional technique called phasing. This is when a riff (like in the opening section with fiddle pizzicato) is repeated over and over but after the first repetition, a beat’s rest is put in place while the other instrument (or track in this case) plays over the top. This means that after a certain number of times through, the start of the riff will eventually come to land on beat 1 again, causing huge musical satisfaction – for me anyway! All of this is bubbling away underneath the longer, more sustained and lyrical melody of the song.