Friday, July 23, 2010

Jimmy Simpson on Sourdough 101

Excerpts from Jimmy Simpson, The Oilfield Boy, Sings 'Alcan Run' And Other Alaska Songs (Sourdough LP 101)

"Sourdough Shack"

"Si-Wash Gal"

Most discerning music fans have heard a few of Jimmy Simpson's '50s singles ("I'm a High Toned Papa," "Blue As I Can Be," "Honky-Tonk Spree," etc.) but his debut album has been unjustly overlooked -- to my knowledge, it has never been reissued, or even bootlegged. This is a shame. Recorded in 1967 in Tacoma, Washington, with Jimmy Patton's band, Jimmy Simpson Sings Alcan Run and Other Alaska Songs is almost completely comprised of original tunes about the 49th State, and as a folkloric artifact is more satisfying than most "folk" and country albums of that decade.

In the LP, Jimmy pours on the local color, sings in the same Southern drawl as his early '50s records, and creates an altogether seductive picture of the carefree life as it was lived in "The Last Frontier." In "Sourdough Shack," Jimmy prospects 20 years for gold, strikes it rich one day, but ultimately realizes that living 600 miles from nowhere in the Alaskan mountains trumps a rich man's neurotic life in the concrete jungle:

I searched for days and weeks on end
No maps, just dogs for friends
I faced death in the strangest of ways
The Lord surely helped me to win

I want to go back to my sourdough shack
Where the rivers and lakes have no names
Six hundred miles from the railroad track
Where memories overcome pain

Jimmy's romance with a local Chinook Indian girl ("Si-Wash Gal") contains what just may be the single greatest two lines of poetry ever written:

I'm tired of Seattle, and conventionalities
The things they call "society" makes the blood within me freeze

"Siwash" is now considered to be a derogatory term for Chinook Indians, an inference I'm sure Jimmy Simpson was completely unaware of back in the '60s.

Though the album takes its romantic liberties (for one thing, Jimmy lived in Anchorage, not 600 miles from civilization), for the most part its tales of gold mining and oil drilling are drawn from experience. In a 2005 interview, I asked Jimmy how he got into gold mining. His reply:

"I always kind of liked the idea of gold mining. I met a real nice guy up in Kotzebue (Alaska) by the name of Art Fields. I went up there to race snow machines. Art is part Irish, part Eskimo, and part Russian. Quite a mixture. He’s a character. Anyway, he asked me if I’d ever consider going mining. I said, “Sure.” So, the next summer he called me and said he had some ground up there, and we could work it. He wanted to be partners with me. We mined up there for three years, north of Nome, Alaska. We had to fly everything in there. But that was my first adventure, and we never looked back."