History Lessons Through the Blues

Doc MacLean walks into the Odd Fellows Hall in Dawson City for the songwriters’ circle on March 1 wearing all black.

He’s a tall, slender man with a long salt-and-pepper beard and a slick black fedora. Leading the gathering with him, Steve Slade is dressed more casually, giving off a “social sciences” vibe.

Brought up by the North Klondyke Highway Music Society, MacLean, from Toronto, and Slade, from Whitehorse, are visiting Dawson as part of a Yukon music education tour. The society, supported by the Yukon Arts Fund and its own fundraising, brings artists into rural communities for music education that is tied into the school history curriculum.

MacLean and Slade are giving the Dawson students and community members guitar/harmonica lessons (including senior grades, for the first time), and a house concert.

Highlighting the link between the Civil Rights Movement and acoustic blues, their tour, which ended in Dawson on March 3, has included a community concert in Mayo and trips to schools in Faro,Carmacks, and Ross River.

In Dawson earlier this month, Doc MacLean (left) and Steve Slade (right) brought the blues into the classroom

They met through Peter Menzies, president of the North Klondyke Highway Music Society, during the last week of February.

MacLean sits down among the songwriters and instruments, surrounded by two of his guitars, a washboard and a few harmonicas.

“We’re going to trade things… and leave you with something to grow on your own,” he says.

Playing a dobro—his dented and beaten down steel guitar—he commands attention humbly, like I’ve envisioned a blues man would. The notes he plays as he speaks match his own meter.

“Everyone’s got a different idea of what the blues is. Its history is so twisted,” he says.

Raised by a fiddle-playing mother and a father who was a civil rights lawyer, MacLean was introduced to both music and social justice at a young age.

“I used to buy a carton of Neapolitan ice cream and head over to Son House’s place,” MacLean recalls.

“If his old lady was at church, we’d eat ice cream and play the blues. If she was at home, we’d eat ice cream and watch TV.”

Now he’s on the road for as many 200 shows a year. He’s played in amphitheatres and intimate clubs, prisons and soup kitchens, with Tampa Red, ‘Sippi Wallace, Muddy Waters and numerous other greats.

“There is no venue to big or too small. Nothing too grand or too humble,” he says, “Ordinary people can change the world. I think we have an obligation.”

On the other hand, Slade doesn’t consider himself “a blues man” like MacLean, though you would probably disagree after hearing him sing.

He may not have the same physical links to the blues as MacLean, but when his voice moves from his throat to his belly, reverberating off the walls, you witness the power of the genre.

Slade came into music after hitchhiking across the country. Someone gave him a harmonica and told him that he’d be spending a lot of time walking alone down country roads.

“After a while of doing this…” Slade says, blowing back and forth a few times on the harp, “I started to get somewhere.”

An injury from a workplace a few years later left him bed-ridden and a friend brought him a guitar.

Doc MacLean recovers from a tight schedule of shows at Bombay Peggy’s, coffee houses and cabin concerts at the Westminster Hotel in Dawson City

“He told me I may as well be learning something,” he reminisces, “and he mashed my fingers down like this to show me the G chord.”

Touring 40,000 km/year as a performer and an educator, Slade plays from coast to coast.

“I like meeting people. When you keep it simple and from the heart, people will like it wherever you play it.”

In the schools, he teaches curriculum through music to help keep the kids interested.

“I’m surprised at his reach in the schools,” mentions MacLean. “The kids all know him.”

Slade has recorded several albums, and his original songs have been covered by artists from across Canada. His song “I Love My Dog” (2007) has become a favourite for Northerners.

I couldn’t help smile after discovering he’s worked with some of my childhood idols, including Fred Penner, and Sharon, Lois and Bram.

Apart from his tours, Slade is the producer of the Arts in the Park program in Whitehorse (late May to mid August). The festival, which is now in its 16th year, brought in 16,000 people last year.

Following the songwriters’ circle, I chatted with Slade and MacLean the next day.

“What an array of people we’ve gotten to play with…” spouted MacLean.

Those words brought silence to our group for a few moments.

They told me that they’d be back again next year for the same cause.

Before we parted, I asked them why the Yukon was special.

“I like the space,” Slade answered first, “whatever context you put that in—physical, mental, etc.”

Doc mentioned that he finds parallels between the deep south and the far north.

“I like staying here. [Dawson] is a place of people with no last names. They live in the moment.”

Connor Matak is a singer-songwriter, working on home recording and living in Dawson City.

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