This week Jim Adams has prompted us with North/South/East/West for this weeks Song Lyric Sunday. The first tune that came to mind for me was Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska”.
Alaska was admitted into the Union as the 49th state in 1959 and the relevance of this song was historically perfect for the time that it was released. At the end of the 19th Century, the Klondike Gold Rush, AKA Yukon Gold Rush was booming in Alaska and “North to Alaska” was released 63 years after the onslaught of stampeders (20,000-30,000) began their travels from Seattle to find their own fortune in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Unfortunately, the terrain was more than the mass groups of people could handle. This lead to murders, suicides, disease, malnutrition, avalanches, hypothermia and the death of many pack animals. Many of those who survived, were broke financially and heartbroken.
In 1898, a rich discovery of gold was discovered on Anvil Creek in Nome, Alaska and by 1899, thousands of men came into the area. Just a short time after this discovery, gold was found in the beach sands along the Bering Sea and that began the Nome Alaska Gold Rush. 20,000 people were living in Nome at the peak, with nearly one-third of all white men in Alaska living there. Miners used pans, rockers and sluices to recover the fine gold from the beach and they later had a makeshift operation that included hoses and pumps to help with production. One of the major issues happened when claim jumping started happening and crooked politicians/judges allowed it to continue for their own personal gain. The Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually stopped the process of claim jumping. Mining companies came in at the beginning of the 20th century and mining continued until the gold deposits ran dry. The 1909 census showed the population in Nome, Alaska was 2,600, down from the 20,000 just a few years prior. Nome remains isolated with no roads into the city. It is only accessible by boat or airplane. Nome depends on tourism to keep their economy stable today.
Johnny Horton was an American country music and rockabilly singer and musician during the 1950’s and early 1960’s who crossed country, honkytonk and rockabilly genres of music while on the Louisiana Hayride after being influenced by Elvis Presley.
Horton found success with his folk ballads based on American historic themes and legends. “North to Alaska” (written by Mike Phillips) is one of those songs that tells a story of a man heading to Alaska from Seattle in search of gold to build a homestead in Alaska for is favorite gal, Jenny. Horton recorded “North to Alaska” in 1960 which went to #1 on the US Country Music Charts and peaked at #4 on the Hot 100 Billboard Charts. It also charted in six other countries, reaching #1 in Canada and #2 in Australia.
“North to Alaska” was a Comedy/Western/Northern movie starring John Wayne in 1960. The song lyrics provided a backstory in the beginning credits of the film to set the scene for the starting point of the film during the Nome gold rush. The movie, set in 1901 is about two brothers, George and Billy Pratt with their partner Sam McCord (played by Wayne) who finds gold while panning in Nome, Alaska. The story has several subplots one being that George sends Sam to Seattle to retrieve his love only to find she has married another man. Sam brings back a substitute in her place. In early 1959, 20th Century Fox announced they would make “The Alaskans” starring John Wayne. After changing directors and a lot of time in pre-production while the movie was labeled “Go North” during that time, plus the writer’s strike, shooting for “North to Alaska” didn’t begin until May, 1960. The movie finished filming in August, edited in September, and released in November of the same year.
At the peak of his career, Johnny Horton died in an automobile accident in Milam County, Texas on November 5, 1960 at the tender age of 35 in a head-on collision with a truck driven by James Evan Davis who was charged with intoxication manslaughter. He was drunk at the time of the accident. This happened just a few months after Horton recorded “North to Alaska” and eight days before the movie was released. Horton was buried in Shreveport, Louisiana and Johnny Cash did a reading at Horton’s funeral.
I read a story entitled “Remembering the Creepy Death of Johnny Horton 58 Year Ago” and decided to include the link so you be the judge. Link
The night that Horton was killed, he had just finished his set at the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas where he kissed his wife, Billie Jean goodbye. The night/morning that Hank Williams died, he played his last set at the Skyline Club, kissing his wife, Billie Jean before he left for his next gig, dying in the back of his Cadillac enroute to his next performance. De ju vue for Billie Jean who was also a Country Music singer/songwriter!
Big Sam left Seattle in the year of ninety-two With George Pratt his partner and brother Billy too They crossed the Yukon river and they found the bonanza gold Below that old white mountain Just a little south-east of Nome Sam crossed the Majestic mountains to the valleys far below He talked to his team of huskies As he mushed on through the snow With the northen lights a-runnin' wild In the land of the midnight sun Yes Sam McCord was a mighty man In the year of nineteen-one Where the river is windin' big nuggets they're findin' North to Alaska go north the rush is on North to Alaska go north the rush is on George turns to Sam with his gold in his hand Said Sam you're lookin' at a lonely lonely man I'd trade all the gold that's buried in this land For one small band of gold to place on sweet little Jenny's hand 'Cause a man needs a woman to love him all the time Remember Sam a true love is so hard to find I'd build for my Jenny a honeymoon home Below that old white mountain Just a little south-east of Nome Where the river is windin' big nuggets they're findin' North to Alaska go north the rush is on North to Alaska go north the rush is on Source: LyricFind Songwriters: Mike Phillips North to Alaska lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC