Pilgrims' music proves to be big hit outside Alaska where they are in a dispute with the National Park Service

Kendrall Beaudry

The Pilgrim family is back on center stage again, but this time it's not in a battle with the National Park Service.

The Pilgrims -- Papa, Mother Country Rose and their 15 children -- are known in Alaska for their ongoing dispute with Wrangell-St. Elias National Park over a bulldozed road into their mining claim.

These days, however, they're in the middle of a Pacific Northwest love-fest over their music and their rustic way of life. They've cut their own CD, started signing autographs and been lauded as "the second coming of the Carter family."

Eight members of the Pilgrim family surfaced in Portland this spring after Papa, whose legal name is Robert Hale, brought 9-year-old Abraham to a children's hospital there for treatment of an injured hand. To raise money for medical bills and to finance their return home, they've been singing and telling stories at a handful of concerts in Portland and nearby Ridgefield, Wash.

"We all have the opportunity to reach out and help each other," Papa told a sold-out crowd at the Old Liberty Theater in small-town Ridgefield in late April.

Between tunes, Papa recounted how a run-in with a generator just before Easter left young Abraham minus a finger. The boy raced to his family and said, "Pray for me; it hurts so bad!" Papa recalled. He found his son's severed finger in a work glove, put it in his pocket with a bag of ice, and set out for help. After a short stop in Anchorage, they ended up at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, where Abraham's finger was sewn back on.

After the surgery, six other Pilgrims loaded up a donated 1980 Chevy van and drove the windowless, brown vehicle south to join them. They toted along their instruments and started playing "gospel grass." Their stylized sound has charmed bluegrass aficionados, musicians, families and curious people who want to help them out.

The concerts were organized in large part by Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association, who has advocated for the Pilgrims as part of a national campaign against Park Service regulations. The family took coaxing to get up and sing, Cushman said.

"They were a little awkward in front of the mikes at first," he said, "but they just had phenomenal performing skills, they took the audience right in."

Cushman plays autoharp and dobro himself, and introduced the family to local folk musicians. Carol Harley, a folk singer and musician with the acoustic quartet Misty River, hosted the Pilgrims for a week and ushered them into a recording studio. After three days of work, a 15-track album titled "Write My Name Down" was ready.

Harley's producer, Billy Oskay of Big Red Studio, said he was enchanted with what he described as "homespun, old-time gospel."

"Their music has not been tainted by the commercial world," Oskay said, "so you don't measure them by that standard. They are genuine, they are the real thing."

Harley concurred. "It was tempting as a musician to want to offer them a tip," she said, "but we would just bite our lip because we didn't want to contaminate them."

The family says its unique musical style is a product of an isolated lifestyle. They often lived so remotely they couldn't tune into a reliable radio station.

At a bluegrass festival 10 years ago in New Mexico, they saw a fiddler play, Papa said, and immediately took to the music. Later, they went to a pawnshop and bought a variety of instruments. They decided who'd play what by drawing names out of a hat. With the exception of the infants, each member can play at least two instruments comfortably and sing.

"We don't know how to read scales," said Jerusalem, 15, who plays mandolin so well Portland musicians considered her a prodigy, Cushman said. Elishaba, the oldest at 28, plays violin, fiddle and guitar. Besides playing all those instruments, Joshua, 25, yodels in a high lonesome tenor similar to Bill Monroe.

When Joshua clogged on stage at Liberty Theater, the crowd of 150 cheered. "That's called clogging, as far as we know," he joked. Clogging is a dance form that involves metal taps on the heel and toe of the shoes. Lamb, 6 years old and still learning the steps, joined in. A row of high-school boys shouted out and Joshua smiled from their encouragement.

Before and after each show, the Pilgrims mingled with audiences, signing autographs, selling CDs and taking pictures. Crowds packed five concerts at the theater. The Pilgrims also performed at a church.

Earleen Griswold, an owner of the old movie house-turned-live-venue, marveled at the Pilgrims' draw.

"You know, my husband and I talked about that," she said, "and I think people came because they wanted to see what a family that's still together is like. So many of us don't stay together anymore."

Audiences were diverse, she said, from "big families that came out to show off their own big families," to old people, to young people with "dreadlocks and piercings."

She described the Pilgrim performance as "kind of like getting a little sermon. They talked about their beliefs," she said. "Everything happens because of God, that's their belief." Land rights never came up during their performances, she said.

The Pilgrims' songs represent chapters in their life and draw upon biblical themes and hardship. Elishaba explained her original song titled, "Pilgrim's Daughter," to the audience.

The story came from a time when the family went to the Copper River as they do every fall to stock up on salmon. As dipnetters, they'd usually catch one or two salmon at a time, she said.

"Papa told me, 'Honey, I want you to get seven in your net,' and I did. Then he asked for 12, and I did."

"These aren't minnows," Papa interrupted, making the audience laugh.

According to their story, in the midst of their fishing the river started to rise up and it took a couple of Pilgrims off their feet. But they all reached out and held on to each other. "And the tide is rising," she sang in the chorus, "but it can't take us away. ..."

Papa closed the show thanking the audience for their support. "We all have a song in our hearts," he said. "We have something to share. And love -- just like music -- is to share."

Now, more than one month, seven shows and a nearly healed finger later, the Pilgrims are packing up for their return to Alaska this week. They're fixing up two donated cars for the journey, Cushman said. He estimated they'd raised between $7,000 and $8,000 at their concerts. He was unclear whether medical services or air transport had been donated.

Asked if they'll continue touring as they travel home, Hosanna, who learned to play bass on this trip, said no, they prefer living as they do and playing at home with the rest of the family.

"What they have learned," said Misty River's Harley, now on tour at an international folk festival in China, "is that playing professionally is a lot of hard work. They don't want to do it for money. It doesn't fit their lifestyle."

Rather, she said, "they do what they love to do in this life, and that is back at home in the freedom of the wilderness."

Kendall Beaudry is a free-lance journalist living in Portland, Ore. Tom Kizzia and Kathleen McCoy of the Daily News contributed to this story.

By Kendrall Beaudry
Anchorage Daily News