A history of novelty songs about Alaska

In genres like rock, country and rockabilly, the songs reference Alaska’s midnight suns, sourdoughs, cheechakos and cold winters.

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

At one point or another, regarding almost every aspect great and small, whether positive or negative, so many people have gazed with wonder at Alaska and thought to themselves, “I could make some real money off that.” The scale varies, from mosquito plushies to oil plundering, but the modern throughline is consistent and nigh constant. Alaska has been repeatedly exploited for financial gain, sometimes by Alaskans, too often for the betterment of outsiders.

The simplest way to exploit Alaska is to leverage its cachet and continuing natural, exotic appeal. The easiest way of doing that is to slap the word “Alaska” on a product. Think of the dessert Baked Alaska, which has a more convoluted origin than the traditional myth as an 1867 New York restaurant creation but nonetheless was certainly not from Alaska, merely borrowing the name. Beginning in earnest with the Klondike gold rush, the idea of Alaska has been used to sell everything from board games to movies to bottled water, an early example of the latter in an upcoming article. And among the smallest such examples, yet not the least interesting, are the Alaska novelty songs.

Novelty songs are somewhat difficult to define apart from their generally less than serious tone, though there are exceptions even for that. They have been popular for more than a century and originate from any genre. They are typically centered on a gimmick, like a joke, singular event, specific place, or passing cultural trend. “My Ding-a-Ling” by Chuck Berry, “Barbie Girl” by Aqua, and “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” by Ylvis are novelty songs. “Alaska” by Maggie Rogers is not a novelty song, though namechecking Alaska is a common trait of novelty songs about Alaska. As a rough rule, a song might be considered a novelty when the gimmick is more important than the music.

While the concept is enduring, novelty songs have endured peaks and valleys in popularity. One such peak began in the late 1940s, corresponding with increased interest in Alaska given the march toward statehood. While not specifically about Alaska, “When the Ice Worms Nest Again” merits mention. The song, perhaps written during the Klondike gold rush, refers to the classic sourdough prank on newcomers, pressuring them to down a drink with an “ice worm,” really just a piece of spaghetti marked with eyes.

Numerous covers were performed in the 1940s and 1950s by country acts with fantastic names, including Wilf Carter with the Calgary Stampeders, Bud Alden and the Buckaroos, and Smilin’ Johnnie and his Prairie Pals. The lyrics vary slightly from version to version, but per one version, “In the land of the pale blue snow, where it’s 45 below, and the polar bears are roaming o’er the plain, in the shadow of the pole, you can clasp me to your soul, we’ll be happy when the ice worms nest again.”

“April in Fairbanks,” written by Jane Connell for the 1956 Broadway revue “New Faces in 1956,” was one of the more unique examples of this trend, most notably given its relative success. Most commonly associated with singer Alice Ghostley, the song notes, “You’ve never known the charm of Spring until you hear a walrus sighing. The air is perfumed with the smell of blubber frying. April in Fairbanks; you’ll suddenly discover a polar bear’s your lover, in Fairbanks.” Connell was clearly more interested in the lyrics and jokey concept of trying to find love in a frigid Fairbanks.

Musicians Johnny and Betty Jo Starr, formerly of Palmer, moved to Montana in 1953 but kept Alaska somewhat close to their hearts. On their own Alaska Records, they released a series of vinyl singles over the decade. As Betty Jo Starr and the Alaskans, Betty Jo and Johnny Starr, and Johnny Starr and the Alaskans, their songs included “Alaska Waltz,” “Copper Colored Klootch,” “Eskimo Boogie,” “I’m a Cheechako,” “Son of a Sourdough,” “Song of Anchorage,” “Song of Fairbanks,” “The 49th Star,” and a cover of “When the Ice Worms Nest Again. These tracks are each about as deep as their titles suggest. “I’m a Cheechako” opens with, “Now, I was among the many that came up Alaska way. Oh, I landed up in Seward, out in Resurrection Bay. From there I went to Anchorage, my fortune I would make, but I’m still a big cheechako, and I haven’t made my stake.”


The Starrs likely made some return visits north. “Eskimo Boogie” works like an itinerary for an Alaska tour, namedropping several well-known — infamous — Alaska bars, like the Mecca and Riverside in Fairbanks, the Malemute and Last Chance in Anchorage, and the Fireside Lounge and Buckaroo in a then-independent Spenard. The lyrics declare, “Well, we headed for the Malemute and we almost died. It was burned to the ground, so we knew that he lied.” The Malemute Saloon burned down on the night of Jan. 17-18, 1957, part of a large blaze that took four businesses and threatened a wide swath of downtown Anchorage.

Alaska novelty songs reached their zenith around 1959, as singers nationwide rushed for their celebratory take on the new state. The Rebelaires’ 1958 upbeat rocker “Alaska Rock,” the Huskies’ straightforward 1958 “Alaska, U.S.A.,” Macky Kasper’s 1959 jazz instrumental “Alaska Song,” Larry and Dixie Davis’ 1959 rockabilly song “Welcome Alaska,” Freddie Bearden’s “Alaska the 49th Star,” and several more like them came and went with little notice.

Lawton William’s 1958 country song “Alaska vs. Texas” stands out in this period. Exploiting a trend within a trend about Texan jealousy over Alaska statehood, Williams sings, “Oh, the Texan takes his Lincoln to round up his cattle herd, and children drive to school each day in a brand-new Thunderbird, but Texas pride is hurting now for they have just been told, that Alaska is the biggest state, and the place is full of gold.” Jokes and insults were thrown both ways as Alaska and Texas engaged in a brief and mostly friendly feud.

There were ramshackle comedic efforts at the lower end, like the 1958 “The Cool Alaska Rock & Roll (Part 1)” by Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy. “Part 2″ was the B-side. “C’mon and dance with me ‘cause I ain’t no square. I’m a gonna hug you tight like a polar bear.” Still, it is perhaps better than the 1965 “Big Fat Alaskan” by Donnie and the Outcasts, which leans into repeating the title.

In more Alaska-adjacent novelty songs, there were several releases about the midnight sun, such as the Pink Cloud’s 1967 “Midnight Sun.” Yes, most novelty songs skimp on the title. Al Oster, the longtime Yukon balladeer (1924-2017), repeatedly mined the legends and traditions of the north for new songs. And in his hands, something like the 1960 “Midnight Sun Rock” is barely a novelty.

Gary Williams’ 1964 country track “Alaska” has one of the more confounding lines in Alaska novelty songs. Williams, a Grand Old Opry traveling show mainstay for several years, was hopefully being ironic when he sings, “Like Soapy Smith and Dan McGrew, I’m gonna make my fortune too.” Both characters, the real Skagway gangster and the imaginary prospector, respectively, met their ends in shootouts. Regardless, this was one of the more successful Alaska novelty songs with solid airplay outside the state.

Even the Alaska natural disasters had novelty songs. Blue Ervin quickly released “Alaska Earthquake” after the March 27, 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. “Blue Ervin” was Ervin C. Elswick, an Army sergeant then stationed in Anchorage. Longtime residents might remember his radio show. The song itself is an anodyne effort, never rising above a tepid, simple recounting of events though taking the good time to praise Alaskans: “Anchorage and Whittier, Seward and Kodiak, all suffered greatly when the earth began to crack. They all are rebuilding their homes and stores once more, for these are great people, living on Alaska’s shore.”

If Anchorage had an earthquake song, Fairbanks had to have a flood song. In the wake of the severe August 1967 flood, Ted Harris released “The Fairbanks Flood,” a solid rockabilly jam.

In 1977, Tanya Tucker released “A Rock n Roll Girl from Alaska.” The country legend, notably not from Alaska, is undoubtedly more talented than novelty songwriters, even that early in her career. However, the song was only released in Japan as a 7-inch vinyl single as part of a coffee promotion, a novelty item if nothing else. “‘Cause I’m a rock’n roll girl from Alaska, from the ice block homes far away, but rocks of ice are so cold — and rock is nicer with roll, so the city is where I’ll stay.”

These are only a few of the many Alaska novelty songs that, when viewed together, illustrate a shared flaw. They are generally not specific enough to be genuinely Alaskan. Midnight suns, sourdoughs, cheechakos, and cold winters are lazy references, good enough for the outsiders. Where are the songs about potholes, massive breakup puddles, saying snowmachine versus snowmobile, picking berries, or shipping costs? Has there been a ballad of the white raven yet?

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Key sources:

Al Oster, ‘Northland Balladeer’ Who Wrote About Yukon, Dead at 92.” CBC Radio-Canada, October 30, 2017.


Discogs. Discogs.com.

“Fire Wipes Out Four Businesses.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 18, 1957, 1, 9.

“New Record.” Anchorage Daily News, January 9, 1959, 12.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.