Arts and Entertainment

Alaska balladeer Hobo Jim shares diagnosis of terminal cancer

James Varsos, better known as Hobo Jim, wrote in a Facebook post Saturday he has end-stage cancer.

The singer-songwriter most famous for the “Iditarod Trail Song” is known to generations of Alaskans after decades of performances on stages, campgrounds, classrooms and barrooms across the state.

Varsos wrote that he’d experienced intense pain during performances at the Alaska State Fair and a show in Wyoming, which led him to check in to an emergency room in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives part of the year.

“After three days of pricks, pokes and probes I was diagnosed with end stage cancer,” Varsos wrote.

Varsos wrote that doctors told him the cancer has spread throughout his body and is not treatable with either chemo or radiation treatments.

“I have been given a short three to six months to live. Probably more than many get,” Varsos said.

Varsos’ songs about miners, loggers, fishermen, mushers and rugged outdoor pursuits earned him the title of Alaska’s official “balladeer.” “Iditarod Trail Song,” penned in 1982, has endured as a staple of the annual sled dog race, when it’s commonplace to hear the chorus of “I did, I did, I did the Iditarod Trail” shouted in bars from Anchorage to Nome.

According to a 2002 article in the Anchorage Daily News, Varsos grew up in Wisconsin but, inspired by Woody Guthrie, spent his teens hitchhiking and hopping trains across the country. He came to Alaska in 1972, quickly falling in love with Homer and the Kenai Peninsula. Varsos and his wife of 42 years, Cindy, ultimately made their home in Soldotna.

Varsos toured constantly, not only in Alaska, but the Lower 48 and abroad as well, according to a 2014 profile of him in the Homer News. He told the paper that during the busy summer season he averaged nine to 10 shows a week.

“I have been able to make a living making people happy, I have been able to live in a state that is the crown of God’s creation, I have seen a great deal of the world and all and all... life has been grand and fulfilling,” Varsos wrote in his Facebook post. Varsos did not respond to an interview request the day following his announcement.

Thousands of people commented on his post, sharing condolences, memories of watching him perform and stories of singing his songs to their children.

A GoFundMe campaign started to gather funds for Varsos’s family received more than $14,000 in donations within its first day.

Known primarily in Alaska for his live performances, Varsos has enjoyed success as a recording artist, as well, putting out several albums and earning credits on a number of songs and albums.

Varsos wrote Saturday, “I would like to say I am not afraid. I have never feared death as I am good with my Lord. It is however, very hard to feel the pain of those I leave behind.”

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, politics, drugs, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the paper he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.