“Alaskan Storyteller.” That’s the phrase Juneau-based Annie Bartholomew uses to describe herself on her website. Simple and to the point but way too modest.
Just one round of listening to Bartholomew’s first album makes that clear. “Sisters of White Chapel,” which tells the stories of the women who did sex work during the Klondike gold rush, was released earlier this month. The life stories woven into the album’s nine songs took Bartholomew several years to research and write.
The songs give voice to women whose individual stories seemed doomed to fade away. The era’s sex workers are often lumped together as a nameless bunch.
One notable exception is Lael Morgan’s 2003 book, “Good Time Girls.” Morgan and her book, along with newspaper clippings, journals and other historic documents, were integral to Bartholomew’s songwriting.
Bartholomew’s interest in the stories kicked off thanks to a combination of a tour of the Red Onion Saloon in Skagway and conversations with musician Rebecca Menzia during a summer tour in Dawson City.
“We just got really curious about this time and our state’s history and Canada’s history,” Bartholomew said. “Growing up we had Gold Rush days and people talk about the pioneers but the story is so much more complicated than that.”
Between the rise of the #MeToo movement, discussions of colonialism and the “harm that was inflicted upon Indigenous communities, it’s just a lot to examine and unpack,” she said. “Music has a really interesting way to not only share these stories but add new perspectives.”
She added: “I feel like the world is ready to challenge some of their ideas and biases or fantasies about that time.”
A guitarist since she was a kid — she learned to play at the Bearfoot Bluegrass Camp for Kids in Juneau — Bartholomew took clawhammer banjo lessons during the pandemic via Zoom. She bought her banjo and paid for recording the album with the help of a Rasmuson Individual Artist Award.
Her sound is anchored in old-time music but would play well on a modern-day bluegrass or Americana radio show. The tales she tells are, at times, hard, but several of the songs are full-on fun and demand, at the very least, toe tapping. All of the songs would fit in just as well as part of the lineup in an Americana music festival in Tennessee as they would on the porch of a cabin in Southeast.
The women’s motivations and experiences were varied. Some went into the trade because they wanted a life of adventure, others because they saw it as the only way to survive once their husband had died or abandoned them. Some women hardly got by. Others thrived, happy to swap their time and talents for the miners’ money. However they made it through, their stories help build a fuller telling of all the people of the gold rush era, something that is way overdue.
Bartholomew works a day job for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game so she can preserve her creative energy for her songwriting. She used to make a living telling stories of a different nature, as an arts and culture reporter for KTOO. But she’s been a fixture in music scenes around the state for years, from the Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau to Fairbanks during her college years at UAF. Fairbanks, she says, “has a really epic music scene that is very insulated and no one would know about it until you’re there.”
Insulated is, to a great degree, a word that could be applied to all of Alaska’s music scene. Lower 48ers rarely take notice. But Bartholomew is one of a small wave of musicians — including Nicholas Galanin of Ya Tseen, Quinn Christopherson, and Nick Carpenter of Medium Build — who have fans Outside. NPR’s Bob Boilen played her song “All for the Klondike’s Gold” on the most recent “All Songs Considered.”
“It’s really surreal, you know? Being in Southeast there’s a lot of folks in Anchorage and up north who have never seen me play or heard my music. I think it’s just the nature of living off the road system that makes it hard to get your music out there,” said Bartholomew.
Before starting the album, Bartholomew had also resisted using Alaska stories as fodder for her songs. “It felt like a cheap trick that a lot of people do. They capitalize on the Alaskaness in marketing and taking photos in front of glaciers,” she said.
A friend at the Alaska Music Summit encouraged Bartholomew to rethink her decision, telling her it was a missed opportunity. “Nobody is going to knock Willie Nelson for talking about Texas or Dolly Parton for talking about Tennessee or Loretta Lynn for Kentucky. It’s part of my identity as an artist, and getting into it I really found the best material of my life,” said Bartholomew.
Not a solo effort
Bartholomew makes it clear that, though her name may be featured on the album, the work has been incredibly collaborative. The album features Juneau musicians Erin and Andrew Heist, Marian Call, and Anchorage’s Kat Moore, and was produced by Justin Smith of Gustavus-based Rusty Recordings. Turning to these women’s stories “just led to a lot of really interesting partnerships, not just with other musicians but with visual artists and folks who do theater,” she said.
Bartholomew started working on the album during an arts residency at the Jenni House Artist Residency in Whitehorse, Yukon. Originally a songwriting project, “Sisters of White Chapel” began to morph into a full stage show on the prodding of a folklorist-musician friend, Willi Carlisle. Bartholomew worked on it throughout 2021 as part of a writing workshop through Theater Alaska. The folk opera ran for 10 days last summer as part of the 2022 Alaska Theater Festival in Juneau.
But it’s the music that will probably have the greatest reach. Thanks to YouTube and Instagram, Bartholomew’s been able to connect with people around the world who are interested in roots and Americana music. “It’s just been really wonderful to be able to share this further than my hometown,” she added.