Record review: Pilgrim Family Minstrels "Put My Name Down"

Pilgrim Family Minstrels "Put My Name Down"

Papa Pilgrim and family are an easy mark for skeptics, what with their hillbilly get-ups and well-publicized legal scraps with rangers for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, where the Pilgrims live on an inholding and sometimes get a little righteous bulldozing roads. The question arises: Is this 17-member backwoods clan for real?

Naturally, some might also doubt the authenticity of their new CD, recorded this spring while the Pilgrims spent some time in Oregon. It seems one of Papa and Mama Country Rose's young'uns, Abraham, 9, severed a finger in a generator mishap and needed reattachment work at a Portland children's hospital.

Some folks in the local music scene managed to coax the reclusive Pilgrims into Big Red Studios of Corbett, Ore. The finished product -- well, almost finished -- is a 15-track CD called "Put My Name Down."

It is excellent. And, it's for real.

We got our copy by going online at and sending $17 to the American Land Rights Association in Battle Ground, Wash. The organization has backed the Pilgrims in their fight for access to their land inside the park. The disc came back promptly, though the case was cracked with some indecipherable red scribbles on the back and a piece of Scotch tape holding the homemade, woefully incomplete liner notes in place.

"Oh, you have a pre-release copy," said producer Billy Oskay by telephone from Oregon. A finished product with fuller liner notes is still to come, he said.


The music is best described as mountain gospel, frosted with bluegrass and featuring superb harmonies and even the tiny giggle of a Pilgrim tot. Most of the songs are about the cycle of life as the Pilgrims see it: earthly toil and tribulation, death by and by, then away to Jesus.

The music was recorded splendidly with "a single stereo mic," according to the liner notes. The CD is dedicated to Pilgrim Billy, identified as Papa Pilgrim's identical twin brother, who died during the recording and "passed over the Jordan River to Glory."

Papa, the silver-bearded patriarch whose legal name is Robert Hale, anchors several songs with his midrange voice and distinct but winsome lisp. Several of his children lend serious vocal gifts, notably the crystalline squall of eldest daughter Elishaba, 28, and younger brother Joshua's nasal twang.

Some of the songs are original, including Elishaba's bluegrassy "Pilgrim's Daughter," while some are traditional and others, such as "Won't You Come and Sing for Me," were written by the likes of noted Appalachian singer Hazel Dickens. But in some cases, nobody knows for sure just who to credit. "They've heard a lot of music on the radio without knowing who it was," the CD's graphic designer, Dennis Wiancko, said of the Pilgrims.

Old-time music has drawn wide notice in recent years. The Pilgrim sound is akin to that heard on more polished releases such as the hit movie soundtrack "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and Gillian Welch's raw "Revival" CD, both produced by T Bone Burnett.

The Pilgrims, said to be shy performers, obviously were in good hands in the Oregon studio. The disc is logically paced with somber tunes followed by more sprightly numbers, the Pilgrims sounding fully skilled on mandolin, fiddle and dobro. Maybe most impressively, the Pilgrims lay down several tracks a cappella, quite movingly so.

Whatever you make of its born-again isolation in the Alaska wilderness, the Pilgrim family's music seems pure as a mountain brook.

By Wesley Loy

Anchorage Daily News

Wesley Loy

Wesley Loy is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.