Singing the blues in the dark Norwegian winter
LONGYEARBYEN, Norway — The village of Longyearbyen lies at a latitude of 78 degrees N. To get an idea of just how far north that is, go to Point Barrow on the top edge of Alaska and then continue into the ice toward the pole for 500 more miles or so. There are plenty of reasons to sing the blues up here. Not only is it cold, it is home to roughly 3,000 polar bears. The bears eat only meat, and we are on the menu. In fact after a series of fatal attacks, it is now against the law to leave town limits without a gun.
This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Dark Season Blues Festival. Sixteen bands (eight from the U.S.) descended recently on the small mining town of a little more than 2,000 for four days. It is all timed to mark the onset of arctic winter. They don’t sing about it in Mississippi, but if their sun went down in October and didn’t come up again until mid-February, they probably would.
For the first time the festival kicked off with an opening ceremony. Just before 6 p.m. the community center’s theater had about 300 people sitting patiently and waiting for the ceremonies to begin.
Anne Grethe came down off Larsbreen glacier in the afternoon darkness, a .308 bolt-action Ruger over her shoulder. In her late 50s with neatly braided gray hair hanging down her back, she took off her boots and proclaimed in perfect English, “I haven’t missed a gig for five years.”
There were a few boring speeches to start off, mostly in Norwegian with the odd word in English to thank the international performers. Then there was music, and lots of it. Rita Engedalen, the Norwegian winner of the 2012 European Blues challenge, kicked it all off with a couple of duets accompanied by her guitarist, including a haunting version of her ballad “Yellow Moon.”
It was the next artist, however, Grainne Duffy, who knocked off all the icicles. Duffy is Ireland’s answer to Bonnie Raitt but a little angrier: It’s blues with hobnail boots on. The audience didn’t move, they’re Norwegian, thank you, but you could see on their faces they were delighted. In the end eight acts, running through a few songs each, played a free concert for an hour and a half.
Given that the place was founded in 1906 by American coal miner John Munroe Longyear (byen means town in Norwegian), the blues is a logical choice for the culture up here. Indeed, two of the bands at the festival are local to the tiny village, including the fabulously named Howlin Huskies. It’s foot-tappin’, easy to appreciate, and they love to dance to it — couple-dance, arm-in-arm stuff.
The town has one main street. It starts down at the big hotel and continues inland past the small hospital, the community center, supermarket, post office, etc. The hotel and three of the bars along a quarter-mile stretch of this road host most of the festival’s gigs. A huge building about a mile beyond functions as a seasonal nightclub on Friday and Saturday nights.
The main event on Saturday takes place there, but locals point out that people have frozen to death walking back to save money on a taxi. Opening night is a mild 2 degrees Fahrenheit, however, so the walk to the next venue from the community center proves not to be fatal. The heat inside the bar is a different story.
Longyearbyen Blues Society had 56 members at last count, yet each concert had upward of 200 people, even when three gigs ran concurrently. The pubs were often full before 6 p.m. for music programs starting at 9. People love music here, and for many that means American music.
Locals can recite chapter and verse on back catalogs of Joe Louis Walker or Jimmy Reed. They also speak English better than your second-grade teacher. From Thursday to Sunday this little village just north of nowhere rocks or rather blueses.
The older gang dominates the dance floors, harking back to their youth and the dansbandmusik that commanded the Scandinavian scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There were concerts for the kids in the schools during the day, a gig in a mine and blues lunches. On Saturday the big nightclub just out of town ran six bands upstairs and six down. Sunday saw a three-act performance in the church, followed by a heaving, open-mike, free-for-all in the big hotel.
New York Blues Hall of Famer Dave Fields, who after four days was looking a bit like the aquavit might be just as dangerous as the polar bears, summed it up. Fields came here for the first time in 2009 and has appeared every year since, not just performing but also taking on the role of informal U.S. compère: “There is something special about this place. It’s a whole different world, a whole different atmosphere.”
As they rolled up the mike cables from the last blues performance, on the other side of the village decorations were going up in front of the community center, celebrating the town council’s 10th anniversary. After that, later in the month, there would be a jazz festival. At Christmas they’re inviting the nearby Russian settlement’s children over for an elementary school choir concert.
They may have lots of reasons to sing the blues this far north, but there is always something to look forward to. After all, it will be light again in a few months.
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