“A Bunch of the Boys Were Whoopin’ It Up in the Malamute Saloon…”

It’s been a brutal July thus far, on pace to be the hottest one in history. (Strangely enough, all those Brave Truth-Tellers who screamed about global warming being fake when it was sort-of cold in April are nowhere to be found.) I’m trying my best to beat the heat by thinking cold thoughts. This is a psychological technique known as Self Delusion.

While trying to find some Cold Thought Fodder, I ran across this video, and I’m so glad I did. This is an excerpt from an episode of Jean Shepherd’s America about Alaska.

Jean Shepherd, radio host, author, and raconteur (who I’ve written about here before), had a PBS program that ran for two widely separated seasons: 1971 and 1985. The later season was decent, and is readily available on DVD via eBay and similar outlets. The earlier season, which predated the VCR, is not in general circulation, except for a few episodes that were rerun in 1985. That’s is a shame, because I’ve seen many of these episodes and they are AMAZING.

The reason I’ve seen them is because I did some research for Excelsior, You Fathead!, the Jean Shepherd biography penned by Eugene Bergmann. Part of this research included a trip up to WGBH in Boston, which produced this series and a few other once-off programs starring Shep (including a bizarre show from 1961 in which Shep stood on a wharf in Boston Harbor and just riffed for a half hour, much like he did on his nightly radio show). I had the privilege of delving into their vast video archives, and came back truly stunned by what I saw.

The original series of Jean Shepherd’s America is a wonderful, vibrant time capsule. It was shot on video, which was still in its infancy back then (the producer, Fred Barzyk, told me the poor cameramen were weighed down by bulky nigh-prototypes). But because it wasn’t shot on film, which can age poorly, the footage appears as if it was shot yesterday. The episodes are all pretty much like the excerpt above: Simple shots of quiet, everyday occurrences, with Shepherd’s inimitable narration.

There’s a mind-blowing episode (“It Won’t Always Be This Way…”) about new planned communities and mobile homes. It ends with chilling footage of ghost town on the site of an old mining boom town, as Shep talks about how mankind always moves on, looking for bigger and better things, and how one day this whole planet may be similarly abandoned as we seek greener pastures out among the cosmos.

My description is not doing it justice. If there is a just god, he will make sure everyone gets to see this in some format, some day.

I also can’t think of Shep and The Cold without thinking of the poems of Robert Service. In the winter months, Shep would devote parts of shows, and sometimes entire shows, to reading this now-obscure but once ubiquitous verse. Service’s poems all depict depraved goldpanners trying to make a buck or start trouble in the frozen Yukon wasteland, who all find death in some gruesome manner or another.

My father was a huge Jean Shepherd fan, and this was one of his favorite features of the show. He loved to recite the first line of Service’s poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” in a deep, Shep-like vibrato: A bunch of the boys were whoopin’ it up in the Malamute Saloon

Ironically, my father died five years ago this summer in snowy, faraway land (very long story). So I think he would take perverse pleasure in hearing this Shep rendition of another Service poem, “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill”, which comes from his program on January 15, 1965.

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And just for good measure, here’s Shep doing another one of his favorite routines: singing loudly (and badly) along to a ragtime piano rendition of an old timey tune.

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