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Ken Waldman calls himself "one of those odd Alaska people" but he is best known as Alaska's Fiddling Poet. Since 1994, he has toured and taught around the country and his music has received worldwide radio airplay. Originally from Philadelphia, he has lived in various places in Alaska since 1985.
Q & A with Ken Waldman, Alaska's Fiddling Poet 062409 AE 2 CCW Staff Writer Ken Waldman calls himself "one of those odd Alaska people" but he is best known as Alaska's Fiddling Poet. Since 1994, he has toured and taught around the country and his music has received worldwide radio airplay. Originally from Philadelphia, he has lived in various places in Alaska since 1985.

Photo Courtesy Of Ken Waldman


Photo Courtesy Of Ken Waldman

Waldman's new children's book, "D is for Dog Team" and his new CD will be released Monday, June 29., with a book signing at Rainy Retreat Books from 12:30-2 p.m. and concerts at the Canvas for children (6 p.m.) and general audience (7:15 p.m.). He will also be in Haines July 2 for a family show at 7 p.m. at the library.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Story last updated at 6/24/2009 - 10:47 am

Q & A with Ken Waldman, Alaska's Fiddling Poet

Ken Waldman calls himself "one of those odd Alaska people" but he is best known as Alaska's Fiddling Poet. Since 1994, he has toured and taught around the country and his music has received worldwide radio airplay. Originally from Philadelphia, he has lived in various places in Alaska since 1985.

Waldman's new children's book, "D is for Dog Team" and his new CD will be released to the public on Monday, June 29. He will be on hand at a signing from 12:30-2 p.m. at Rainy Retreat Books. Later that evening, he will play a book and CD release concert at The Canvas. The children's show will be held at 6 p.m., followed by a general show at 7:15 p.m. Waldman will also be in Haines on July 2 for a family show at 7 p.m. at the public library.

"D is for Dog Team" is made up of acrostic poems about Alaska with poems for Alaskan words beginning with every letter of the alphabet, such as "J is for Juneau" and "Z is for Zero Degrees." As if that isn't exciting enough, the book can be flipped over and read a second time with 26 more Alaskan acrostics.

Waldman has published six books of poetry as well as his memoir, "Are You Famous?" He has recorded over 100 of his original songs and poems and has released nine CDs.

The CCW caught up with Ken while he was on the East Coast preparing for his next big Alaskan tour.

Why did you start writing poems?

Waldman: I never wrote a poem until I was 30 years old. I was writing stories in a class in Fairbanks, and I had some friends who were writing poems. I thought it would be fun to try myself. It was a little rocky at the start. I found that I could write something and be done with it, whereas a longer story is harder to finish. I wanted the satisfaction of closure. I moved to Juneau, slowly phased out story writing and replaced it with poetry. I wrote a lot of poems from the late 80s to the early 2000s.

Do you feel like you have an overarching theme or message in your poems?

Waldman: Not overarching. I've been asked what my religion is, and I said poetry. I say it jokingly but kind of truly too. With poetry, if it is my religion, if I want to contradict myself I can, because it's like Walt Whitman once wrote, I contain multitudes. I can put my eye on anything and it's valid. I could actually contradict myself and I could be fine. I'm doing it because I'm just a guy trying to get by, and I think about different things. I could glorify one thing and also question it. It's a bigger vision. So, there could be many themes.

Do you have a favorite poem that you've written?

Waldman: I've written a lot of poems that I haven't gotten tired of. "Washing Dishes On My 33rd Birthday" (about living in North Douglas with no running water) is a lot of peoples' favorite. It's maybe not my favorite but it's one that I share a lot because it's something that speaks to a lot of people. My business card is big but it has a poem on it called "Old Time Fiddle Lesson." Some days that's a favorite, and some days it's not.

What is your musical history?

Waldman: I didn't have a traditional music background in my family at all. I went to college in North Carolina in the Piedmont and there's a rich music tradition there. After graduating I left for some time then came back and landed near Chapel Hill. I had two housemates, one played guitar and harmonica and the other guy played clawhammer banjo. They had a party where there was a guy who had a fiddle and didn't think he was going to keep playing so he sold it to me for $100. I still have that one that I started with in 1980. I am not a natural in any way, shape or form but I kept at it. When I lived in North Douglas, in Bob Banghart's house, it was a place I could play and make a racket. I learned how to play well enough to perform and make friends, and that's all I could ask for.

How do you choose which poems to pair with which tunes?

Waldman: I have a lot of poems about playing music, so that's obvious. It's easy when the poems mention the fiddle playing. If I have a poem about banjo, we'll have banjo. It varies. Over the years I've kind of gotten a knack for it. Sometimes it's just a feeling, and I could be way off with it.

Who is your favorite poet?

Waldman: William Stafford, who died 15 years ago. He was inspirational for me, and I met him twice.

What is your favorite tune?

Waldman: I've got a few favorite tunes. One favorite tune is one I've played a lot, "Cluck Old Hen." I have also recorded over 100 of my original tunes. "Burnt Down House" is one I wrote in Juneau for a Juneau resident, Jack Fontanella, who had a cabin burn down in 1996. My response was to write about what the instruments might have sounded like right before they burnt up. "Railroad Days" is a newer one with a poem to go with it. I also have bunch of waltzes like "Waltz Into the Light" and "Miss Renee's Waltz."

How have you used your music and poetry in teaching?

Waldman: I started working with kids when I was living in Nome in the early 90s. I was teaching audio conference classes out of Nome and I would travel to meet my students. I would visit the schools in the villages, and they said it'd be great if I came by and played fiddle. I found I had a knack for working with all ages. I started freelancing when I moved back to Juneau in the mid-90s, going to schools in rural Alaska. I ended up moving to Anchorage because it was easier to get to rural places and to the rest of the country. I'm not a big name with this but I hopefully have a reputation for doing good work.

What is your favorite thing about what you do?

Waldman: I'm kind of in the troubadour tradition, but people don't usually do it with fiddle. I've been a teacher in various ways, sometimes more formal like when I used to be a professor. I'm teaching in a way to get people introduced to poetry or music or Alaska. People have said to me: "I've never thought of that, but you've made it interesting," and "I don't like poetry, but I like your poetry." I'm not going to do it forever, but I'm grateful. I've had my own little run with it and have enjoyed it. I've never gotten rich at this, but I'm resourceful and I think there's a joy to the work.

To learn more about Ken Waldman and hear samples of his work, visit www.kenwaldman.com.


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