The concept was intriguing enough but then I heard the single, ‘White Chapel Woman’, and I was hooked. Annie Bartholomew is from Juneau, Alaska, plays banjo and is also known as Annie B Good and Annie Where The Sun Don’t Shine, specialising in “dark, bawdy blues”. Sisters Of White Chapel is rather more restrained but Annie doesn’t pull any lyrical punches and I suspect there might be some Alaskan vernacular with which I am unfamiliar. The album tells stories of sex workers in 19th century Alaska and The Yukon, a subject I hadn’t previously considered, but there have been camp followers throughout history, so why not?
My only problem with Sisters Of White Chapel is that it isn’t long enough. Annie packs a lot into the album and it’s good enough to play at least twice back to back so I won’t complain too loudly. The opening track, the aforementioned single, is a belter, setting the scene both lyrically and musically for the album, with mandolin, guitar, bass and piano, with fiddle appearing later. The heroine is unapologetic about her lifestyle, defiant even, but with a hint of defensiveness towards the end of the song. ‘All For The Klondike’s Gold’ is based on a miner’s poem and tells, as does ‘Dead Horse Trail’, of deaths on the trails north going some way to explaining how some of the women came to be there.
‘The Cuckoo’ is traditional but not as we know it – I don’t recall horses being fed “good laudanum” – but Annie has adapted it to her own purpose. Now we come to the real stories of the women. The a cappella ‘Feel My Sin’ is joyfully laced with innuendo but ‘Spoils’, performed solo, is more serious. “What can be done when the West is won? Go north boys to the midnight sun” is the key line and you can take the title anyhow you wish.
‘Run Around Lucy’ is another up-tempo song which is contrasted by ‘Mountain Dove Song’ with its bitter pun: “A scarlet act/two minutes flat”. The women’s working life approaches its end in this song, reaching its conclusion in ‘Last Confession’ as the singer contemplates the options of her death and possible afterlife.
Annie insists that Sisters Of White Chapel is a collaborative project developed over a number of years of painstaking research and included a stage show. It’s also the album that has travelled furthest to reach me, for which I am deeply grateful to Annie Bartholomew.
Artist’s website: https://www.klondikegoldrushsongs.com/
‘All For The Klondike’s Gold’ – official video:
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