All that Alaska Jazz: Archie Cavanaugh

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2011

When Archie Cavanaugh says, “Listen to this,” you listen. Ever since he was a teenager in Kake in the ’60s, he’s been writing and playing music for Alaskans to dance to.

On an afternoon at the end of 2010, he sits with his wife Melinda at their kitchen table. On the wall hangs a yellow cedar panel, carved by Archie, of a traditional Tlingit box design of a Raven and an Eagle. The carving was on the cover of his album “Love Birds,” released two years ago. In the living room hangs a new carving — the torso and arms of a musician, dressed in black, strumming a guitar carved with traditional designs. Bill Hudson helped him design it, and it’s on the cover of Archie’s just-released album, “Alaska Jazz.”

In the measured, well-chosen words of a songwriter, Archie shares some of the lyrics of his life, the notes that led to “Alaska Jazz.” Melinda, his longtime co-lyricist, harmonizes.

Track 3: Just a Little Bit

Archie has written, recorded and played music almost his entire life, but he’s never been a fulltime musician. In his recent retirement, he embarked on a recording project that he envisioned as a return to his musical roots.

His plan was to record some of the songs he had written and performed as a young man, when he played with The Poor Boys and other bands in Kake.

He had over 300 cassette tapes in his garage — rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, jazz, pop jazz and smooth jazz, and even country and western. He sorted through them to find 25 of the best old songs, all of which were already completed musically and lyrically. He transferred them to his computer. These were the ones he planned to work on reviving and recording anew.

But as he listened to sounds from his past, his attention kept drifting to the unfinished songs he found on the cassettes. He’d hear a snippet of an idea, and then it would stop. In these few seconds of tape, he heard chords and rhythms he’d never used before.

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” he said to Melinda. “I’m going to go after these.”

For one song he only had a title: “Just a Little Bit.” But that little bit was enough to get started.

Track 5: I’m So Excited

When Archie works on songs, he thinks of each one as a potential hit. His musician friends have tried to convince him otherwise. “Arch, don’t write that way,” they tell him. But he can’t help it. He thinks it comes from his years writing and playing dance music in the ANB Hall in Kake.

“We made up songs,” he says, “to make people boogie.”

He writes with jazz chords, but “Alaska Jazz” might be as far from Miles Davis’ jazz as the village of Kake is from New York City.

Melinda puts it like this: “It’s jazz… but with the Alaskan twist. Because most Alaskans are a little different. And we like it that way.”

Musicians he admired growing up, especially John Lennon and Paul McCartney, always seem to be on the tip of Archie’s tongue, but originality is a cornerstone of his song-writing philosophy.

“If there was one little indication that a song sounded like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Ribbons in the Sky,’ I would dump it,” he says. “If it sounded a little like Boz Scaggs, Stevie Wonder, any of those guys I grew up with musically, who were just like oil within my soul, then immediately I would just dump the song. I didn’t want to copy other musicians. I just wanted to stick within my own realm of the emotion.”

His own emotional realm is deep. He tells musicians he records with, “On every major seventh and every minor I want you to cry your heart out. If you’re playing the saxophone I want you to play it from your soul just like you’re crying. That’s what soul is.”

Archie’s own musical soul developed in the small village of Kake, on Kupreanof Island.

When he was in seventh grade, a man named Billy Bean put on a guitar class at his school. Archie and his friend Rick Austin were the only two in the class. After seven months of training, having just gotten into reading musical notation and playing scales, the classes were called off.

But Archie and Rick still got together to play. A few other friends joined them and they formed a band. When Archie was in the eighth grade they were asked to play at a party — their very first gig. They learned some Rolling Stones tunes, and also played some of their own songs.

The next year, their group competed in a local battle of the bands. Walking along the dock one day, Archie came up with a suitable name, The Poor Boys, reflecting the quality of their equipment: “Cheap guitars, cheap amps, cheap drums, everything was shorting out.” They ended up winning the battle of the bands. Archie thinks it was because of the Beatles songs they played, like “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

From then on, Archie never stopped playing. For a band from Kake, The Poor Boys made a big name for themselves in the region. They played in Petersburg and in Hoonah. They were asked to play in Ketchikan but never made it down there.

Track 6: Is It Real

During the heyday of the Poor Boys, there were several other bands in Kake at the time, so Archie and his band mates found plenty of local influences and role models.

Their outside musical education came by way of radio from Sitka, and albums and 45s ordered from Petersburg, which the boys listened to over and over again, scratching “the dickens out of them,” trying to learn songs. But from the beginning, Archie says, “rather than trying to sound like Santana, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones… we put it into our own style.”

There was one thing Archie wasn’t sure about at first, though. From a young age, he heard songs in his head. But could you just make up a song like that? It didn’t seem right.

“When I was making up music I didn’t think it was legal,” he remembers. “I thought there was something wrong. Is it legal for me to make up a song?”

Then one day he heard an interview with the Beatles broadcast on the Sitka radio station. The interviewer asked John and Paul how they came up with their music. The answer: We make it up.

At that moment, Archie looked at the stars. “That’s my limitation,” he thought.

Track 7: Love’s the Way

Comparisons with John and Paul are inevitable when Archie starts talking about Melinda, his wife of 40 years and co-lyricist for almost 30 of them.

“We both collaborate but she’s the main writer,” Archie says. “I’ll write the music, I’ll show her the chords and I’ll scat what I’m hearing in my head and I even might scat some words I’m hearing in my head, or intention or direction or whatever, and she’ll just have a paper and pencil and just start writing and then all of a sudden she’ll show me what she wrote and I’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s fantastic.’ And that fits perfectly with my chords and the timing. And so she and I are just like John (Lennon) and Paul McCartney.”

“Alaska Jazz” features Melinda’s singing debut, doing backups on “Our Romance.”

Melinda had written all of her life, but never for other people to hear, until the early ’80s, when she started collaborating with Archie on “Black & White Raven,” his first CD. She was reluctant at first, agreeing only as long as it stayed fun and never felt like work.

They’ve held true to that, she thinks, even during the 12- and 14-hour days recording “Alaska Jazz.”

Whether actively working on a project or not, song ideas keep coming, and Melinda and Archie try to capture the these fleeting words, tunes and ideas as soon they appear. Melinda is jotting her notes on the computer these days, though over the years Archie has collected reams of her notes on paper bags and scraps of paper.

When a melody pops into his head, Archie tries to record it as soon as possible. Otherwise, “it will disappear forever. It’s like a cloud.”

He remembers the beginnings of the song “Light Unto the World,” on the “Black & White Raven” album. He was driving along the highway and a melody popped into his head. He sang it over and over to himself, trying not to lose his concentration as he drove quickly home. He parked and ran into the house, calling out, “Don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me” to Melinda. He ran to the tape recorder, pressed record and started singing the melody.

A few minutes later, Melinda came out of the bedroom with the lyrics: a perfect match. The song was done in 15 minutes.

Another “15 minute song” is the last song on “Alaska Jazz,” called “He’ll Never Be Gone.” Melinda wrote the song as a healing process after her father passed away, never intending it to be heard by anyone else. But she shared it with Archie, of course, and he immediately knew the chords that would accompany it. After he put it to music, Melinda listened to it and something had changed — it wasn’t a sad song anymore, it was uplifting.

Track 10: Night and Day

While they were working on the “Black & White Raven” in 1983, Melinda and Archie often wrote three songs a day, staying up until way past midnight. Sometimes they worked for hours just to find one right word; sometimes it just flowed.

“When we finally hit it, together at 3 o’clock in the morning, we’d lift our hands and dance and then go to bed,” Archie remembers. “And to just to find that one word, that was the diamond, the five-caret diamond.”

After releasing the CD, they tried to get in the doors of record labels around the world, with no luck. And then out of the blue, about ten years ago, Archie received an e-mail at work.

It was from a record label in Tokyo, Japan, called Vivid Sound. They wanted to sign him. They sent him translated fan mail, and copies of his CDs with linear notes in Japanese. This mysterious fan base in Japan continued to grow. Archie’s second CD, “Love Birds” was produced with a different Japanese label, Celeste LTD. Other orders come from the United Kingdom (he’s been regularly played on a BBC music program) and the Netherlands.

But he and Melinda haven’t traveled abroad to perform yet, and the production and marketing of “Alaska Jazz” is taking place closer to home. The CD was produced in a three-way partnership with Jeff Tassin in Port Orchard, Wash.

Archie opens up one of the newly arrived discs and points admiringly to the graphic design work by Juneau artist Jodi Garrison. Inside the jacket is an image of a devil’s club plant — powerful medicine in the Tlingit culture, Archie says — and a photo of himself, dressed in a red suit, red tie, red fedora, his guitar slung over his shoulder with a strap made by local weaver Clarissa Hudson.

The liner notes thank several Tlingit elders and linguists, including Lance A. Twitchell, Nora and Richard L. Dauenhauer, George Davis, John and Carolyn Martin, Ben Jackson, and Florence Sheakley, for their help with Tlingit phrases in the song “I’m So Excited.” It’s the first time he’s sung in Tlingit on a CD. Percussion on the song includes a Native box drum, hand drum and deer rattle.

“G┐ok d┐ (start it now),” the song begins.

Archie grew up in a fluent Tlingit-speaking family, but because his parents were from the generation that had been punished in school for speaking their language, they spoke to Archie in English. Still, he understands quite a bit and he says it’s pretty easy for him to sing in Tlingit. But he wanted to make sure he was saying exactly what he intended to say.

He thought he knew the phrase for “I’m so excited,” but when he said it to elders, they told him, “Archie, that means, ‘I’m so confused.’”

There turns out to be no perfect translation for “excited” in Tlingit. The closest was “aatlein axh toow┐ sigo┐ — literally, “I’m big happy.”

And as Archie and Melinda smile at each across their kitchen table, finish each other’s stories and praise each other’s dedication to their craft, “big happy” seems just about right.


“Alaska Jazz” is available at Rozwick Giles Music in Juneau and online at

Archie is planning on entering the album “Alaska Jazz” and the song “I’m So Excited” in the Native American Music Awards (NAMA), which are awarded based on the popular vote. Look for him later in the year at

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