Blues guitarist Joel Bergsbaken

Arts Profile

Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2001

Wisconsin Slim: Dressed in a vintage double-breasted suit and armed with his Dobro guitar, Joel Bergsbaken, aka Wisconsin Slim, set up his decidedly unique drum kit at the Alaskan Bar's open mike recently and launched into a 60-year-old Mississippi Fred McDowell tune. Working the kick-drum pedals with both feet to pound out a counter-rhythm, singing, plucking and drawing an old socket over the strings as a slide, "Slim" soon had the dance floor hopping.

"People think about Delta blues as some sort of depressing music, but it's dance music," he said. "It always has been. That's what they danced to in those old juke joints, and that's why they invented resonator guitars."

Judas Priest to Robert Johnson: Bergsbaken, 33, was born and raised in Wisconsin, and moved to Tucson, Ariz., in high school. He got his first guitar when he was 13 and started learning Black Sabbath and Judas Priest songs. In high school he played rhythm guitar in a punk rock band.

"We played out a lot," he said. "Tucson had a great music scene. We opened for Junior Achievement, Suicidal Tendencies, The Minutemen. It was cool. We got to cut our teeth on stage at a young age."

About that same time he started buying old blues records in thrift stores.

"I couldn't understand a word they were singing," he said. "But it wasn't about enunciation. It was about something else. Style."

Fluent in Sign: In college, he played with The Fells, and they made a few recordings. The band moved to Seattle, and Bergsbaken took a break from music. He sold his instruments, gave away his records, and focused on graduate school. He worked on a master's degree in linguistics at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., as one of the few hearing students at the university that focuses on educating the deaf.

He worked as an interpreter and moved back to Arizona to work on a Navajo reservation, teaching sign language to parents of deaf children. He came to Juneau in 1996 as a VISTA volunteer. He currently works as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the state and teaches sign language at the University of Alaska.

He's not sure if there's a correlation between his music and his vocation.

"They both take a lot of dexterity, and they're communicative," he said.

He recently recorded four songs at Juneau's Skatebottom Sound studio, and plans to release the recording next month. He performs Saturday night, opening for the Bluesband at a benefit dance at the Elks Club Ballroom.

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