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Stewart Ely: Connecting communities with music

He's known for playing obscure songs, collecting friends and old junk, and launching the Boardwalk Boogie

Posted: Friday, April 12, 2002

Singer Stewart Ely, who closed Thursday's Alaska Folk Festival concert, plays many roles living part of the year in Juneau and part in the fishing village of Pelican.

But the one he plays best is that of organizer of the Pelican Boardwalk Boogie, a folk festival held each May in the small coastal town 70 miles west of Juneau on Chichagof Island.

Ely, 42, has lived in the two towns for 20 years, spending eight months a year in Pelican working as a commercial fisherman and four months in Juneau holding a variety of jobs.

He has worked the graveyard shift as a security guard at the state Capitol for the last three years and as a mechanic's assistant for Trucano Construction for the past seven. But the self-described night owl said when he's not patrolling the halls of the Capitol or getting greasy underneath the hood of a broken-down truck, he, his wife, Carole Healy, and their friends are planning the next Boardwalk Boogie.

"This is what my wife and I are really about," Ely said, noting that the festival, now in its fourth year, is getting bigger and bigger.

"It's becoming a very, very popular festival," Ely said. "Some of the old-timer musicians are saying it's the best or second best in the state."

Ely said he has dreamed of holding a music festival in Pelican since he first came to the town in 1978.

"It's very picturesque," he said. "There's a boardwalk, there are no cars, nobody can get a DWI and no one can get run over."

Ely said one part of the event is what has come to be known as the infamous "filthy song contest," which can't be described in a family newspaper.

But the festival is about more that just getting together and having fun. Ely said it's also an effort to connect rural and urban communities in Southeast Alaska and help people get to know each other.

Ely said the increasing cost to travel to places such as Pelican is creating a disconnect between communities.

"When I first came out here it was $45 to fly there. Now it's $120," he said.

Ely believes a music festival is a perfect way to bring people together.

He came to Pelican from northeast Pennsylvania in 1978 to work in a cold-storage fish processing plant. But what started out as a way to earn money for college turned into a love for Southeast and a new home.

Bringing a music festival to Pelican seemed like a natural move for Ely, who has played guitar almost his entire life.

Longtime friend and Juneau resident Collette Costa said Ely has done a lot for the Pelican community of about 200 people and that he's been a big part of the regional music scene, though he rarely takes credit for it.

"He and some friends were the first to invite me to play music out in Pelican," said Costa, a former singer for the now-defunct Haines band Lunchmeat and the Pimentos. "He likes to connect people."

Costa described Ely as a "beachcomber" who never throws anything away. This might explain his tendency to play old songs that Ely said "most people have never heard of."

"He's kind of a song archivist who collects these really great songs that would otherwise disappear," she said.

Lindy Dickson, who knows Ely by his nickname "Flash," which grew out of an obsession with photography, confirmed his passion for collecting old things. Dickson lives in Juneau but was a neighbor of Ely in Pelican several years ago.

"He's a big junk collector," Dickson said, noting that she would go fishing and return to find sections of dock and old abandoned skiffs piled up in front of Ely's house.

Though Ely has spent years performing old, obscure songs in front of live audiences, he said he still gets a little nervous right before going in front of a crowd.

When performing at the Alaska Folk Festival, Ely said he usually fits only three songs in the 15-minute sets because trying to play four makes it hard to relax.

"If you're good and you're smooth and your songs are about average length, you can get away with doing four songs," Ely said. "But I don't like to do four because if I do four, all the way through my set I have to worry about the time."

Ely broke from his three-song tradition three years ago at the folk festival, when he and his wife were married on stage. That year, he played two "really beautiful" songs, Costa said, and then the two were married in time for the next performer to take the stage.

"One called 'I Got Plans' was about a guy who is going to build a house, but never gets around to it, which is very Stewart," Costa said. "The other was a ballad called 'I Don't Want to Be Your Deep Blue Sea.' "

Ely is excited that Pelican's Boogie Boardwalk has been so successful, but he doesn't want it to get much bigger than its current size, about 300 people.

"Our goal now is to make the festival longer," Ely said. "My long-term goal is to make it a week-long festival."

Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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