Art Johns has been playing at the Alaska Folk Festival since 1995.
But his musical roots go way back, almost 80 years.
Johns grew up in the rural Yukon towns of Carcross and Tagish, about 60 miles northeast of Skagway, in northern Southeast Alaska.
Johns’ first inspiration came from phonographs his sister mail-ordered from a catalog.
The family listened to them on a human-powered machine.
“I’d crank a wheel with a handle to get the spring loaded and listen to her music,” he said. “She liked the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers and stuff like that. I guess it wore off on me and I’m the one who started playing.”
Johns loved the music and started singing along. Then, another relative decided to help him take another step.
“I had a cousin who was the same age as my sister. He taught me three chords on a guitar and he says, ‘OK, now you can do your singing,’” he said.
Along with music, Johns learned hunting traditions passed down by his parents, who were Tlingit and Tagish.
He also learned the family business, and became a big game outfitter, hunting guide and game warden. The work involved a lot of horse-wrangling.
“I like being a cowboy. You’re out there riding your horse and do what you want,” he said. “You read the signs of the land. Not some person who made this up for you.”
Then, in the 1990s, a filmmaker decided to make a documentary called “Life’s Dream,” which shows Johns caring for his horses and teaching one of his sons how to track, shoot and skin a moose.
The producer wanted to include the country song “God Must Be a Cowboy.” Johns said, “No.”
But the filmmaker was insistent.
“I tell you, I learned it and I sang it and that’s when the public got to know that I played music,” Johns said. “I was getting phone calls from here and there, come do a coffee house or something. So that’s how it all started.”
Around the same time, Johns connected with Alaska musicians playing the International Folk Festival, in Skagway and Whitehorse, The Yukon’s capital.
That led him to the big Juneau festival, where he became a regular, performing all but a few years since.
Johns sometimes plays solo, but other times has a backup band.
Most often, he’s with his long-time musical partner, Skagway fiddler Nola Lampken.
They had a hard time defining exactly what makes an Art Johns song.
“I never had any lessons in music, nothing,” Johns said. “Just, if I hear a song and I like it.”
“He plays what comes to his head and what he feels like at the moment. Very campfire-ish,” Lamken added.
At 84, Johns is slowing down. He has less energy and his fingers don’t always do what he wants them to.
But he plans to play for as long as he can.
Hear Art Johns, Nola Lamken and friends at the 2003 Alaska Folk Festival: