The passing of Sitkan Dave Galanin in December was a two-fold loss for Alaska: He was a renown engraver in the Northwest Coast tradition, and he was singer and slide-guitarist from somewhere deep within the Delta Blues.
Most of all, however, he was a teacher, whose legacy survives in the art of his own family, and in the work of his students.
Strummin Dog – Death Letter Blues
It doesn’t seem fair that someone gets to be both a master carver and a blues musician, but one consolation may be that Dave Galanin was a reluctant musician.
His friend Gary Gouker calls Galanin a “woodshedder,” someone whose musical talent may have just been overflow from his primary art, and who never really expected to perform.
Gouker – a harmonica player – and guitarist Lee Asnin decided to change that, when they invited Galanin to join them at the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival about 25 years ago.
“Right at the last minute he was so freaked out about playing, you know, that he was sweating,” said Gouker. “And we almost had to drag him on a stage. But when we got him up there and he took off and you know, people just loved it. And it was one of the highlights of my life to be honest.”
The blues genie was out of the bottle after that, and Galanin became a fixture of the music scene in Sitka – and beyond. He went on to record two albums under his performance name Strummin Dog, both of which remain available – and often-played – online.
(Galanin also produced recordings on CD. You can find Strummin Dog’s complete discography here.)
Galanin’s brightest star, however, was carving and engraving. As a young man he apprenticed with Louis Minard at the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, and then went on to found Galanin Silverworks. His shop became a magnet for other students, who remember how Galanin taught respect for the formline traditions of Northwest Coast Art – and how it was possible to not be bound by them.
Artist Jennifer Younger-Rudas recalls asking Galanin if she could step outside of Southeast clan motifs, and carve a silver cuff with a spider.
“And he said, ‘Do it.’ He goes ‘You can do whatever you want. Just do proper formline,’” said Younger-Rudas. “And for some reason, that sentence in my brain was like, ‘Oh my God, my options are endless. I have this freedom.’ And it just took those words for him to say.”
Younger-Rudas first met Galanin when she apprenticed to his son, Nick. She says that the elder Galanin’s encouragement propelled her into a full-time career in art.
“And, yeah, I just got so consumed,” Younger-Rudas said. “I mean, even to this day, if I could just be left alone in my shop 24/7 I am a happy camper. And part of that is to blame on Dave, who always said ‘Do something every day related to your art.’ So I carry that with me.”
Yéil Ya-Tseen Nick Galanin says that Dave’s influence in his children’s life was huge, and that “he was a mentor, not just in art, but in everything.”
Yéil Ya-Tseen says he began working with formline by third grade.
“You know, there was childhood eagerness to understand the language of that work,” said Galanin. “And that generally came through osmosis or just, you know, working through sketchbooks with him.”
Both Galanin brothers have studios in Sitka now. On top of that Yéil Ya-Tseen has pursued an international career in visual arts, and his band Ya Tseen signed with Sub Pop Records last February.
Strummin Dog – Can’t be Satisfied
“He harnessed a lot of love and power through the energy and ideas and work,” said Galanin. “And that was abundant for me.”
So, Dave Galanin has gone – suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 66 in Washington state on December 18, 2021 – but there is a lot the man left behind.
Gary Gouker is sure of that.
“Well, he’ll be missed and he’s gonna be my blues buddy forever.”