Annie Bartholomew plays a song from her upcoming debut album “Sisters of White Chapel” on a clawhammer banjo on a bench at Mayor Bill Overstreet Park on Thursday. The longtime local folk musician said she learned the instrument specifically for the project, and both the character of the instrument and women who played it during the Klondike Gold Rush helped inspire the mostly original songs she performs on the album. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Annie Bartholomew plays a song from her upcoming debut album “Sisters of White Chapel” on a clawhammer banjo on a bench at Mayor Bill Overstreet Park on Thursday. The longtime local folk musician said she learned the instrument specifically for the project, and both the character of the instrument and women who played it during the Klondike Gold Rush helped inspire the mostly original songs she performs on the album. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Musical revelations of the Klondike’s ‘White Chapel’

Annie Bartholomew’s new album shares surprising untold stories of sex workers during the gold rush

Annie Bartholomew’s new album is the version of Klondike Gold Rush history she was never taught as a student at Juneau’s Auke Bay Elementary School, or that most tourists hear as adults.

It’s not about the famous con artist Soapy Smith or the “Advice to Women” pioneer writer Annie Hall Strong. Her album tells the stories of female sex workers in the mining towns, and the sometimes surprising power and freedom they had compared to other women in those communities.

“There wasn’t any one single narrative or story,” Bartholomew said Thursday while taking an afternoon break from work with her clawhammer banjo resting near the whale sculpture at Mayor Bill Overstreet Park. “These women had complex lives and complex reasons — and in this work I don’t want to perpetuate any stereotypes. I also don’t want to sugarcoat the truth or give the Disneyland version of it.”

The longtime Juneau musician’s debut full-length album, “Sisters of White Chapel,” is scheduled for digital release on Friday, July 16, following a special limited CD release and performance at Kindred Post during First Friday in May. The album, also scheduled to be released on vinyl this fall, features mostly original compositions that were performed last year as the Victorian folk opera “Sisters of White Chapel: A Short But True Story” at the Treadwell Mine Office Building.

The album’s is named after White Chapel, Dawson’s City’s Gold Rush-era red light district, and Bartholomew said her inspiration for it came during a visit before the COVID-19 pandemic to the Red Onion Saloon in Skagway, a known brothel during the gold rush in the late 1890s that is now a restaurant and museum.

“I think that the Red Onion was a really great entry point,” she said. “You go up onto their second floor where they’ve got all of these artifacts. And you can see where the rooms were divided, all the nails in there and layers of wallpaper. And I was just really shocked and kind of haunted by the stories that I heard there.”

“And from there I just thought ‘why not share these stories and music?’” she added. “Music’s such an incredible vessel to connect with people on this emotional level. And then share the stories about some of these anonymous and unsung heroes who came north who turned to sex work out of necessity or for survival? Or because that’s what they wanted to do — they had the most freedom.”

Bartholomew emphasized she does not want to minimize the hardships that many sex workers did encounter during the Klondike, but in some instances it was a better option than the alternative for women in the gold rush towns.

“I think in our culture we like to think of women involved in sex work is victims as being forced into this, of not having any agency over their lives,” she said. “And I think we know for some women the economic forces only had this kind of work available to them. But we know other women chose suicide instead of sex work. But the act of having a choice in the matter was so powerful.”

The women also in some instances offered the men something beyond just sexual interactions, Bartholomew said.

“The other side of it is that one of the services they provided was intimacy,” she said. “And like what we’d call emotional labor now — having these men, giving them comfort, listening to their problems, making them feel valued.”

Still, being a sex worker was at the time not seen by the society at the time as a noble calling, which meant many of these women’s true experiences went largely untold, Bartholomew said.

“A lot of them didn’t write down their actions, because why would you create a record that can only destroy your opportunity of having a normal life or getting married?” she said. Although, she added, “if you got married you’re kind of property of your husband, you didn’t have any agency and then you’re working for free.”

Bartholomew said she learned to play the banjo specifically for the album project, and both the character of the instrument and women who played it during the Klondike Gold Rush helped inspire the mostly original songs she performs on the album.

“All of the music is kind of rooted in this Appalachian folk string band tradition which, when I started writing these songs, I thought it was gonna be like a revisionist history imagining the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska,” she said. “But I learned from one of my interviews that string band music was happening in the Interior.”

Women were documented taking banjos to the Klondike mining towns and performing square dance music popular in Kentucky at the time, Bartholomew said. Some of the same type of music is featured in her album.

“The music would fit right in at the Alaska Folk Festival,” she said.

The album was recorded at the Eagle River United Methodist camp. Contributors, all fellow well-known Alaska artists, were Erin and Andrew Heist on strings, Marian Call on vocals, and Kat Moore on voice, piano and bass.

Bartholomew said her original songs on the album break a lot of chorus-and-verse form people might be familiar with in guitar folk music.

“It can just be a ballad, or it can be three verses in a row,” she said. “Like the final song on the record, ‘Last Confession,’ it doesn’t have a chorus. It’s just three verses. So I was breaking a lot of forms. I was emulating a lot of traditional Appalachian music. But then also relying on kind of the standard bluegrass, typical songwriting stuff that I learned as a teenager at bluegrass camp.”

Bartholomew said she’s hoping to perform concerts featuring the album’s music this summer and beyond, both locally and on the road. She’s also hoping an encore of the stage version is possible.

“I’d love to take it up to Anchorage,” she said. “I’d love to find a way to perform the play again. And I am hoping this summer we can take it to Skagway and Haines…My dream is to take the play on tour to different mining and resource extraction communities in the Lower 48. There’s so many ghost towns in places like Juneau that are predominantly telling one side of the Gold Rush, and it’s a lot grittier and darker than we’ve been led to believe.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

Annie Bartholomew, right, prepares for rehearsal for her Victorian folk opera, “Sisters of White Chapel,” along with the music director Kat Moore, center, and director Heidi Handelsman at the Treadwell Mine Office on July, 5, 2022. The songs from the musical are being released this year as an album that will be released digitally on July 16 and is scheduled to be released on LP this fall. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)

Annie Bartholomew, right, prepares for rehearsal for her Victorian folk opera, “Sisters of White Chapel,” along with the music director Kat Moore, center, and director Heidi Handelsman at the Treadwell Mine Office on July, 5, 2022. The songs from the musical are being released this year as an album that will be released digitally on July 16 and is scheduled to be released on LP this fall. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)

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