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The Dawson City Music Festival has been a showcase for Yukon music as well as international acts since 1975. (Photograph courtesy Government of Yukon)
TravelTraveler Magazine

Yukon Gold: Dawson City Music Festival

Back when the Palace Grand Theatre first got going, in the high days of the Klondike gold rush, the job to have was cleaning up after a performance. Odds were, so much dust got spilled that there was a fortune sifting through the floorboards.

And because of all the gold in Dawson City in 1899 — more than 100,000 people streamed in during the rush hoping to strike it rich — the theater was truly grand for its time: the main floor, the mezzanine, the polished wood that made for great acoustics.

The Palace is still grand, and the acoustics are still fantastic. And I have no idea who this woman is who’s playing sax on the stage, but her music flows like a roller coaster.

And when she’s done, I clap my fingernails off. Because the Palace is still the place to be, for the annual Dawson City Music Festival, one of Canada’s biggest.

For three days (July 19-21 this year), Dawson City, a mere 150 miles south of the arctic circle in the heart of the Yukon Territory, turns into a jukebox.

The main stage is in a giant tent just past the museum (a chance to see how very civilized some of the miners managed to be with their antimacassars, plush furniture, and ornate tea sets — which means a chance to wonder why they thought they needed all this stuff at the edge of the world).

There’s plenty of benches inside the tent; plenty of room on the grass in the back for girls with hula hoops and small kids learning to dance.

The tent is only one of the festival’s five official sites, but really, any room big enough for a couple people is bound to have at least one of them playing an instrument. And with the midnight sun blazing, the music never stops.

That makes sense, because this town has always sung. I walk the boardwalks, past false-front buildings that haven’t changed in a century, and stand along the banks of the Yukon River to hear the sound the Tr’ondêk Hwëch’in, who lived here for centuries before crazy people started digging in the dirt for shiny rocks, called “the voice of the ancestors.”

So the festival is a chance for people to give some music back. Acts run the gamut from rock to folk. One year, I watched a supergroup of five guitar players noodling a Neil Young song for over an hour in the main tent, then went over to the Palace Grand to catch a fiddle player.

Over the years, everybody from Bruce Cockburn to Buffy Sainte-Marie to Barenaked Ladies has shown up; this summer, the headliner will be Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who blends rock, punk, traditional Appalachian sounds, and brutal honesty into something all his own. And for one night only, the queen of rockabilly, Wanda Jackson (now 75), is going to make everyone in the Palace Grand clap and stomp their feet.

Each year during the festival, Dawson goes back to its glory days: jammed full, everybody’s mind on one thing.

In the old days, sure, it was gold, but even before that was the voice of the river. Now the whole town is singing.

Edward Readicker-Henderson is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler. Read his life-affirming ode to the healing power of travel, “Cheating Death.”