The song she kept singing
Would make a man's blood run cold
When it's springtime in Alaska
It's forty below
"It's reallyreallyreally cold..."
(Thanks, Bruce Pedersen)
"When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)" was written and released as a single in 1959 by American country and rockabilly singer, Johnny Horton. The song did well, spending twenty-three weeks on the country chart. Johnny Horton and fellow country, rockabilly singer Johnny Cash became good friends after a series of tours and shows together in the mid- and late-1950s. In 1960, after suffering several premonitions of his own death, Horton was crossing a bridge near Milano, Texas, when a truck plowed into his car. Horton died on the way to hospital, leaving a gaping hole in the country music scene.
Close friend Johnny Cash stepped up during the early ‘60s when Columbia records issued a series of best releases by Horton, including covers recorded as a tribute to the late great country star. “I locked myself in one of the hotel's bar-rooms, and cried,” said Cash when he learned of Horton's demise. Four years later, Cash dedicated a cover of “When it's Springtime in Alaksa (It's 40 Below)” to Horton. The cover was included in the track listing on Cash's 92nd album, Personal File
, released in 2006, three years after Cash's own tragic death.
Horton's rendition of the song has that yee-haw feeling intrinsic to country music, including a twanging banjo accompanying Horton's nasal rockabilly singing style, but Cash made the song his own with the help of June Carter. Cash's deep voice lends the song a darker, more ominous tone, perhaps better suited to lyrics that tell a rather dreary story, calling to mind the tragedies that ended both Horton's and Cash's life. The final verse in particular drives home the nail in the coffin holding two of country music's greatest stars, “When it's springtime in Alaska, I'll be six feet below.”
Somewhere in Alaska.
(thanks, Bruce Pedersen)
But it's perhaps the last line of the first verse that has most people scratching their heads. “Pulled into Fairbanks, the city was a boon, So I took a little stroll to the Red Dog Saloon.” There is, in fact, a Red Dog Saloon, in Juneau, Alaska. That's nowhere near Fairbanks. Founded during Juneau's mining era, the Saloon has since been recognized by Alaskan Legislature as the oldest man-made tourist attraction in the area and contains memorabilia including one of Wyatt Erp's guns. Now perhaps Texan-born Horton's geography was faulty or perhaps there was another saloon of the same name once nestled in the interior city of Fairbanks during the late 1940s, but that's a fact lost to history, remembered only by those who might've frequented the establishment.
Alaska might not be the obvious subject material for songs by southern country boys, but Horton did have a tenuous connection to the state. In the late 40s, Horton was an aspiring gold miner and even wrote the hit single “North to Alaska” detailing a character's travails in the North as he searched for gold. Horton's favourite word in “North to Alaska” is 'mush' -- a word repeated in the lyrics of “When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)” indicative of Horton's enthusiasm for travelling through the snowy wastes. Cash, however, didn't seem to share Horton's love of or fascination with Alaska, but perhaps chose to cover “When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)” precisely because of the song's indelible connection to one of America's greatest country musicians, Johnny Horton. ~ Suzanne van Rooyen
Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include
Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and
The Other Me. When not writing, she teaches dance and music to middle schoolers and eats far too much peanut-butter.