Al Oster, 'northland balladeer' who wrote about Yukon, dead at 92

Oster was a legendary country and folk singer/songwriter who drew inspiration from Yukon and Alaska history and legends.

Oster lived in Yukon for 2 decades, drew inspiration for songs from Klondike Gold Rush, local legends

Al Oster performing in 2000, after he was appointed a member of the Order of Canada for his contribution to Canadian heritage. (CBC)

Al Oster, a country and folk singer/songwriter who was inspired by Yukon, has died at the age of 92, CBC has confirmed.

Oster lived in Yukon for years — from 1957 until the 1970s, according to his website — and wrote and recorded dozens of songs celebrating Northern life and lore.

"I think the reason he could write that stuff is because he loved the northland so much. He became, really, a northland balladeer," said Cal Waddington, a musician and friend of Oster.

Waddington recalled playing drums with Oster when he recorded "Midnight Sun Rock" in the late 1950s. The song was later included in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

"He didn't want any fancy stuff — just smooth and easy ... And if he needed to rein anyone in — like the drummer — he did it with a quick glance that just said, 'quiet down, boy,'" Waddington recalled.

Al Oster performing at Hougen's department store in Whitehorse, 1961. (Rolf Hougen)

"He did have a wonderful sense of humour."

Oster sang and wrote about the Klondike Gold Rush and folklore legends from Canada and Alaska. His first album was called Yukon Gold.

"He immediately recognized the history and legends of this land as a sleeping giant of wealth for heritage preservation and began writing musical ballads soon after arrival," Oster's website read.

Some of his better-known songs include Buckets of Steel, Paddlewheeler (once covered by another Canadian legend, Stompin' Tom Connors), and Blow Northwind Blow.

Yukon country singer Hank Karr was a fan of Oster's writing, and would record and perform many of his songs over the years. Oster also recorded Karr's first album, in the 1960s, and the two would perform together in the Canadian pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal.

CBC recorded the Expo 67 performances and later put them on an LP called The Yukon Stars.

"He was a big part of my career," Karr said.

Many of Oster's songs are still staples in Karr's concerts, including My Yukon Book of Memories — a sentimental tune about the lingering "spell of the Yukon."

"Every time I do it, I usually dedicate it to everybody ... He wrote it for everybody here in the Yukon," Karr said.

CBC Yukon's well-played 'Yukon Gold' LP, with 'Original songs by Al Oster.' (CBC)

Waddington, a former CBC Yukon producer, recalled making a radio documentary in the 1960s about Dawson City, and the shutdown of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corp. He wanted some original music to use, so he called up Oster.

"A few days later, Al showed up at the station and under his arm was his guitar of course, and he'd written a thing called Buckets of Steel," Waddington said.

Buckets of steel, rusty and old 

Finished their dredging and digging for gold

Mountains of gravel on the river bank lay

The old Yukon dredge is silent today.

"That's the kind of guy he was — he knew about those dredges, he knew about the history of the Klondike gold rush and it just fell right into his lap. And he wrote it in a few days, and came down and recorded it," Waddington recalled.

Through his career, Oster recorded several albums released in Canada, the U.S., Germany and Belgium. He also filmed a 30 minute music video/documentary on the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1980s.

Oster was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1999 for his contribution to Canadian heritage.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Oster was 93.
    Oct 30, 2017 5:20 PM CT

With files from Sandi Coleman