Bill Dolan has several family connections to the Alaska Highway.
The Fort Nelson resident knows the highway like the back of his hand, driving it constantly to see grandkids, and hearing stories from his parents about their time driving the road.
“It gives you a lot of time to think and ruminate,” he said. “And think of songs.”
Dolan is one of many songwriters on Alaska Highway Songs: Road Songs for the 75th Anniversary of the Alaska Highway. His track, Trail of ’42, tells the story of how the highway came to be, with historical facts and family anecdotes making up the five verses.
Dolan learned to play the guitar by mimicking his older brother, while his mother taught him some chords. But put sheet music in front of him, and it might as well be another language.
“I can play a few instruments, but I can’t read music,” he said. “It’s limiting in some ways, but it’s also enabling by not being tied to the written music.”
Learning to play by ear, combined with his background as an English teacher, gives Dolan a unique writing process.
“To me, first and foremost, a song has to be a good poem,” he said, adding that sometimes he has to remember the words are going to be put to music.
“In the songwriting, I have to watch myself that I don’t get too formulaic because I’m too inclined to make the end rhyme and internal rhyme and the meter and the rhythm all fit.”
While he can spend years working on one song, Trail of ’42 came a little easier for Dolan.
The first verse is about the First Nation’s perspective on the highway’s construction—Dolan talked to his neighbour, Alison Tubman, a member of the Kaska Dene, who told him about her people seeing the bulldozers come up over the valley and onto their land.
The second verse focuses on his uncle who was a trapper north of Fort Nelson. He was hired by army surveyors to guide them through the area, and a portion of the highway actually follows his trap line.
The third verse is about the African-American soldiers who helped build the highway, which Dolan had to do more research on.
The fourth verse came from stories about his father’s time as the first civilian truck driver on the highway, while the fifth verse was about his mother being co-manager and chief cook at a lodge.
Trail of ’42 is the longest song on the album, and has a story-like quality that Dolan likens to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald as opposed to a more traditional radio track.
His experience constantly driving the Alaska Highway, plus having worked road maintenance on it, makes the track more personal.
“I know so much of that road from the ground up, literally,” he said.
Alaska Highway Songs: Road Songs for the 75th Anniversary of the Alaska Highway is currently available at local museums, art shops, and cafes in Fort St. John and Fort Nelson.