Inside the Songs: Return to Mining Country with Karen Dahlstrom
Since interviewing Rita Hosking about her fascinating family history in California’s Cornish mining communities, we’ve had mining songs on the brain. So we jumped at the chance to invite Brooklyn-based, but Idaho-raised, singer-songwriter Karen Dahlstrom to share the stories behind the songs on her Idaho-mining-country-influenced EP, Gem State. It’s a gem of an EP, just five songs, but the stories in the songs leap out of the melodies. We wanted to know more about her inspiration in making these songs and she was happy to share. Check it out:
Inside the Songs with Karen Dahlstrom
“I love old-time and traditional folk music styles, most of which come from the Eastern and Southern US. I’ve played with many musicians from Virginia and North Carolina, and this music is part of their very bones. Having grown up in Idaho, I admit I was a bit jealous. I wanted to sing songs of my home too, but most folk songs from the West are generally of the cowboy variety from Texas — a good 1500 miles from where I’m from.
As an exercise, I began writing folk songs that musically drew on the styles of the East that I love, but lyrically reflected my home state. After all, there are mountains, pines and mines in Idaho, too — they’re just different kinds of mountains, pines and mines. State history, family stories and personal experiences served as inspiration, but the songs are primarily fictional.
For example, the song “Galena” was named after an actual mining camp that existed in Idaho during the 1800s, but that’s where the facts end. The rest came out of my imagination. The gold, silver and gem mining camps were a free-for-all, and pretty horrible places to be for anyone except wild-eyed young white men getting their first taste of freedom, and I liked the idea of writing a song from their perspective.
Karen Dahlstrom: Galena
“The Miner’s Bride” is also fiction, but it was inspired in part by stories of women like “The Poker Bride” — a Chinese concubine who was owned by an Idaho miner and (as legend has it) lost in a poker game to a rancher. The mining camps, obviously, weren’t great places for women or minorities, and I imagine being sent there would feel like a death sentence.
Karen Dahlstrom: The Miner’s Bride
“Streets of Pocatello” came from stories my dad told me about the post-war years in the town where he grew up. Pocatello was a pretty rough railroad town and street fighting was a popular sport with some of the men — including a relative of mine who eventually lost his life in a knife fight. The song’s narrator wasn’t inspired by the victim, but by the one who did the deed. The title is a little tip of the hat to “The Streets of Laredo,” possibly the best cowboy song ever written.”
Karen Dahlstrom: Streets of Pocatello