Alaska Flag Song stirs powerful emotions


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 “Eight stars of gold on a field of blue,

Alaska’s flag may it mean to you…”

 

The first two lines of the Alaska Flag Song: Bold, evocative, an invitation to listen, to explore.

What does the song mean to you? Does it evoke memories about some important chapter of your life, some experience or event close to your heart but distant in time? Does it remind you of some special place that you haven’t been to in a long time?

If you’re a newcomer to Alaska, does it make you think about unwritten chapters of your life, about dreams — big and small — things you plan to do? Does it make you want to take in a deep breath and look at your surroundings…the mountains, the sky, trees, lakes, streams, and ponder why you’ve been so blessed to live in this place?

I think The Alaska Flag Song does all this, and more, whether it’s presented by a large choir and a full orchestra, or sung a cappella by a single vocalist. Only a dozen lines…but like the flag it describes, the words are direct, understated and elegantly simple.

Every state has some kind of a song, not all of which are official. But Alaska is the only state whose song was inspired and written specifically about its flag.

The story begins in 1926, when the American Legion of Alaska conducted a contest in the public schools for a flag design for Alaska. The design of Benny Benson, a 13-year-old orphaned schoolboy of the Jessie Lee Mission Home at Seward, was selected as winner in a field of 142 contestants — grades 7 through 12.

Benny explained, “I took a piece of art paper, 10 by 14 inches in size, and colored it dark blue. Then I drew seven stars for the Big Dipper and the North Star. The blue is for Alaska’s sky and the forget-me-not, Alaska’s flower. The North Star is for Alaska and the dipper is for the Great Bear which means strength.”

At 4 p.m. Saturday, July 10, 1927, the flag of Alaska was flung to the breeze for the first time on the Jessie Lee Home’s flagpole. Marie Drake, a secretary in the Territorial Department of Education, looked on as Benny Benson attached the flag to the halyards below the American flag.

After seeing Benny’s flag of eight stars on a field of blue, with its North Star and Big Dipper, she was inspired to write a poem which she called “The Alaska Flag.” It would be another 11 years before Marie’s poem became a song.

In 1934 Marie Drake assumed the post of assistant commissioner of education. One of her official duties was presenting the Alaskan flag at all graduation ceremonies, even at remote schools which had only a few students. Territorial Commissioner Leon Henderson wanted to acquaint school children of Alaska with the new flag and prepared to send each child a small flag with a copy of the Alaska Flag Act. Marie Drake, however, felt that the official language of the Act was over the children’s heads, and that simple words, like a jingle or song, were needed. Henderson gave her the nod to create a song and she began working on transforming her poem into song lyrics.

Marie Drake met Elinor Dusenbury in Juneau in 1934 and discussed making Alaska’s Flag a song. Dusenbury was a public school choral director at Haines, as well as a singer and music composer. After only 3-1/2 years in Haines, Dusenbury relocated to Omaha, Nebraska, but she couldn’t get the words of Marie Drake’s poem out of her head. She later confided, “I wrote the music for Marie’s beautiful poem from pure, unadulterated homesickness for Alaska.”

The two met in Juneau in 1938 and Drake heard her song played on the piano for the first time. The song was published that fall and actually played by musician Fred Waring on Omaha NBC radio station WOW on the popular program, The Chesterfield Hour.

Finally, in 1955, the Alaska Territorial Legislature adopted “Alaska’s Flag” as its official song. And when U.S. Congress voted statehood for Alaska on June 30, 1958, signed by President Eisenhower January 3, 1959, “The Alaska Flag” became our official state song.

Today, nearly three quarters of a century after Marie Drake conceived the poem, Alaska’s Flag Song is heard at schools, public meetings, special ceremonies and other functions across the state. It’s deeply rooted in Alaskans’ history and culture. Everyone wants to hear it, everyone likes to sing it, and everyone likes displaying the flag.

Some personal observations about Alaska’s flag — eight stars of gold on a field of blue. Several years back my family wore matching sweat shirts with the Alaska flag design on the front. During visits to places like Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm in California, on more than one occasion complete strangers approached us and asked where they might purchase the shirt — this, in an area where strangers seldom talk with one another.

For a brief spell I was a member of the U.S. Navy Color Guard, and was privileged to carry Alaska’s flag in a San Diego parade. I can remember many sailors in the unit wanted to carry that flag — an affirmation that there is something quietly powerful, subtle but compelling in Benny Benson’s simple design.

As a child in Seward in the 1950s, there was no television…just radio. Late at night our only station would play the Alaska Flag Song at sign off. It was like a warm, comforting voice that reached across the night.

At that time my window on Alaska was very small…places like Moose Pass and Cooper Landing seemed quite distant. The song kindled my imagination. I could visualize the Alaska that I wanted to see…that I knew was out there.

Today, more than half a century after it became Alaska’s official song, these 12 lines still capture our imagination and stir powerful emotions.

 

Eight stars of gold on a field of blue,
Alaska's flag, may it mean to you,

The blue of the sea, the evening sky,
The mountain lakes and the flowers nearby;

The gold of the early sourdough's dreams,
The precious gold of the hills and streams,
The brilliant stars in the northern sky,
The "Bear," the "Dipper," and shining high,

The great North Star with its steady light,
O'er land and sea a beacon bright,
Alaska's flag to Alaskans dear,

The simple flag of a last frontier.

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