A podcast where local comedians learn local history
Having moved to Ballard from Olympia at the end of March 2019, I wanted to understand where I was. Hour long early morning walks radiating out from our apartment building in all directions were a daily pleasure and I got to know the neighborhood and sometimes people I stopped to chat with: the woman out for a walk with her two parrots, one on each arm; the imaginative homeowner who was raising his house two stories to put more living space underneath.
But what I could see with my own eyes was only a tiny picture of Ballard and Seattle. I wanted to know some history. Maybe I could find a podcast I could listen to while I walked. It wasn’t hard to find: The Seattle Files with Chris Allen, 57 episodes published between November 2015 and October 2017.
Allen, a northwest native from Federal Way, is a creative, funny guy who performed for years with Jet City Improv and other groups. He’s also a trained historian who loves doing research, writing, and teaching. The Seattle Files is Allen’s improv-history mashup. He does research on a northwest topic, writes a script, and then invites a local comedian to listen to and comment on Allen’s history lesson. It’s a clever idea. History, though interesting, can sometimes act as a soporific, but framed with accompanying, spontaneous humor, it can be entertaining and fun.
Acres of Clams
Each episode begins with the “Old Settler’s Song” (also known as “Acres of Clams”), written by Francis D. Henry a generation after the founding of Seattle and once a candidate for Washington’s state song.
After drifting out of Seattle’s consciousness, Ivar Haglund, Seattle musician, regional folk music expert, radio personality, promoter, and restauranteur, brought “Acres of Clams” back via his radio show in the 1930’s. Haglund claimed he had taught Pete Seeger the song but Seeger remembered it the other way round.
It was a pleasure for me to discover “Acres of Clams” through Allen’s podcast. Yvonne remembers the song from her Seattle childhood. It was as much in the air as the persistent November mist. We occasionally visit Ivar’s Acres of Clams restaurant at Pier 54 on the waterfront and always feed the seagulls.
“Acres of Clams” has many versions. One can be found here: “Lay of the Old Settler.” The last two stanzas express what many people feel about the wet, cloudy, mild, green, and beautiful Puget Sound region.
And now that I'm used to the climate, I think that if a man ever found A place to live easy and happy, That Eden is on Puget Sound — That Eden is on Puget Sou-ou-ound, That Eden is on Puget Sound — A place to live easy and happy? That Eden is on Puget Sound! No longer the slave of ambition, I laugh at the world and its shams As I think of my pleasant condition, Surrounded by acres of clams — Surrounded by acres of cla-a-ams, Surrounded by acres of clams, As I think of my happy condition, Surrounded by acres of clams!
Here’s a YouTube video tribute to Haglund featuring Lloyd Vivola’s version of “Acres of Clams.”
Back to the podcast
After “Acres of Clams,” Allen explains what he’s doing and introduces his comedian guest, assuring the listener that his guest hasn’t been tipped off about the day’s topic, that is, what follows really is improv.
Allen is breezy, moving things along at a rapid clip in a voice that to my ears sounds a bit like Seth Rogen. Allen is consistently engaging and upbeat, kind and open minded. A caveat: some listeners may be put off by the sometimes salty language.
Descriptions of a few of Allen’s podcasts taken from his site:
Episode 1: The Great Fire with Ian Schempp
On June 6, 1889 a fire broke out in a cabinet maker’s shop downtown. The fire spread quickly and by the following morning the entire business district had burned to the ground. (Ed: Mistakes were made)
Episode 2: The Pig War with Jon Axell
The United States and Great Britain almost went to war in 1859 after a small skirmish between civilians on a remote piece of disputed territory in the San Juan Islands. When all was said and done, the only victim of the lengthy standoff was a pig. (Ed: When living in the San Juans we visited both English Camp and American Camp National Historical Parks – worth a look especially after understanding why)
Episode 3: Frederick Trump with Elicia Wickstead
Donald Trump’s grandfather was a German immigrant who moved to Seattle in 1891. The seed money for his family’s later real estate ventures came largely from his ownership of several houses of prostitution right here in the Northwest. (Ed: Now four generations in the hospitality business)
Episode 12: Ivar Haglund with Graham Downing
Restauranteur. Folk singer. Entertainer. King of the publicity stunt. Ivar Haglund is often cited as the person who most exemplifies Seattle. (Ed: Ivar was a really good guy. I ofter remind myself to “Keep clam.” We’d all be better off if we did)
Episode 13: D.B. Cooper with Kesan Holt
In 1971 D.B. Cooper hijacked an airplane, collected a $200,000 ransom then disappeared without a trace. It is to date the only unsolved skyjacking in American history. (Ed: I always wondered how the story turned out. It’s complicated)
Episode 28: The City of Ballard with Matt Hatfield
William Ballard was Captain of a small ship in Puget Sound’s mosquito fleet. A losing coin toss left him in possession of 160 acres of land north of Seattle which came to bear his name. A contentious battle over water left the young city of Ballard annexed into larger and more powerful neighboring Seattle. (Ed: Now that we live in Ballard I was interested to learn that for years a Ballard group wanted to secede from Seattle)
Episode 34: Chief Seattle with Adina Gillet
Chief Seattle was a young boy when white explorers made first contact with the natives on Puget Sound. Over the course of his life he saw the complete transformation of his ancestral homeland and displacement of his people to small reservations. (Ed: In a tough situation he was trying to make the best of it)
Episode 40: The Love Israel Cult with Maddie Downes
Love Israel and his followers believed we are all one, love is the answer, and drugs got you closer to God. They lived on Queen Anne Hill for years until cocaine and financial troubles tore them apart. (Ed: A colleague of mine lived in the Love family for years. He pretty much liked it)
Episode 51: Lavender Country with John Wachter
Gay country and western band Lavender Country released their first album in 1973. Despite brilliant songwriting and musicianship the band never achieved mainstream success due to their defiant and “out” content. (Ed: It happened first in Seattle)
Episode 52: The Weyerhaeuser Kidnapping with Jeff Nickels
In 1935 young George Weyerhaeuser was kidnapped walking home from school in Tacoma. Over the following days the wealthy lumber family scrambled to meet the ransom demands and get him back safe. (Ed: The end of the story, years later, says a lot for the Weyerhaeusers)
Episode 56: Louie Louie with Jordan Moeller
Louie Louie is a sweet and simple love song, but because of an indecipherable recording by The Kingsmen in the 1960s it became the subject of a year long FBI investigation over indecency charges. (Ed: Now I know it’s OK to find the lyrics incomprehensible)
If you want to learn “some little known facts” about Seattle and northwest history by listening rather than reading, give The Seattle Files a try. They’re available on Apple, Android, and other podcast sources.
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