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Guitar stolen from state balladeer

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002

Legendary Alaska balladeer Hobo Jim opened his regular performance at BJ's in Soldotna Thursday night in a funk.

His presence was angrily forceful from the tone of his voice to the manner in which he leaned into the microphone.

Selections from his repertoire were sad songs of fisher friends lost at sea and 1960s protest songs against the federal government taking land.

Even the way he stroked his guitar had a power that seemed to be rooted in darkness.

In fact, the audience would soon be told, the guitar he was playing wasn't his own -- it was one loaned to him by a friend.

It was loaned to him because Hobo Jim's $6,000 Martin D42 KOA was stolen from his van sometime between Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon while the van was parked in Soldotna.

"I just wish the person who did this would just have enough heart to return it ... drop it off at Safeway or whatever. I'm hopin' the person has enough spirit to get it back to me," he said.

"It's my only guitar. It's my baby."

In the 30 years Hobo Jim has been singing about Alaska, all around Alaska, he has never had a guitar stolen.

"I've played in bars in every city in Alaska, and I've left my guitar sitting right out on stage, not even in a case, and no one's ever done anything like this," he said.

"No Alaskan would do this."

As the show went on Thursday night, Hobo Jim's mood, as reflected in his music, softened.

He told the audience about Katie Skrha, 16-year-old daughter of Kenai Peninsula attorney Joe Ray Skrha, who had a guitar almost exactly like the one stolen, and immediately suggested to her dad, "Let's let Uncle Hobo use my guitar."

Both electric, classical guitars are rare C.F. Martin guitars made of Hawaiian koa wood. Skrha's is made of brown koa wood, while Hobo Jim's is blond.

"I've had so many people offer help," Hobo Jim said. "Everybody in the state is looking for it. The troopers, the Soldotna police. Officer (Stace) Escot has been especially helpful."

Hobo Jim began joking with the audience at BJ's, doling out an extra serving of attention to a group visiting from Michigan, seated at a table near the stage. He told of dog mushing in Mackinaw, Mich., and sang a ballad he wrote for that city, similar to his official "Ballad of the Iditarod Trail."

He sang, too, of caribou and tundra, of the spirit of fishers on Cook Inlet and other Alaska waters, and of the heartiness of Alaska backwoods women. He also recalled an earlier time when he lived with his bride in a small Anchor Point cabin, heated only by wood burned in a barrel stove.

"The problem with a barrel stove is that when the wood burns up and the fire goes out, the stove mysteriously sucks all the heat out of the cabin at once," he told an audience now warming to his tales.

"Then, in the morning, when it's 20 below outside and 20 below inside, I'd bravely reach one arm out from under the covers and scratch a quarter inch of ice off the inside of the window -- just enough to see my wife outside chopping and gathering more wood for the fire.

"She'd come in and start the fire, and I'd tell her she should have awaken me so I could do all that wood stuff.

"It only took her about six months to figure out that I was only faking sleep. Now that we've been married 23 years, I can't get away with that sort of thing very much."

As more people entered the tavern and responded to Hobo Jim's performance, he returned the favor with a generosity of humor and a good helping of Alaska lore.

He invited Katie Skrha to join him on stage and the aspiring singer drew loud applause for two country numbers she performed.

The straight-A high school student from Cleveland, summering in Alaska with her father, is no newcomer to Hobo Jim's stage.

"He's had me come up with him many times. Here and in Homer and at the fair in Ninilchik," she said. "As soon as I heard about someone stealing his guitar, I knew I wanted to let him borrow mine."

Hobo Jim said he is personally offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person who stole the guitar, but told the audience, "I just wish someone would return it ... no questions."

Anyone with information about the theft is asked to call Soldotna police at 262-4455 or Alaska State Troopers at 262-4453.



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