Alaska loses beloved balladeer

When Hobo Jim played The Powder House it was standing room only

Hobo Jim performing at The Powder House in Cordova. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Gibbins/The Powder House Bar and Grill

Stories of mushers on the Iditarod Trail, fishermen at work on the stormy Bering Sea, and even a young boy and his grandpa fishing for chickens in the barnyard – all were the stuff of songs for Alaska’s beloved balladeer Hobo Jim.

And many a crowd gathered to hear Hobo Jim, whose real name was James Varsos, and join him in song at the annual Iditarod Trail banquet in Anchorage, before the ceremonial start of the famed 1,000-mile sled dog race to Nome, singing “I did, I did, I did the Iditarod Trail.”

In bars across Alaska, including The Powder House in Cordova, and in other states where he traveled, fans would listen as he sang, “grandpa gave me a fishing pole, we never had a fishing hole” and, “mama don’t like no one fishing for chickens.” Then they’d join in the chorus: “White ones, black ones, yellow ones, red ones. Don’t matter just as long as I get one.”

Varsos, who fell in love with Alaska as much as Alaskans did with him, died in his home in Nashville, Tenn. on Oct. 5. He was performing at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer when pain prompted him to get a medical checkup. He was diagnosed with end-stage cancer.

When he announced back on Sept. 18 that he had learned he was terminally ill, Varsos said he had been given three to six months to live. “I would like to say I am not afraid,” he said. “I have never feared death as I am good with my Lord. It is, however, very hard to feel the pain of those I leave behind.”

Born in Indiana in 1952, Varsos was raised in Madison, Wis., and moved to Alaska in 1972.

“Unfortunately the cancer took him from us much faster than we expected,” his brother, Steve Varsos, wrote on Facebook. “He peacefully passed away yesterday. A special thank you to everyone in Alaska for the years of love and support you have given Jim and Cyndi (his wife), I know Jim lived and died a proud Alaskan.”

Hobo Jim performing at Alaska Wild Salmon Day in Anchorage. Photo by Margaret Bauman/The Cordova Times

The couple also had a home in Soldotna, on the Kenai Peninsula.

Among Hobo Jim’s devoted fans in Cordova was Libbie Graham, owner of The Powder House, where Hobo first came to sing in the 1990s. Varsos and Graham’s family quickly became friends.

“We hit it off great,” she said. “He would stay at the house and play music until after midnight. He was a real sport, as well as a military history buff of World War I and World War II.

When Varsos performed at The Powder House, it was always standing room only.

“He was so fun and easy to work with and loved the kids,” Graham said. “He would volunteer to go up to the elementary school and do a concert free.”

“He loved to just come hang out in Cordova,” where Graham’s family would also show him around in their air taxi service and via charter boat, and feed him their special family recipe for salmon, which he loved, she said.

“This is a sad day for Alaskans as we say farewell to one of our own, a true Alaska legend,” said former Gov. Bill Walker. “Jim was a beloved friend of ours… there will never be another Hobo Jim.”