While the Whitefish of old lives on in most people’s memories, Jay Cravath keeps the sights and sounds of his childhood alive in music.
Cravath, a musician, songwriter and scholar of music, released “Songs for Ancient Days,” an album of original music that calls back to his experiences growing up in Whitefish in the 1960s and ’70s.
“I think it really captures the milieu of Whitefish in the ’60s and ’70s — from the point of view as a teenage boy,” Cravath said. “It was such a beautiful setting to be plopped down in for all of us. It was not the Whitefish of today. It was a simple town. ... you’d get out of school and here’s this wonderful paradise that you’re a part of.”
Cravath recently recorded the album, which he calls a “family affair,” with his son, Jeff, on vocals and his former wife, Lynne Avril, on bass.
Cravath’s formative years were spent on the shores of Whitefish Lake, sailing and helping to take care of Kamp Karefree, a rustic resort destination his parents purchased in 1957. He and his brothers were tasked with custodial duties, cleaning the 22 cabins and enjoying the variety of visitors that took up residence there.
Cravath first got a guitar in his hands in the sixth grade and quickly learned the instrument’s potential at some of the Kamp’s weekly beach bonfire gatherings.
“I had been interested in guitar since kindergarten. I remember getting a little plastic one and looking up at the adults, pleading with someone to teach me,” he said. “By the time I was in eighth grade I was a pretty good guitarist. I was very shy though, my father would sternly say, ‘Bring your guitar down to the beach, son. You’ve got to pay for those lessons.’ So I remember the summer of my freshmen year, still shy, I played a Simon and Garfunkel song and I looked up and I saw these girls my age with a little sparkle in their eyes. And I knew it’s a chick magnet.”
One of the tracks on “Songs for Ancient Days” is called “Whitefish Song.” It’s both a love song for simpler times in Whitefish and a lament for innocence.
The song describes “some small town so far away,” with images of stars and the Northern Lights sparkling in the sky over town. He tells of the beach, the ring of the school bell, doing everything in the park.
Cravath contrasts those early, almost pastoral images with the life and scene that comes after, singing ‘somewhere in between an age of innocence and this crazy city scene,’ and ends the song looking for that muse he sings of.
The muse, he says, is a variety of things. It’s Whitefish, it’s a simpler time and it’s even the memories of the girls who warmed his heart growing up.
“I wrote this when I was in the city, so when I’m saying ‘where are you in reference to the wind,’ it’s ‘where is Whitefish, where is this simpler life?’” he said.
The album also features an instrumental “Flathead Lake Theme.”
A lot has changed in the town he loves, however.
Cravath left Whitefish after graduating in 1969 to study music and psychology at Rocky Mountain College in Billings. From there, he got his masters degree in humanities and a doctorate in indigenous studies at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Since then, he’s been a managing editor for the “Journal of American Indian Education,” executive director for the Poston Community Alliance and assistant director and program manager for the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Parker, Arizona. Currently he works with curriculum and grant writing at Arizona International School while he’s not out recording and playing music.
He’s also writing a serialized novel hosted at https://www.enlightenmentproductions.org, which he hopes will work alongside the album.
When asked what a song about the Whitefish of today would sound like, Cravath paused for a few moments before deciding on “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, who famously sings “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.”
“It really would [be that song] in a lot of ways. I mean, Casey’s used to be this little dive bar that all the railroaders and ne’er-do-wells would go in. Big Mountain was Big Mountain, it wasn’t Whitefish Mountain Resort,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful that the economy is doing well here, and it’s inevitable in such a beautiful place that it has to change, but there is still a kind of nostalgia that those of us who grew up here still have for the old Whitefish”
Cravath returned to the Flathead for a few weeks to visit family and promote songs from his album. He’ll be back around Christmas, he said, and hopefully one can find him on any given stage around town singing the memories of his childhood.