It’s time once again to answer the musical question, “How many hours can we stay awake?” Yup. It’s Folk Festival week and I owe those guys for breaking a family taboo on music.
Rite of Spring: The Alaska Folk Festival 040517 AE 1 For the Capital City Weekly It’s time once again to answer the musical question, “How many hours can we stay awake?” Yup. It’s Folk Festival week and I owe those guys for breaking a family taboo on music.

Contra dancing at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center for the 41st Annual Alaska Folk Festival in 2015. Michael Penn, Capital City Weekly.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Story last updated at 4/3/2017 - 7:04 pm

Rite of Spring: The Alaska Folk Festival

Woodshed, noun: a place to store firewood.

Woodshedding, verb: To practice musical skills.

It’s time once again to answer the musical question, “How many hours can we stay awake?” Yup. It’s Folk Festival week and I owe those guys for breaking a family taboo on music. As a kid I asked for a guitar but the answer was, “No. Nobody in our family can carry a tune in a bucket.” Aw, that’s so sad, isn’t it? Kind of like a folk song. But today, thanks to the Alaska Folk Festival,* I can go out back with the old Washburn and a beer on sunny afternoons and sing my blues away. I’m not alone, either. In the past 43 years, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people have been inspired to learn an instrument, expand their repertoires, improve their playing, join a band, dance a contra or have had their first exposure on stage through this week-long, free collaboration.

The main stage hosts about 130 sets over the week. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday there are dances until midnight followed by jams in bars and homes into the wee hours. There are weekend workshops from blues harmonica to ukulele. If you don’t play you can just sit in back at the workshops and listen.

Uncle Bob Pavitt, a founder of the Folk Fest, said it was unique in that “anyone with the guts to get up on stage for 15 minutes can have a set.”

That’s the greatness here. With no auditions or demo tapes, players have incentive to do some serious woodshedding in the months before they go onstage. The festival supports budding musicians by coaching them in what to expect, how to use the microphones (get close) and even giving first time performers a chance to get up on stage the Sunday before the folk fest—with sound engineers and all the sound equipment in place—so the players can get a feel for it and learn how to ask for what they want from the sound monitors. Even for seasoned players, getting up there can be daunting. Singer/songwriter Tony Tengs had a dream the night before he debuted a set of his own songs.

“I dreamed I was naked and I didn’t know if my strap was long enough for the guitar to cover my jewels.” he said, “And my guitar only had one string.”

Folk music is different things to different people. 1984 guest artist Michael Cooney wrote a sharp essay on folk genesis called “If You Know Who Wrote It, It’s Not A Folk Song” in which he says, “The more people a song goes through, the more it changes.”** You might not agree, which is fine. Folk, by definition, means different abilities, different styles and different points of view about music and everything else. It’s an American artifact from immigrants stirring their musical roots in the melting pot. During the 1960s and ‘70s a folk revival swept the country. In Juneau a small group of musicians did their part with a concert at the old State Museum in 1975. So began the Alaska Folk Festival.

The path from there to here has been deliberately grounded in the community. Current Folk Fest president Erin Heist emphasizes that to this day there are zero grants and zero sponsors. One hundred percent of the money it takes to rent the hall and pay for whatever else comes from memberships, donations and the merchandise table. Longtime volunteer Greg McLaughlin (he spent twenty-eight years on the board!) says that many years ago the board voted unanimously not to have corporate sponsorship because with sponsors come obligations. An example of that would be when the Newport Folk Festival became the “Dunkin Donuts Newport Folk Festival.” That’s too sad even for a folk song.

How does this work?

A nine member board carries the torch with input and support from more than seven hundred members. Board members serve three years in staggered rotations so that there will always be some who’ve been through the annual cycle. Planning begins when the board and members meet right after the event. They talk about how things went, what they liked, what they’d like to do next year and toss out suggestions for future guest artists. Guest artists are a mainstay going back to the 1970s. They’re the only musicians who get paid and they more than earn it. Criteria for selecting guest artists include that the musicians are: authentic—having “had a major influence on a particular style/tradition;” they’re accessible and want to teach and play with local musicians; they’re affordable and they’re fun to be around. Erin says the Alaska Folk Fest has a good name in the Lower 48 folk scene. Going to Alaska is a draw for the guest artists. Musicians appreciate the way music takes over the town. They like the enthusiasm and they give it back. They go to potlucks, people show them around, Alaska Seaplanes gives them a free tour, they jam, do workshops, they stay up late, they raise the musical bar.

A hundred and fifty volunteers turn out during Folk Fest week and make the festival possible. They do everything but take themselves too seriously. Their attitude is, “It’s all about the music.”

If you have the enthusiasm to join them, festival volunteers are happy to train you. About a third of the volunteers work with sound and stage set up. The Sunday before Folk Fest they do a two-hour training at Centennial Hall. Two bands take turns playing on stage so stage crews get the experience of setting up and switching microphones between sets. At the same time, sound volunteers get experience with the monitor table and main sound board. If you missed Sunday there will be another sound tech workshop covering the same training on the main stage at 10 a.m. Saturday during Folk Fest. Beyond that, if you’re overwhelmed by the urge to volunteer during Folk Fest week, you can find Mike Sakarias when he’s got a free moment—look for the guy in a leather kilt, there aren’t many—and let him know. Mike’s been involved with the Alaska Folk Festival since 1989, has trained hordes of people and plays hammer dulcimer.

“Being involved,” he said, “is so much more fun.”

The membership and merchandise tables in the lobby have about as many volunteers as the sound crews. It gets busy as the Cairo bazaar out there. Music from the stage plays on speakers overhead in the lobby which can be drowned out by a large amorphous mass of musicians jamming near the doors. These musicians are islands in a stream of voices of people renewing acquaintances, going in and out of the hall or back and forth to dances at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. Be advised, merchandise sells out. If you want that last coffee mug or a certain color sweatshirt, you might want to buy it sooner than later. It all goes to a good cause.

Some advantages of volunteering are great seats next to the stage, a first look at the merchandise, hanging out with the artists, meeting interesting people and that it’s a fun way to get in your community volunteer hours if you’re a high school kid. You also get to meet longtime friends of the festival, like the Juneau Contradancers, who put on Friday’s all day Coffee and Jam potluck at the JACC, or some of the Gold Street Music players, who put on concerts through the winter. They all work together to support folk music and dance in Alaska.

Folk Festival rolls around each year during the season the blue marble has rolled around the sun enough that Southeast Alaska is gaining five minutes of daylight every day. Musicians who came into town Monday will have gained songs, stories, friends and an extra 35 minutes of daylight by Sunday night when guest artists “The Murphy Beds” play the last set and the last people standing get up on stage to sing “Goodnight Irene.” Next week we can look to getting the boats and gardens ready for business. For now it’s all about the music.

*Alaska Folk Festival. All kinds of great Folk Fest stuff by long-time volunteer and musician Jamie Brown.


NB - If you can’t make it to Centennial Hall, KRNN streams Folk Fest on Public Radio 102.7