Alaska Folk Festival: Rite of Spring: Week of music, dances, workshops: All free

“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,  a week of music powered entirely by volunteers.  During the 1960’s and ‘70’s a folk revival swept the country and 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.

If you asked for a guitar as a kid and were told, “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. Well forget that, thanks to the Alaska Folk Festival, you too can learn a few chords on the old Washburn, set yourself out on a sunny spring  afternoon and sing your blues away. In the past forty-eight years hundreds of young people, and a lot of older ones, have had their first set on the main stage. People who would have spent their lives listening 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 amazing collaboration.

Uncle Bob Pavitt, a founder of the FF, said it was unique in that, “Anyone with the guts to get up on stage for fifteen 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.

At the jams, those budding musicians, especially young people get to sit in with, and be inspired by,  really spectacular musicians from around Alaska, and around the USA. Caitlin Warbelow,  is back for her 25th Folk Festival. She’s from Alaska, lives in New York now, where plays on Broadway.  She’s bringing two Broadway musicians with her. If you haven’t seen Caitlin play, here’s a treat.

The main stage hosts about one hundred-thirty 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.

These high school guys have been playing music together since they were 10 years old. They had a great set.

There are a couple wrinkles in the schedule this year  (2023). The big one is that volcano erupting in Russia this week. It’s pumping out an ash cloud so vast that flights around Alaska have been cancelled, including here. The guest artists haven’t been able to get in yet. We’re missing a lot of other musicians, volunteers, and friends who can’t get in. There’s a lot of scrambling in the background to rearrange the schedule, but the show goes on!

The other thing is, most years main stage is the FF is at Centennial Hall with dances at the Juneau Arts and Community Center (JACC), next door. This year, because of renovations at the Hall,  the main stage will be in the JACC Monday through Thursday, then move to the high school auditorium Friday through Sunday. Dances will be at the JACC Friday through Sunday. If you’ve got questions, here’s the schedule:  *Alaska Folk Festival.

They’re about a half-mile apart, if you don’t want to walk the FF is using a school for a shuttle between the main the high school and the JACC.

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.

The path from there to here has been deliberately grounded in the community.  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 AFF 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 over 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 1970’s. 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”, or maybe they’re just on the cusp of being well-known but they’re still accessible and want to teach and play with local musicians, they’re affordable and they’re fun to be around. The AFF has a good name in the lower 48 folk scene. Going to Alaska is a draw for guest artists; the cachet and all that. And musicians appreciate the way music takes over the town. They like the enthusiasm and they give it back. They go to pot lucks, 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-fifty volunteers turn out during FF week and make the festival possible. They do everything but take themselves too seriously. “It’s all about the music.” If you have the enthusiasm to join them, FF is happy to train you. About a third of the volunteers work with sound and stage set up. The Sunday before FF they do a two hour training at the main stage where 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 ten a.m. FF Saturday. Beyond that, if you’re overwhelmed by the urge to volunteer during FF week, you can find Mike Sakarias. Hard to miss, he’s the guy in  the  leather kilt, who has been involved with the FF since 1989. He’s trained hordes of people to run the stage and sound and he plays hammer dulcimer. “Being involved,” he says, “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 JAAC. Be advised, merchandise sells out. If you want that the last coffee mug or sweatshirt that’s that color you might want to buy it sooner than later. It all goes to a good cause.

l to r: Bob Banghart, Grant Dermody, Bob o Bell. Bob in the white hat is one of the founders of the Alaska folk festival.

Some advantages of volunteering are: great seats next to the stage, first look at the merchandise, hanging out with the artists, meeting interesting people and it’s a fun way to get in your community volunteer hours if you’re a high school kid. You also get to meet long time friends of the FF like Juneau Contras who put on Saturday’s all day Coffee and Jam potluck at the JAAC, 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.

This week 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 thirty-five minutes of daylight by Sunday night when 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.

*** If you can’t make it to Centennial Hall, KRNN streams FF on Public Radio 102.7