Over the last 37 years, the Alaska Folk Festival has become a rite of spring for many.
To some, it’s the music, a non-stop week of string bands and singer-songwriters, more than 450 musicians from all over Alaska, Canada and the lower 48. To others, it’s seven days to play their instruments in public, as loud as they like. To still others, it’s a chance to cut loose and embarrass themselves by dancing in front of people.
Folk fest marks the end of ski season, the beginning of fishing season, and, for young children, something to do while the last snow melts off the sandbox. Legislators roll out, tourist season rolls in, tables at the Hangar are still impossible to get.
Of course, due to its annual nature, people associate folk fest with various milestones. Some — like my daughter, for example — owe their very existences to it.
When opening day came this past Monday, I could barely contain myself.
So I grabbed my sidekick — aka my five-month-old son — and went to see if it was just me, or if other townsfolk, to paraphrase Peter Frampton, felt like I did.
At Juneau Montessori School, I ran into a woman who turned out to be the folk fest’s Saturday afternoon stage manager.
“Oh, I’m excited,” she told me. “But I’m not going tonight. Soon. Definitely Saturday.”
The JMS director proved more enthusiastic.
“I’ve barely missed a night in 20 years,” she said. “I love the dances — salsa especially, but also that one French-Canadian group, with all the foot-tapping? Amazing.”
To a JMS assistant, who’s also the daughter of a local public radio host, folk fest means coming together.
“Of course, I grew up with folk fest,” she said. “Our house was the party house, all sorts of people camped out on the lawn.”
Anyone reserve lawn space this year?
“No, they’re all old now. They want a hotel room.”
Among my daughter’s classmates — many who I recall running around Centennial Hall last year in a Pirate Booty-fueled frenzy — buzz focused more on the Coast Guard ship in port, and a supposed tour it offered.
When asked if she was going this year, one little girl shook her head. But she also said “I go folk fest,” so it’s hard to tell.
Another child was more concerned about bringing his snack home.
“Did you know folk fest started tonight?” said a harried mom to her eldest of three.
“Want to go?”
The mood at Fred Meyer was even less festive.
Said an older gentleman shopping in cowboy boots, Wranglers and a Ducks Unlimited sweatshirt: “I think I saw something about that on a bulletin board somewhere. It’s a ‘downtown’ thing, right?”
The deli guy wasn’t going, either—scheduled to work, as was the assistant produce manager.
“I think I’d really enjoy it, though,” he told me. “Maybe next year. But check it out: organic strawberries, same price as regular.”
In the parking lot, we approached a younger guy in a floppy hat loading BBQ equipment and beer into his car — perhaps for a big folk fest throwdown?
“Nah, it’s my cousin’s birthday.”
Dispirited, I headed home.
The sign outside the Breakwater Inn offered a $79/night special; the high school’s sign advertised an early release. I inquired about both — neither had to do with folk fest in any way. Outside the Armory, three soggy people struggled to hang a tarp over Bernadette’s Special Barbecue, which, it turned out, had been set up special.
Given this lackadaisicalness, who would be there for opening night, I worried — anyone aside from the performers?
Thankfully, I turned out to be over-reacting.
The parking lot was packed, the concert hall two-thirds full. People scuttled about the lobby toting various instruments. Teenagers milled on the lawn, trying not to get caught smoking. A group of younger boys played football with a water bottle. Little kids zipped to and fro.
Almost immediately I saw someone I knew.
“Last year, I promised to give playing a whirl,” she said, before echoing a common sentiment. “So I am. Sunday afternoon, ukulele.”
Two teenage girls, one from Tenakee Springs — here for career counseling, of all things — sat against a wall, tentatively picking chords on ukulele (is this a new fad kids are into, like flat-brimmed baseball caps?) and guitar.
What do they like best about folk fest?
“If you don’t like what’s going on inside, you can come out and jam,” they said.
“Me? I’m more into the bar scene,” said a man shepherding his three-year-old daughter; he counts this his 20th folk fest. “But this is fun… I wish she wouldn’t keep running off, but…”
It’s true. Children go absolutely nuts at folk fest. In fact, I caught one red-faced, moist-eyed young boy in the midst of a timeout.
“What do I like best about folk fest?” his dad said, gathering their things. It was 8:30 p.m., time to bring the kids home to bed. “I can tell you what I like least… of course, I’m biased at the moment.”
“This used to be the beginning of the night, not the end,” said a blonde woman ushering a boy out the doors. “So different from when I was young and single.”
Her son’s favorite thing about folk fest?
“Running around out of control.”
“Folk fest is one of those places where Juneau really shines,” said local musician and AFF board member Sergei Morosan.
“You walk around and everyone’s got smiles on their faces — that’s a good thing. Of course, you can also party pretty hard — that can be a good thing, too.”
“Let’s just say folk fest gives you all sorts of chances to get those endorphins going… however you choose to accomplish that, it’s up to you.”
• Geoff Kirsch is a local writer. He will get his AFF endorphins going on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Centennial Hall by performing classic rock anthems on acoustic guitar and kazoo. It promises to be… something.