40 years of Folk Fests: A storied past

As the photos on these pages show, the Alaska Folk Festival’s history tells part of the story of this community — of its creativity and interconnectedness, of its gains and losses. Thanks to Michael Penn, Brian Wallace, Mark Kelley and others at the Juneau Empire for chronicling this community event in such depth over the years, allowing us to revisit some of the energy of festivals past. (See photos here: (http://juneauempire.com/art/2014-04-03/2014-alaska-folk-festival-schedule)


The Alaska Folk Festival got started 40 years ago, when a handful of community members got together to entertain their friends and neighbors with music. Hundreds of people turned out, and they had so much fun they decided to make it an annual tradition. For a few of those people — notably founding members Bob Banghart and Pat Henry — that tradition has shaped the pattern of their lives every year since.

Scores of others have grown up with it, raised their kids with it, forged friendships around it, honed their skills by taking part in it and been inspired attending it. It’s a week in which, for a few hours or a few days, Juneau residents and their guests stand on common ground, immersing themselves in the shared pleasures of music.

The First Annual Southeast Alaska Folk Festival was held in March 1975 at the Governor’s Gallery Alaska State Museum. The next year, festival organizers added workshops and made room for more performers, expanding the event to three days. By 1977, the idea of hosting a guest artist had been established — Merle Travis was the first. When the event outgrew the museum within those first few years, some events were moved to the National Guard Armory (now the Juneau Arts & Culture Center). It continued to grow and in 1984, on the 10th anniversary, musicians began performing at Centennial Hall.

The festival is now so big it stretches across seven days, hosting hundreds of performers on stage for 15 minutes each.

Though those who come back year after year to perform and to listen make up a tight-knit community, the folk festival crowd is a diverse and constantly shifting group that’s always open to more participants. One of the best things about the event — besides the fact that it's free — is that any year you decide you’re ready to get up there and present your 15 minutes of music, you have the opportunity to do it. Another strength is that it welcomes musicians who don’t really fall into the traditional “folk” category; it’s folk in the sense of the word’s original etymology: the people’s music. To get a sense of its continuing vibrancy, one need only look at the number of young performers the event draws every year, paving the way for the next 40 years.

To see more photos, visit http://juneauempire.com/art/2014-04-03/2014-alaska-folk-festival-schedule.


Folk Fest starts Monday and runs through the following Sunday. This year, the featured guest artist will be the (almost) all female Cajun band Bonsoir, Catin, of South Louisiana. Members performing in Juneau will be Kristi Guillory, Christine Balfa, Anya Burgess, Yvette Landry, Maegan Berard and Danny Devillier.

The featured dance band is The Gallus Brothers, from Bellingham, Wash., consisting of Devin Champlin and Lucas Hicks.

See next week’s Arts for feature stories on both these bands.


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