Juneau musician Henry Hopkins used to commute from Fairbanks by car to attend the Alaska Folk Festival; his first trip was in 1992 while he was a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Hopkins, a multi-instrumentalist who has played with numerous groups on stage and at dances over the years, said he was particularly drawn by the jam sessions.
“What makes this festival special is that people jam all over the place,” he said. “All these people get together and play tunes all day long — in the halls, in the hotels, in the bars. You walk in with an instrument and who knows who you’re going to be playing with. It’s great.”
Henry’s annual commute to the festival became considerably shorter starting in 2000, when he and his wife Sarah relocated to Juneau. At that point, Sarah started to get up on stage as well, sometimes joining her husband on guitar in sets centered on his musical passion: traditional Irish music.
This year, the couple will be joined on stage for the first time by their two children, Emma, 17, and Erik, 10. Sarah said she wanted the kids to be able to make their own commitment to the music before they planned a family set.
“We’ve been waiting for the year when they were old enough to do it,” Sarah said.
The Hopkins family will be performing traditional Irish music, a genre they have all come to love through Henry’s influence. Both Emma and Erik said they listen to traditional Irish tunes on their own, much to the bewilderment of friends.
“That’s all that’s on my iPod,” Emma said. “Just the old traditional stuff.”
The Hopkins family is a strong example of how parental influence — and genetics, according to recent research — steers kids’ artistic choices. Emma is a singer like her mother, and Erik has inherited his dad’s versatility and remarkable ability to pick up songs quickly by ear. Erik plays guitar and tenor banjo and is learning fiddle. So far, he said, the banjo is the most challenging.
“With the banjo you really have to stretch your fingers,” Erik said.
His dad plays a wide range of stringed instruments as well as the Uilleann pipes and, most recently, the accordion. Henry brings Erik along with him to a weekly music session with friends and they practice together every day. Erik is also studying under Greg Burger.
Henry and Sarah said they both come from musical households as well. Sarah’s parents were singers, and Henry, who is German by birth, learned to play classical violin as a kid. He started to develop his own tastes as a teen, much to the dismay of his dad.
“Mainly it was classical music at home. My teenage rebellion was to play upright bass in a Dixieland band,” Henry said with a chuckle. “And then I brought a banjo home and my father actually said ‘I wish you’d pick up a real instrument.’”
Henry later sold his motorcycle to buy a guitar.
While still a teen, he was introduced to Irish music by soldiers at a British military base in Germany and through the military radio station in Germany. He was immediately taken by it.
“There’s something visceral about the way Irish music works that speaks to me,” he said.
He then spent a summer hitchhiking around Ireland, working as a diesel mechanic and picking up songs along the way. When Henry got to the United States, he continued to add to his repertoire.
At the Folk Festival, the family will be performing traditional instrumental Irish tunes with Sarah on guitar, Henry on accordion, Erik on fiddle and Emma on bodhrán, a traditional Irish drum. Most of their set will be fast-paced dance songs and will include a fiddle tune by Bob McQuillen called “Dancing Bears.”
“It’s actually one of the first tunes I learned from Henry,” Sarah said.
“And it’s one of the first tunes I learned when I came to Fairbanks,” Henry added. “So that tune has history for us.”
They will also perform one slower song featuring Emma on vocals and accompanied by her dad. The song, called “Erin grá mo chroí,” was chosen by Emma.
“It’s one of the bedtime, tucking-me-in songs that my Dad used to play for me,” Emma said. “Mom and Dad each had different songs they would do. That’s the one that would make me cry.
“It’s a really pretty song and I really want to sing it.”
Both Emma and her brother said they were more excited than nervous about performing at Centennial Hall.
“Secretly, I’ve always wanted to do it,” Emma said.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the Folk Festival too,” Erik agreed.
The Hopkins family said they’d like to make their group appearance an annual tradition.
The Hopkins Family Band performs at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Centennial Hall. Henry and Erik Hopkins will also be playing as part of the dance band ReelChunes with Chris Behnke and Andy Ferguson on Thursday night at 9 p.m. at the JACC. Erik will be performing as part of the Gastineau Strummers, a group featuring Gastineau Elementary students, during the Saturday afternoon concert at noon.