Part of the Alaska-ness of Alaska’s music scene — apart from the actual Alaskans — is the do-it-yourself approach to learning and performing, said longtime local musician Jane Roodenburg.
“When I got here everyone was just doing it themselves and making their own (music), and I was so excited,” she said. “You didn’t have to wait to have an accompanist or a professor or somebody more qualified to tell you what to do. You just do it or don’t do it.”
At the Alaska Folk Festival, this can-do spirit flourishes in an open format that doesn’t care who you are or where you come from. It’s further encouraged by an audience that wants you to succeed.
“In Juneau you’re allowed to try,” Roodenburg said. “The few times I’ve left and gone down to America, you have to have CDs, you have to audition, it’s really discouraging to try to perform. But here, people are just like, ‘Get up there, we’ll clap for you!’ And then you are really psyched to practice and learn things.”
That was the case with Roodenburg herself. She arrived in summer 1990 without knowing a soul. She attended and performed at her first Folk Fest in April 1991 and said she was blown away by the experience.
“I think I sang ‘Wabash Cannonball’ all my myself,” she said with a laugh. “I played by myself that year because I didn’t really know anyone to ask to get up there with me. I remember being kind of terrified but then having so much fun. You feel good and supported when you’re up there, even if you’re terrified and terrible.”
Music was the deciding factor in convincing Roodenburg to move to Juneau in the first place. She came to work on an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry as a U.S. Forest Service interpreter and was planning to stay just for the summer (a familiar tale).
“Fall came and my dad was going to fly up from New York and we were going to drive back together. Then I went to a contra dance, one of the Thursday night contras ... I had so much fun at the first one I thought, ‘Oh I’ll just stay another week, and go to another one.’ I called my dad after two weeks and I said, ‘Wait, I’m not ready to go yet. Don’t get your ticket yet.’”
Not long after that, while at the Shrine of Saint Therese, she made her decision.
“I found a pay phone and I called my dad and I said, ‘You know what — don’t come. I’m not leaving.’ And I didn’t.”
Soon she was happily settled in a house full of musicians on West Seventh Street downtown, a place informally known as Windy Ridge.
Windy Ridge was famous for its music parties in the early 1990s. “We’d put out the word and everyone would come and play music and stay too late ... there’d be Cajun in the kitchen, Irish in the basement, singers up the stairs and obnoxious hand-drummers driving everyone out into the snow. It was really fertile ground.”
Eventually Roodenburg became a integral part of the music scene, playing in the popular Bobb Family Band for more than a decade with Juneau musicians Bob Banghart, Clay Good, Albert McDonnell, Jay Caputo and Riley Woodford.
“Through the years there were different guest Bobbs and short-term Bobbs, but that was the main group. There was a large, extended Bobb family.”
The Bobbs were a familiar presence at Folk Fest, either on the main stage or at the dances at the Armory (now the JACC). Roodenburg said her festival appearances, especially in the early years, had a lot to do with her development as a musician.
“it helped me get my courage up,” she said. “And the supportive crowd makes you feel like, ‘OK, I sang those three songs. Now I’m going to learn 10 more.”
Roodenburg put out a CD, “Unmarked Boxes,” in 1997 and dabbled in songwriting before determining it wasn’t her strength.
“Buddy (Tabor) always said, ‘You’ve gotta write and write and write until you get good at it,’ but I got frustrated because my poetry was sort of lame,” she laughed. “I stand in awe of people like Buddy and Katie Henry who write such incredible music.”
Musicians who have inspired her include her fellow Bobbs as well as Tabor, Mike Truax, Burl Sheldon and Elva Bontrager, who hosted singing circles at the House of Wickersham for many years and now organizes the Gold Street Music series.
Roodenburg still performs at Gold Street, often with her husband David Crossman, a musician whom she met through mutual friends while attending nursing school in Vermont. The couple returned to Juneau when she finished school in 2010. Crossman, who has been to three folk festivals so far, will be performing with her tonight, along with former Bobb Family Band members McDonnell, Banghart and Good. Former band member Woodford will be the emcee. Roodenburg said the group’s set will include a couple of jazz standards in an acoustic folk style and a song she sang at her own wedding.
Her words of advice for folk festival attendees:
“Have fun. If you’re not a musicians, go to a workshop,” she said. “And people should become Folk Festival members so it can continue.”
• Jane Roodenburg and Dave Crossman and friends perform at 10 p.m. tonight at Centennial Hall.