Pat Henry isn’t sure what songs he played at the first Alaska Folk Festival, then called the Southeast Alaska Folk Jamboree, in 1975. What he does remember is the large crowd that turned out to hear him and other musicians at the Alaska State Museum, and the feeling that the gathering was a tradition in the making.
“Bob Pavitt and Bob Banghart and I’m not sure who else decided that Juneau needed a folk scene and so they made it happen,” Henry said. “The next year they decided it was annual.”
Performing at the first festival with Henry, according to the program on the AFF website, were the Chicken Ridge Rowdies — Banghart, Alan Munro, Dan Monroe, June Hall, Paul Disdier and Michael “Sparky” Gray — as well as Pavitt, Dan Hopson, John Palmes and Av Gross. Henry and Banghart share the distinction of having performed at all 40 festivals, but many of the others, including Palmes, Hall and Disdier, have played most of them.
Henry had been in town only a short while when he took part in the festival, arriving in 1974 with his wife, Jeanie, from Texas. The couple was originally headed for the Kenai Peninsula, and stopped in Juneau to make some money before continuing on.
“When we got to Juneau we had a total of $200 to our name and Jeanie was quite pregnant, so we decided the only sensible thing was to stop here and get a job and replenish the money,” Henry recalled. “But long before we got enough money to move on, we decided we liked it better here. There was a great bunch of people and a great bunch of musicians. It was instant friends all over the place.”
Henry, who had at that time recently received his masters in mathematics, got a job with the state as a computer programmer, a pretty cutting edge field in the 1970s and one that he knew very little about.
“There was some mistaken idea that a math background made you suitable to be a computer programmer. I never saw that they had any relation at all, but I was used to studying hard so I studied hard and figured out how to do it,” Henry said.
The Henrys, who had been living below the poverty level in Texas, soon found themselves living comfortably for the first time. The steady income also made it possible for Henry to quit playing paying music gigs at the Crystal Saloon downtown.
“I decided it wasn’t good for me to play for money because it warped my view of things,” Henry said. “When you’re playing for an audience, you want to make them happy, and the audience there wasn’t always happy with what I wanted to play.”
By 1980, Pat and Jeanie and their two children, Katie and Hiram, were living on Kennedy Street on Starr Hill, in the bright green house where Pat and Jeanie still live. Over the years the house has become an informal jam spot for Henry and his friends, who fill the rooms with music at least once a week. Henry also takes part in a weekly jam session on Seventh Street with friends, and said he tries to learn new songs for these gatherings as often as he can.
Henry started his musical journey on the piano, but became restless with the strictly classical repertoire his teacher wanted him to play and turned to stringed instruments, beginning with the ukulele.
“I thought it was a weak-sounding instrument so I put some heavier (steel) strings on it. It was a plastic ukulele so it pulled the top right off of it.” He laughed. “That completely wrecked it.”
A turning point in his musical life came in seventh grade, when, by chance, he spied an acoustic guitar in the closet of his English classroom in San Angelo, Texas.
“I went over and picked it up. It had three strings on it. So I was plunking around it on it, not knowing what I was doing. And the teacher came in and she said, ‘Why Pat, do you like that guitar?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s fine.’ And she said, ‘Well, you can just have it.’ So she gave me this fine old Gibson guitar that her son had stopped playing and that was what made it possible for me to learn how to play.”
Henry said one of his big regrets is never having told his teacher, Mrs. McKenzie, what she did for him.
“She changed my life and I never told her,” he said. “I kept meaning to, but it didn’t happen.”
Henry writes most of his own material, often focusing on political issues. Some of his inspirations include Buddy Tabor (a Folk Fest mainstay since year three), Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen. Sunday’s performance will include original songs Juneau audiences have probably not heard before, he said, and will feature family members including Katie and Hiram, and Katie’s teenaged children. Katie and Hiram have both performed numerous times on the Folk Festival stage, and Katie is an established singer-songwriter in California.
Jeanie, Henry’s wife of 53 years, also plays a vital role in the family music dynamic, Henry said, by giving feedback on the songs he writes.
“Her opinion about things, I closely pay attention to it, because she knows what she’s talking about,” he said. “If she likes one, that’s good, and if she doesn’t we kind of abandon that one.”
This year, Henry served on Folk Festival board — along with Erin Hanson, Sergei Morosan, Daniel Martin, Bob Schroeder, Jamie Brown and Rachel Brown — taking part in the “agonizing” task of having to put about 50 musicians on a waitlist due to the overwhelming number of interested players. Board members discussed the idea of expanding the festival to more days or more venues, but that would diffuse the audience and cost more money, so it’s unlikely that will happen in the near future, he said. Expenses for the event — including money for the guest artists, guest band and hall rental — is all paid for by community donations, and the board lives closer to the edge than they would like.
“It’s completely donation driven. So anybody that feels like joining up sure would be welcome! Some people, I think, don’t realize that there’s a need,” Henry said, adding that he’s happy that Folk Festival has retained it’s core principals over the years, remaining free and open to musicians of any level of ability.
“As soon as you claim to be a musician, you’re in,” he said. ”If you can get up on stage in front of a bunch of people, that’s all it takes.”
Henry will be performing at 7:45 p.m. on Sunday at Centennial Hall. He also played a set with Bob Banghart as “We’re Still Here” on Saturday night.
• To read Henry’s favorite folk festival moment, and those of other musicians, visit http://juneauempire.com/stories/041009/ent_427822103.shtml