Alaskans have had some big anniversaries this year: The ‘64 earthquake and the Exxon Valdez oil spill among them.
Acoustic musicians celebrated their own anniversary last month in Juneau: the Alaska Folk Festival’s 40th. The week of concerts attracts hundreds of singers, pickers and strummers and thousands of fans from around the state.
CoastAlaska’s Ed Schoenfeld has attended most of the 40 events. He took a walk down memory lane with some folk fest old-timers and filed this report.
That drawl, those droll lyrics and the guitar licks have all been part of the Alaska Folk Festival, since it began in 1975.
They’re from Pat Henry, one of two– and only two – people who’ve performed at all 40 events.
Sharing the stage is Bob Banghart, the only other person who’s played every single festival.
I catch up with Henry as he heads outside the concert hall for a smoke on this rainy night.
Ed: “So, what’s it like to walk in and realize it’s the 40th year and you’ve been here for every one?”
Pat: “I think it’s pretty amazing that I’m here. I never expected to live this long. It’s all gravy.”
The folk festival began in the main gallery of the Alaska State Museum.
“Oh my gosh. It was, of course, a lot smaller,” longtime festival volunteer Barbara Pavitt, said. “And I don’t remember exactly how many acts but it was just one evening, probably a couple of hours. And maybe a hundred people came.”
The event quickly outgrew that space. Now, concerts, workshops, jam sessions and dances are held in and around Juneau’s Centennial Hall Convention Center.
Over the decades, Alaska’s folk, bluegrass, jazz and rock-n-roll musicians made the festival part of their annual calendar.
One is Greg McLaughlin, who plays the concertina in a Celtic dance band.
His first time was about 35 years ago, when he caught a ride down from Fairbanks. He says he didn’t quite know what he was getting into.
“I saw a sign at the Hungry Dog Cafe that said, ‘If you want to go to the folk festival, the bus is leaving at midnight,’” McLaughlin said. “And there were about 16 hippies who showed up and we all piled on to this bus and we came down to the Alaska Folk Festival.”
He liked what he heard – a lot. He recently retired after many years as president of the festival’s board.
A lot of regulars started coming as teens or young adults.
Others began as kids, and never stopped.
Photographer Brian Wallace was more into Alice Cooper than “Alice’s Restaurant” back at the beginning.
But he walked into that first, 1975, festival by accident. And he’s been taking pictures and listening to music ever since.
“Every year it kind of regenerates itself, like the phoenix,” Wallace said. “The old guard passes on and we saw those two young kids up there and they can’t be more than 10, 12, 13 years old and they’re going to be the old guard some day.”
Some of those kids are from Pat Henry’s family.
Those concerts where they played are his favorite festival memories.
Pat: “I’m a proud daddy and a proud granddaddy.
Ed: “So do you think you’ll be here for the 50th?”
Pat: “I would like to think I’ll be here. It I’m still going and can, I will.”
If he is, you’ll find him up on stage, leading a crowd of musicians in the traditional festival finale.
“Irene, goodnight. Irene, goodnight…”