Alaska Folk Festival: Researching its Origins and History

Poster with a blue night sky with constellations of a wolf, a swan, two fish, a bear, a moose, a whale tail, and a woman holding a banjo with the earth as its head with the text underneath that reads: "Nineteenth annual alaska folk festival april 12-18, 1993; centennial hall- juneau, alaska
Image credit: 19th Annual Alaska Folk Festival poster, artwork by Bill Hudson, courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Greetings, all!

The Alaska Folk Festival is currently underway here in Juneau from April 8-14 at Centennial Hall. 2019 marks its 45th year, and to celebrate, we’ll take a look back at the first few years as covered in local news at the time.

There is precious little information about the inaugural Folk Fest. The official website lists no program or poster- not even dates.  Under its “History”, the website states the following:

“The Alaska Folk Festival was born on a cold winter evening in 1975 when a half dozen Juneau folk musicians decided to put on a performance in the Alaska State Museum and grandly announced it as the First Annual Southeast Alaska Folk Festival. Eight musicians and an audience of several hundred friends had so much fun that evening that it was obvious there would be more such festivals.

Workshops were formed the following year so that specific skills could be passed on to other musicians, and almost 30 performers were on the program which was extended to 3 days. By 1977 the annual festival had become a regional event with over 50 performers from throughout Southeast Alaska adding their talents to those of Juneau’s musicians.”

On the “Early Years” section of the website, taken from TRAVEL by Mike Miller
from the March 1984 Alaskafest magazine, p 15 – 17, gives further description of this first folk music festival:

“It was called the Southeast Alaska Folk Festival, but even that title was probably too grand at the beginning.

What happened was, a bunch in Juneau who enjoyed pickin’ and strummin’ and making music the old-time way were talking one cold winter night in ’75 and everyone agreed that what they needed–what the whole town needed — was a musical break from cabin fever.

So, without anticipating the grand tradition they were putting in motion, they contacted the state museum, reserved the Governor’s Gallery, and — as much in humor as in actual expectation – named their one night stand the First Annual Southeast Alaska Folk Festival.

More than 400 musicians and spectators showed up to plink, plunk, play the bones, sing, stomp, and revel in the fun of shared entertainment in the folk tradition.

Even before the end of that first night it was established that this event was going to happen every year.”

Given the importance of the Alaska Folk Festival to Juneau, and to the state of Alaska as a whole, I sought to find more information about these first few years that established this beloved tradition.

Using the “cold winter evening in 1975” as an entry point, I looked through the January-April reel of microfilm from the Southeast Alaska Empire (now the Juneau Empire). After combing through page after page,a mere sentence beneath the “Happening In Juneau” community calendar contained the sole mention of a folk music gathering:

Happening in Juneau: Folk Music: The Alaska State Museum will sponsor a workshop in folk music theory at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.
Image credit: March 18, 1975 issue of the Southeast Alaska Empire, courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Published on March 18, this brief news item indicates that the First Annual Southeast Alaska Folk Festival was held March 19 and 20, 1975 and was billed as a “folk music workshop”.

Looking through the Alaska State Library Historical Collections, the manuscript collection contains a collection of Alaska Folk Festival Programs, the earliest of which dates to 1978. For the 1975 festival, Bob Banghart and Laura Lucas provide recollections of the performers in lieu of a printed program:

Performers at the First Alaska Folk Festival, 1975: Chicken Ridge Rowdies-- Dan Monroe, Alan Munro, Michael Grey, June Hall, Paul Disdier, Bob Banghart; John Palmes, Dan Hobson, Bob Pavitt, Pat Henry, Av Gross; [info from Bob Banghart & Laura Lucas on 3/1/04]: There might have been others, but Bob & Laura were fuzzy on the recall. Jeff Brown said he was NOT there. Others that Bob and Laura thought could maybe have been performers were? Joe Malonowski? Marlien Lesh? (not sure of first name spelling) Jane Wade? The Hand Bell Ringers? Or, maybe things have blurred between years, and these folks weren't AFF#1 performers. Bob said, maybe Dale Wygant has some additional ideas and recollections. (Does that mean Dale was there?)
Image credit: courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections as part of Manuscript Collection 118 (MS118).
Each year, this folk music festival grew in popularity and in offerings to the public. Word of mouth spread and in the following year, the Second Annual Alaska Folk Festival now included a poster and more substantial press coverage- with a schedule of events!

Poster with gray background with a black and white photo of band musicians from the 1910s with text that reads: "The second annual Alaska Folk Festival at the Alaska State Museum April 3 & 4 featuring concerts, workshops, and a square dance; for more information contact the museum."
Image credit: poster from the 2nd annual Alaska Folk Festival, created by Paul Disdier and Ron Klein, courtesy of Alaska Folk Festival, Inc.
Alaska State Museum Holds Concert, Workshop: If you like folk music, the Alaska State Museum is the place to be this weekend. And bring your folk instrument if you'd like to play in any of a host of workshops for the beginner and more advanced. It's all free with no reservations or tickets required, and includes a concert at 8 p.m. Saturday by more than 15 local musicians. Sponsored by the museum, the Second Annual Southeast Alaska Folk Jamboree has been organized with the help of about 40 volunteers. Local musicians will lead informal workshops in guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dulcimer, harmonica, singing, autoharp and dobro-- a guitar developed in the 1920's from the Hawaiian steel guitar. Saturday's free concert, to be emceed by Bob Pavitt, will include Av Gross, Pavitt, Y.B. Yokum and his Bluegrass Serenaders, John Palms and friends, Gloria Barclay, Frank Jones, Sparky Sparkle and Al Eagle, Daly Wygant, Harper Anderson, Pat Henry, John Lager, Jean Wade, Claudia McConnell, Doyle Burnett and friends and Bill Hudson and associates. The Saturday Schedule of workshops: Beginning guitar, 10 a.m. to noon, Dan Hobman and other will teach basic chord patterns, bass runs and finger and flatpicking techniques; Banjo workshop, noon to 2 p.m. Mike Grey and Conner Sorenson on several levels and kinds of banjo playing; Original songs, 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. John Palms will lead and everyone is invited to bring his own composition and share it; Advanced guitar, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Pat Henry coaches finger-picking, Palms on flatpicking, and Bill Hudson on open tunings. Sunday's workshops, to be held in the Governor's Gallery: Gospel singing, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Dulcimer, 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., led by Harper Anderson and Laurie Rogers; Autorharp, 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., taught by Pavitt and June Hall; Fiddle, 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Gross, Mike Grey and others will show how it's done; Dobro, 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., led by Jeff Haynes; Harmonica, 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., by April Disviw and David Levine.
Image credit: from the April 1, 1976 issue of the Southeast Alaska Empire, courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

It’s hard to believe that the Alaska Folk Festival has grown in size in the past 45 years from these humble beginnings!

If you are in Juneau, check out the entire program schedule and don’t hesitate to visit a jam spotworkshopsdances, and more. 

Special thanks to Alaska Folk Festival Inc., Mike Miller, Bob Banghart, Laura Lucas, and Jacki Swearingen.

For more information about this year’s Folk Festival, check out http://akfolkfest.org/

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