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A Dispatch from the Alaska Folk Festival

I’m a born procrastinator. So the last ten days before Folk Fest found me frantically strumming my guitar at all hours, building up my calluses to prepare for the main stage.

I wasn’t alone. Much of Juneau lights up during Alaska Folk Festival season, humming with the energy of rehearsals in a hundred households. After two years without an in-person festival, that bottled energy felt quadruply intense.

The Alaska Folk Festival is one of the highlights of life in Juneau. Music fills downtown for seven solid days, with over 120 acts booked on the main stage plus several workshops and dozens of community concerts. Most visiting performers are from the Cascadia states, but some folks come from farther afield, flying thousands of miles just to play a free 15-minute set at the festival, sometimes tacking on a bar gig after hours. They must feel that the sense of community is worth it.

The main stage is special, set up as a listening room for an audience of hundreds in Centennial Hall, the civic convention center. Kids and adults alike crowd the floor up front, and sometimes dancers whirl in the back. Juneauites who otherwise don’t pick up an instrument all year form bands just for this one brief performance. Musicians come out of the woodwork, some you’d never expect, playing in styles seldom heard. The main stage of the festival is free to attend – it’s music by everyone, for everyone.

But a lot of the fun happens outside Centennial Hall. Juneau’s small, walkable downtown lights up for the week, with music ringing in the streets. Impromptu jams start absolutely everywhere – in cafes and parks and backyards and alleyways – and people crowd every downtown bar to dance all night.

At 2am when the bars close, the ancient, labyrinthian Alaskan Hotel fills up and the party rolls on, with musicians in almost every room. I remember my first time there: on a Saturday morning at 4am, I wandered away from the Gypsy jazz band in one room past a ripping bluegrass crew from Kodiak, through a singalong of old union organizing songs, around an Irish session on the stairs, and into a Cajun jam with folks dancing in the hall. Whiskey and a battered package of Oreos were being passed around like communion, and even though nobody knew me, I was entreated to partake.

A citywide celebration like that is part of what makes living in soggy Southeast worth all the wind and water. So it was very hard on this community missing two years of in-person Folk Fest.

Like most institutions, the AFF had to adapt during COVID. Because it takes place in April, 2020’s festival was called off during lockdown. In 2021, the first-ever virtual Alaska Folk Festival took place, thanks to imaginative board members with vision, community members with technical chops, and a massive effort by the public to submit home videos of their songs. Expectations were admittedly low for just another online event, but the results blew everyone away.

I was reminiscing about the virtual festival this week with Erin Heist, a Juneau songwriter, producer, and former board president of the AFF. “It was unbelievable,” she said passionately as we sat on her deck in the chilly spring air. “I was so burned out on online performances, I was really skeptical – and I could not tear myself away from it. It was so lovely. Getting to see everybody’s faces and performances in their homes – I was overwhelmed by it.”

That was the audience consensus, and I agree. Seeing the community’s resilience in the spotlight, one heartfelt performance after another – including many bands that synced video from multiple households, uniting musicians that couldn’t meet in person – it was deeply moving. More people could participate than ever before, including folks who once lived in Juneau but moved away, and that was very special. Over and over I texted my friends with applause when I saw them play and sing, nearly brought to tears hearing them in my own living room after a long stretch of citywide silence. Those collected videos live online where we can revisit them anytime, and sometimes I do.

Erin was steadfast in her conviction that people are hungry for local music – whether it’s on a screen or in a concert hall – and that they always will be. She shared an anecdote with me about a gig her husband’s bluegrass band played in summer 2021, not long after the virtual folk festival. It was at Tracy’s Crab Shack, an outdoor setting on the water, one of Juneau’s only open-air venues.

“I arrived a little late with my friend, and we were like: ‘What is going on?’” she recounted. “And as you got closer and closer, there were like three or four hundred people dancing, just losing their minds to bluegrass! It felt like one of the craziest shows I’ve ever seen in Juneau. I remember walking up and asking ‘Who are all these people? Where did they come from?’ My friend walked around and started asking. And it turned out to be this whole generation of younger Juneau people who had turned twenty-one – right before the pandemic or during the pandemic – and so they actually hadn’t seen a live bluegrass band at a bar, ever, and they just didn’t understand what it was like. So…Coming through the pandemic, I think there are just as many people here playing music, loving to listen to music, as there ever were.”

This April, Juneau returned to Centennial Hall in person. We brought vaccination cards and ID’s, we gave each other space, we wore masks the whole time, except while performing. Aside from that, the Alaska Folk Festival 2022 was the same celebration it’s always been. After so much time apart, it was a lovefest, too. We got to enjoy people’s new haircuts or beards, new outfits, new fiancées and new babies. We all teared up and laughed and shouted and danced. I realized how little I’d raised my voice in two years.

It was amazing seeing what other people had done since 2019. People trotted out new bands and new skills and new instruments, and the audience’s excitement to hear them made the air crackle. I played my own solo set on Saturday night with plenty of mistakes, rusty after so many months of silence, but the charged atmosphere made it hard to be as critical as I normally would be. We were all together again, and we were all trying new things, and the trying was good.

“This year, having Folk Fest happen again was…” Erin Heist paused and decided to include the virtual Folk Fest in her thought as well. “Actually, the last two years, the way that Folk Fest has happened has been really reassuring, as far as thinking about our community’s resilience. And this year, having Folk Fest in person – the hall was full! People were so excited to be there, and so excited to play. There were new faces along with the same faces you’ve seen every year for forty years. …It was so clear that people had been so hungry for music.”

I asked Erin what she thought about more live concerts heading into the summer and fall. She was optimistic, despite the obstacles, despite the venue closures, despite the ongoing struggle to match rooms to bands and make the money work.

If the crowds at Folk Fest were any indication, she’s absolutely right. I’m encouraged by our resilience, too – not only that people are out dancing in the streets again this year, but that while we stayed home to protect one another, even then, the music never stopped.

Children warm up their instruments in the lobby of Centennial Hall during the Alaska Folk Festival.

Marian Call is a singer, songwriter, and producer based in Juneau, Alaska.

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