The first-timer’s guide to Folk Fest

Jam circles are a highlight for many attendees of the Alaska Folk Festival. Art by Libby Stringer.

There’s no music more real than the kind found at a real live folk festival. It’s the kind of place where genuineness is more valued than knowing how to play an instrument. There’s a little something for anyone willing to put a little something into it.


The mention of “Folk Fest” in Juneau elicits a variety of responses from the different types of people in my life, and understandably so. For local musicians, the festival is basically a dream come true delivered to our front door. If music isn’t so much your thing, it’s understandable why the draw may not be so strong. Many long-time Juneauites I’ve talked with have never even set foot at the annual, week-long festival. Some say the reason they stay away has to do with a fear of the unknown.

Here’s the thing: Folk Fest isn’t just one thing: it’s hundreds of things. That’s the magic of it.

The Centennial Hall main stage is arguably the main event, and the Alaska Folk Festival board takes tremendous care to curate a great lineup of performers with a changing cast every 15 minutes. Equal opportunity is given to first timers and seasoned performers who apply for a set, upping the realness factor in a big way.

For those who don’t like sitting in a chair in the hall for hours, jam sessions and dances are held across the parking lot at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. Even those who choose not to leave the house can listen in on the main stage acts via FM radio or webcast.

You’ll most likely find me making an imprint on the seat of a chair in the lobby at Centennial Hall, where some of the most real music of the festival occurs. The impromptu jam sessions are the highlight of the festival for me. The stuff isn’t planned and there’s no telling what will happen. I learn so many new tunes each time I step into a jam circle, listening for melodies and watching the fingers of neighboring four-stringed instruments as my guides. I am blown away every time I play with these folks, amazed at the countless chord progressions, tunes and sets of lyrics they have memorized.

The truth is, the festival and its spillover offer something for everyone, no matter what you’re into. Downtown and valley businesses offer special events. Workshops are offered for those who are not musically inclined but would like to be. Folk Fest usually sees some of the first t-shirt weather of the year, and the cruise ships have yet to arrive so the streets are still peaceful. Best of all, the festival is offered free of charge thanks to member donations. There are so many good things going on during this week, it hurts, and the risk of overdoing it is real.

Seasoned festivalgoers know the secret to self-sustainability during Folk Fest that can take years to learn: You can’t do it all. Just accept the fact that you will inevitably miss some events that you wish you’d attended and don’t beat yourself up about it. The best place to be during Folk Fest is wherever you are, enjoying the present moment and keeping it real.

• Libby Stringer may be reached at


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