Now in its sixth year, the Bellingham Folk Festival celebrates all aspects of traditional and contemporary folk music, right here in the heart of beautiful Bellingham, Washington. This year the three-day festival will be held January 24 through 26, 2020. With inspiring workshops, stellar performances, lively dances, and community jams there is something for every age and ability. The festival blends local novice and professional musicians with international touring artists to cover a range of tastes and interests within the broad genre of folk music. With a variety of ticketing options, the whole family can attend all weekend, a single day, or a single workshop/performance.
The event is held at the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship (BUF), a beautiful historic building with lots of smaller rooms for workshops and a community room for evening performances.
📷: Kenneth Kearney
How it All Began
I recently spoke with the festival’s founder, long-time Bellingham-area resident Cayley Schmid. She has made folk music the central focus of her life—through teaching, performing, and organizing local festivals and clubs.
As a child, Schmid traveled and performed competitively throughout the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and even Australia as a Scottish highland dancer with Bellingham’s Clan Heather Dancers. Although Schmid danced to Scottish music, she hung around after her lesson to watch the Irish dancing class where she was first introduced to Celtic music. Her parents had Chieftains and Natalie MacMaster records and they took her to see Riverdance. But the biggest influence on her path was when her dance group performed at Mount Baker Theatre with Anna Schaad, who lived in Bellingham for at least 20 years.
“Anna had this long velvet gown, a smoke machine, and an electric violin playing Irish tunes and it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” remembers Schmid.
Schmid took many years of lessons from Schaad and later when Schaad moved away from the area, she passed her music students on to Schmid.
Schmid created the first Bellingham Folk Festival in 2014 in order to continue to provide local opportunities for her students and others in the community. It was such a success that it became an annual event. With the support of local sponsors and help of a few volunteers, including Schmid’s husband Aaron Guest, Schmid has almost sold out the festival each year.
📷: David Johnson
After she got the festival rolling, Schmid realized she wanted it to happen more often than a single weekend each year. That’s when she launched Bellingham Folk School.
“I wanted to start teaching group lessons on a drop in basis without a lot of cost,” explains Schmid. “We want kids to come try it and see how much fun it is.” Schmid now teaches three different levels of children’s classes as well as one for adults.
While Schmid’s performance experience has focused on Irish music, her teaching experience has broadened, with a range of styles within the folk genre including Scottish, American, and Swedish tunes. “I feel passionate about preserving and respecting the history of the music while also being open to learning new, fun tunes. That history can inform you but it doesn’t have to rule you,” adds Schmid.
When not teaching and festival planning, Schmid plays fiddle with two Bellingham-based bands. Giants’ Causeway is an Irish and Scottish folk band and Polecat, one of Bellingham’s most popular bands, has kept Schmid busy on the fiddle for eight years.
Workshops for All
With over 50 workshops to choose from, it won’t be hard to find the right fit no matter what your age or experience is. A number are technique workshops are offered, including those for the fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, guitar, tambourine and even a couple I’d never heard of like clawhammer banjo and hardanger fiddle.
Don’t play an instrument? No problem. Schmid made sure to include a number of workshops that don’t require prior musical experience or your own instrument. There are several singing and dancing workshops to choose from. You can learn to two-step, focus on harmonizing, learn to write songs or call dances, or just come together in song.
📷: Kenneth Kearney
Each night the festival closes with a performance. Although each night is different, the shows consist of a 20- to 30-minute performances by three to four performers. This year, organizers have added a special pass for all three evening performances.
Friday evening performances at BUF kick off with a journey through Scandinavia with Fru Skagerrak followed by country blues and American roots with Port Townsend’s George Rezendes. The evening closes with the musical legacy of Bellingham veteran musicians Richard Scholtz on vocals, autoharp and dulcimer, Laura Smith on vocals and old time banjo by Evan Ingalls.
Saturday evening the BUF opens at 6 p.m. with performances by Pacific Northwest artists Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, Channing Showalter and 3 Play Ricochet, and Brazilian music by Andrew Fin Magill and Nando Duarte.
At 8 p.m. on Saturday perhaps one of the most fun events of the festival begins, a contra dance with music by The Golden Gems. The dance can be attended a la carte, or is included in the price of the concert ticket for that evening. You can also choose from two off-campus events on Saturday night. George Rezendes will host an open Jam at Honey Moon Meadery beginning at 8:30 p.m. The Firefly will host Sons of Rainier Duo at 9 p.m. followed by the epic Nordic folk group Sver who have come all the way from Norway and Sweden (as well as presenting several workshops during the weekend).
Sunday evening’s show begins at 6 p.m. at BUF with McKasson, McDonald & McLane, followed by Michigan-based Red Tail Ring and then the festival closes with Sver.
If getting together with fellow musicians just for the joy of the jam is your thing, there are at least four options for you. You can probably guess that the Slower Than Dirt Beginner Old-Time Jam and Turtle Jam are at a relaxed pace. The Scandinavian Jam and Roda de Choro (Brazilian jam circle) focus on a single cultural type of music. There’s also a free late-night off-campus open jam at the Honey Moon on Friday evening.
Because the event is well attended, Schmid is urging folks to buy tickets early. She’s even made it easy to give festival attendance as a gift to your favorite folk lover. The festival is run as a nonprofit so donations and sponsorships are tax deductible.
📷: Kenneth Kearney
Bellingham Folk Festival is carrying on the folk music traditions and local and Pacific Northwesterners couldn’t be happier.
“I hear from the elder community how happy they are that we’re introducing this history to a younger audience. It’s also a great opportunity for young people to see their peers into to the same thing and bringing people together,” notes Schmid.
Plan your week-long, weekend or day trip full of folk music fun today!