PRESCOTT - Thirty-two years ago, Sharlot Hall Museum staff invited about 50 folk singers and musicians to play informal concerts at the museum for one day each year.
This Saturday and Sunday, more than 300 musicians strum, pick, pluck and sing their hearts out during the museum's 32nd annual Folk Music Festival.
"It's just a beautiful, big party where children know each other, families know each other, the musicians know each other and it's like a big family reunion," said Jody Drake, Sharlot Hall Museum's education curator and Folk Music Festival director.
The festival kicks off at 10 a.m. Saturday with Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble, and ends at 5 p.m. Sunday with a band scramble, in which individual musicians join each other and perform as temporary bands.
"Back then, it was a very modest, one-day event," said Warren Miller, who started helping with the festival during its third year, and stayed with it for the next seven years. "The museum invited musicians to come play on the grounds, and that was about all there was to it. Everyone performed for free."
Miller, 64, guesses that in the early years the festival drew a crowd of about 500 people.
Around 1978, the museum staff bumped up the festival to two days and doubled attendance the first year. And Drake estimates that the 2009 festival drew more than 5,000 music fans.
She credits the variety and quality of performers, professional workshops, and impromptu jam sessions for drawing large crowds to the event.
"The porch musicians give anything to jam with the pros, which is what makes this festival so special," Drake said. "What happens around the stage is sometimes bigger than what happens on the stage."
"I'm particularly pleased that a lot of musicians met each other here for the first time and went on to perform together as bands or duos," Miller said.
Miller performs with WPA, and said that he loves folk music because it's "so honest" and is uncomplicated and the musicians live close to the earth."
People who are unfamiliar with folk musicians and envision elderly people sitting in rockers strumming and singing may be pleasantly surprised when Tucson-based Silver Thread Trio takes the stage. The three women - Caroline Isaacs, 35, Laura Kepner-Adney, 28, and Gabrielle Pietrangelo, 33, - draw huge crowds with their sweet vocals and angelic harmonies.
"I love folk because it has the loveliest tunes," Pietrangelo said from her home in Tucson. "But more than anything, it's the stories that the songs tell."
Although the group plays instruments, their specialty is a cappella and three-part harmony.
"We want to focus on old folk songs from the Appalachians," Pietrangelo said. "We really enjoy integrating and updating old songs."
"Most musicians consider folk music the origin of their roots," Drake said. "There's blues folk, jazz folk, contemporary folk, punk folk - you name it. It's like taking a big funnel and pouring in all these different kinds of music, and out comes folk music."
In addition to the showcase stage and amphitheater, musicians play the gazebo, Blue Rose Theater, Sharlot Hall Museum and Transportation buildings, and the Ranch House. Workshops include, but are not limited to, fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin, ukulele, children's instruments, and cooking with artichokes.
Checker games are scattered throughout the campus, and food and beverages are available. Impromptu jam sessions and porch concerts happen all weekend.
A special event happens at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Elks Opera House when Trimble introduces folk legends Katie Lee, the "Queen Mother of Arizona folk music," Peter McLaughlin, Women on the Move, and Silver Thread Trio. Tickets for the Elks show cost $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For ticket information, call 777-1370.
Each day, tickets cost $3 for museum members, $5 for non-members, and is free for 18 and younger. The museum is located at 415 W. Gurley St., in Prescott.
For a complete schedule of events visit www.sharlot.org or call 445-3122.