Northwest Folklife Festival features more than 6,000 acts

Stress-free listening: Learn how to navigate eclectic celebration with more than 6,000 acts at Seattle Center

Staff writerMay 25, 2012 

Situation one: You’ve driven around the Seattle Center for an hour trying to park, paid through the nose, trekked a mile in the sun, missed your favorite Norwegian fiddle band and now you’ve been standing in a burger line for 20 minutes while your kids scream at you.

Situation two: You’ve planned ahead, seen several cool folk acts you never knew existed, eaten a quick and early lunch and are now ready to chill beside your favorite stage.

If you’re planning to go to the Northwest Folklife Festival, the enormous folk-world-indie music and dance extravaganza at Seattle Center this weekend, you know which situation you want to be in. However, with more than 6,000 acts and yet another new venue (the Seattle International Film Festival’s screen) covering the entire expanse of the Seattle Center, you don’t want to jump into Folklife without knowing how to do it right. After all, stress and folk music just shouldn’t mix.

“It’s absolutely gotten bigger,” said Dale Chesnut, a Puyallup ex-fisherman and storyteller who has attended the 41-year-old festival with his wife, Joanna, regularly since 1973. “It’s been so widely known – we have a friend who comes from Florida (for it).”

Volunteers and performers (Joanna plays the hurdy-gurdy and leads contradances), the Chesnuts have spent the past six or seven festivals renting a hotel room nearby and attending the festival the entire holiday weekend.

“For us, that’s much more enjoyable than driving up every day,” Chesnut said.

The drive (and the parking) is just one thing festival novices need to navigate. The sheer size of the festival, spread out over multiple indoor and outdoor venues with acts that range from bluegrass to Bollywood, is another.

Even the festival’s revamped website acknowledges this with a special blogpost on how not to be overwhelmed at Folklife.

Yet the festival is one of the most popular in the region, if not the country.

The Chesnuts constantly meet people they know there.

“It’s like a reunion,” Dale said.

So how do you do a stress-free Folklife? Take these tips from festival staff and regulars like the Chesnuts to make the most of this smorgasbord of folk:


Consider renting a hotel room nearby or in downtown Seattle, especially if you would like to attend more than one day. Compare the cost of a room with gas prices and $15 parking fees, and think of it as a mini-vacation.

If you have to drive, arrive very early and carpool. Lots and street parking fill up by midday.

Taking the bus might be the best option from the South Sound: See local transit websites for schedules and routes, and remember the Monorail makes a fun way to get there from downtown Seattle.


Dale Chesnut suggests you read through the program before you go to get an idea of what you want to see. The program is downloadable at or available in hard copy from King County libraries. At the very least, pick one up at one of the entrances.

Acquaint yourself with the map. Try to find shows you want to see within the same vicinity, advises one poster on the festival’s blog, to avoid unnecessary walking around.

Crowds are biggest during fine weather, after 2 p.m. and on Monday. Friday often is the least-crowded.

Prepare for the weather. You’ll be out in it a lot. Bring sunscreen, hats, rain jackets, whatever you think you’ll need. Don’t forget water and snacks.


“You can stand in some pretty long lines,” Chesnut said. His advice: Think about food before you get hungry.

If you have kids, bring your own food too, so you won’t have to trek back to the central food truck section from a far-flung music venue.


“My philosophy over years of Folklife is, don’t have high expectations,” said Joanna Chesnut. “There’s so much going on and you can’t do it all and hear everything you intended to. You have to have a sense that you’ll be guided to hear what you’re supposed to hear. You might walk by something that’s totally intriguing that you’ve never heard of. That’s part of the game.”

Some of those intriguing acts might, in fact, be totally new to Folklife itself. Some of the new items on this year’s program include the inaugural Northwest Stringband Throwdown (6 p.m. today, Fisher Green Stage), In the Loop featuring folk bands that use modern technology (7 p.m. today, Folklife Café), Northwest Improvised Jazz (7 p.m. today, Center House Theatre), Bollywood Showcase of Indian film dance (8:30 tonight, the Ex Hall), electronica video jockey showcase (1 p.m. Saturday, EMP Sky Church), ukulele showcase (3 p.m. Saturday, Center House Theater) and cutting edge community films in the SIFF Film Center (ongoing).

Don’t forget the buskers. One of the delights of Folklife isn’t even on the program – it’s the hundreds of ad hoc performers doing everything from Celtic fiddling to unicycling around the pathways of the Center. Drop a dollar if you like what they are offering and you’ll encourage them to come back next year.

And remember that the whole point of Folklife is to enjoy folk – even the thousands milling around you or ahead of you in the gyro line. Kick back and enjoy what happens.

“I think most people that go have a grand time,” Joanna Chesnut said.

Northwest Folklife Festival

When: 11 a.m.-10 tonight through Sunday; 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday

Where: Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle.

Cost: Free, but suggested donation is $10 individual/$20 family.

Getting there: If driving, arrive by midday to park in nearby lots. The monorail also goes from the Westlake Center downtown to the Seattle Center.

Information: 206-684-7300,

rosemary.ponnekanti@ 253-597-8568

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