Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Revival: A Folk Music Novel by Scott Alarik (Reviewed)

From Dave Rowe-
   And here's another of Eric Barraclough's folk reviews from The Reluctant Famulus. Famulus means a sorcerer's apprentice, but you all knew that already, of course.
   This time around it covers a folk music novel by folk singer/songwriter, Scott Alarik.
   Thanks again to Eric Barraclough and TRF's editor, Tom Sadler, for permission and text.

A Folk Music Novel!
Eric Barraclough

A Folk Music Novel
Scott Alarik
Songsmith   2011

   What is like to be a folk singer in the 21st Century?

   With downloads, CD Baby, streaming audio and record producers needing one million dollars just to get a  once and forgotten hip-hop record into the Top Forty?

   The answers can be found in the interlocutions of Scott Alarik’s first novel, Revival.  Alarik can do this with some authority as he has been both a singer/songwriter and journalist for forty years or so.  Added to which, Revival won the Silver Benjamin Franklin Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association (the Gold went to Third and Long by Bob Katz ).

   The conduit for all this is a love story.  Two love stories actually but don’t let that put you off.

   The love story within the narrative, is between young Kit Palmer ( a highly talented singer/songwriter/instrumentalist bedeviled by introversion and stage fright) and Nathan Warren, a man almost old enough to be her grand-dad.

   Robbed of the chance of stardom in his early days, Warren descended into alcoholism, then climbed out and scraped out a living hosting an open mike night, a jam night, and teaching guitar while accepting the largess of friends and fans with long memories.

   “Once -and it never felt as long ago as it really was- he was soaring to stardom so fast it took his breath away.  A short way up.  And now, here he was, scraping someone’s gum off the small stage:  a career open-miker, as close to a professional amateur as it is possible to be.”

   “After a tiny Massachusetts record company released Nathan’s debut album, he signed to a major label amid much media hoopla.  The story of how the label executive sought him out at a neighborhood coffeehouse while visiting a daughter at college became part of Boston music lore.  The local papers all wrote about the album before it came out.  It was even whispered about in Billboard.  This kid is going places.

   “But his star-making album was never released because of a staff shake-up at the major label.  The executive who signed Nathan was fired for reasons that had nothing to do with Nathan or his album.  But no one who remained at the label wanted to help somebody else’s discovery become a star.  If it became a hit who could take the credit?  And if it was a hit, questions would be asked.  What happened to the guy who signed our big new star?  Why isn’t he at the label anymore?  In short, the album’s potential became a reason not to release it.  Now, more than twenty years later, it still sat in the label’s archives, on some dark, silent shelf.”

   In conversation, the author has revealed that happened much more than people realize.

   So the narrative’s love story is Kit and Nathan but the novel’s love story is Scott Alarik’s love affair with folk music voiced through Nathan and a folk journalist, Ryan Ferguson.  Often the folk scene is referred to as a community and explored as such.  In fact, Alarik’s non-fiction book (a monumental collection of over 300 interviews with folk singers and organizers) is titled Deep Community.  Nathan also displays a pedantic knowledge of history as well as the variants in the evolution of traditional folk songs.

   “Nathan also wanted to show the students that one way traditional songs differ from modern ones is that they changed as they traveled and were sung by new singers, new generations, new cultures,  A traditional song could have dozens, hundreds, even thousands of variations - the folklorists called them variants.”

   Revival displays next-to-no “villains.”  That is to say except for Nathan’s own self-doubts about himself and about love which create stumbling blocks again and again.  It’s fair to say if there was ever a film made of this and Hugh Grant could look like Martin Shaw with a beard and sing like Doc Watson then Hugh Grant would be a cinch for the role.

   In fact Nathan’s self-doubts are so frequent that an old fashioned typesetter setting this book with hot metal type would have ran out of question marks.  As it is, Songsmith (the publishers) have used a typesetting programme with what is best described as idiosyncratic spacing.  Having only one space after a full-stop may save paper but it takes a little time to become inured to.

   Alarik (despite being a journalist) has a conversational style of writing which helps draw the reader in.  He can also take a flowing multi-viewpoint to a given subject.  To use another film analogy, he’s like a hand-held camera moving around the subject, taking in odd angles and coming to rest at an unexpected one…

   “…Randall Cahill (was) a middle-aged MIT professor who liked to be introduced as Ramblin’ Randy.  He was one of the most loyal regulars, and Nathan fondly thought of him as the Charlie Brown of the open mike.  That was partly because of his round face, but also because of the sublime pleasure he took in singing for people.

   “At MIT, he was some thing of a legend, a professor of something so complex that Nathan couldn’t understand it, despite several patient attempts by Randy to explain.  All Nathan knew was that it had something to do with germs and computers.  And that Dr. Cahill had led MIT research teams that won major science awards.

   “So Ramblin’ Randy was no fool.  He was also no musician.  But he took such exuberant joy in performing that he seemed to not comprehend, or at least not care, that he often sounded foolish.  In his youth, he’d probably toyed with being a folksinger but realized he had no talent for music.  He compensated for that with an almost manic enthusiasm.  Nathan liked him a lot.”

   And as Alarik is a songwriter there are some beautifully written passages and phrases…

   “It almost sounded like the guitar was trying to stop sobbing, sighing to regain its breath before resolving into an elegiac strum of the root chord.  Nathan let it ring out, like fading bells in the night air, and the crowd remained silent until all the sound had vanished.”

   “On the blackest winter nights, Nathan would listen to the Tallis piece over and over, eyes closed, leaning into the sofa, until his body felt like fog.”

   “…he enjoyed this little street so much, with its cacophony of architecture.”

   “In a few days, she would be gone for longer than she’d ever gone before.  And he would be alone again.  For the first time that he could remember, he was afraid of distances growing, like long shadows, between him and someone he loved.  Because for the first time, the shadows were not coming from him.”

   “(Ferguson) liked the Periodistas (a rum drink), because it meant “journalists” and had a kick like Hemingway’s shotgun.”

   Alarik also included true stories from the folk world such as how Lightnin’ Hopkins conned money out of several recording corporations after they’d never given him all his earnings.  Such as Tommy Makem saving deluded folksong collectors from embarrassment.  Such as Pete Seeger outwitting Franco’s censorship and Seeger’s wonderful distillation of musicianship as a profession… “he actually said this to Tao Rodriguez, his grandson.  He’s a folksinger, too, and started performing with Pete when he was a teenager.  One day after a show, Pete said he wanted to tell Tao a secret.  ‘If you’re a musician,’ he said, ‘it means you are going to die unfulfilled.  It means you’ll spend the rest of your life on an upward learning curve, because you’ll never be as good as you can be.  You’ll die an apprentice, a student; and there’s nothing better than that.’  And then Pete added, ‘To have achieved the best you can be - that’s a tragedy.’”

   There is one major fault with Alarik’s writing and that is when he forgets his strengths.  His people (not characters) are very specific and real, as are the shops, coffeehouses, streets and towns.  All have names.  Or nearly all.  And there lies the fault line.  When a  venue or its organizers are mentioned as ciphers, when a girlfriend with whom Nathan had a torrid love affair is introduced but not named, then the reader is suddenly snapped back to the realization of looking at a book page instead of being ensconced in Alarik’s “reality.”

   Alarik’s “reality” is slow but not ponderous.  It could be said to be like a slow moving train which allows you to not only just observe the scenery but to understand it.  Like a slow moving train it also allows you the time to visit different compartments and meet interesting and informative people and befriend them.

   To his credit, Alarik also engages a effectual ploy of using real folksongs written by women, for the songs that Kit Palmer writes during the novel.  They are used with permission and the ladies are credited in a list after the novel.  They are no less than Dar Williams, Nicky Mehta and Antje Duvekot.  The last of whom would probably be far better known if people only knew how to pronounce her name.  It’s German, AN-tyuh DOO-va-kot.

   Scott Alarik, himself, lives in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A. only about a mile from where the accused Marathon Bombers lived.  He got rather narked with the right-wing, hate-radio jockeys who pontificated that the authorities act of demanding everyone stay in their homes (thus shutting down Boston after the bombings) was yet another sign of the encroachment of all powerful, all enslaving, big government.  In fact, Alarik (as a resident of Boston) can tell you that Bostonians received three robo-calls.  The first two REQUESTED that residents stayed indoors and the third was to give the all-clear and ask people to leave their rubbish out as it would be collected a day late due to the shut-down.

   When performing, Scott Alarik employs a right-handed style of playing despite being left-handed but as he is a traditionalist he doesn’t use guitar-wizardry fretwork.  On his right-thumb is a right-angled plectrum, that and his first two fingers do most of the picking and strumming while his vocals are somewhere between Doc Watson and Burl Ives.

   Another attribute he does have in common with Nathan Warren is that he loves encouraging young musicians.  He has openly admitted that on his last CD (All That is True), the only player over thirty was Scott Alarik himself.
 Journalist, folk musician and author Scott Alarik