Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Saturday, April 28, 2012

“Revival: A Folk Music Novel” by Scott Alarik (Peter E. Randall)

This review breaks new ground for this particular blog - I have never reviewed a novel before, and didn’t expect I ever would. Indeed, it has been many, many years since I’ve so much as READ a novel. But Scott Alarik is an old friend of mine, albeit someone I haven’t seen for close on to 30 years, so I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to peruse this book.

Scott Alarik came out of Minnesota during the 1970’s as a singer-songwriter with a deep, sensitive voice and songs to match. After moving to Boston in the 1980’s, he became a folk-music journalist, writing about one of the most active, most vigorous folk-music scenes in the country with the same levels of awareness and discernment he brought to lyric-writing. Now, he brings his writing skills and knowledge to a novel based in that same Boston-area folk scene, not merely to tell us a story, but also to make cogent observations about the worlds of traditional and contemporary folk music, and the ways these related genres nourish each other.

On the surface, this would appear to be a love story. Nathan Warren is an aging singer-songwriter whose once-bright future stalled, spiraling him into a rut in which he manages to survive by hosting an open-mike, overseeing a jam session, and teaching guitar to students who possess very little potential to ever match his skills. His efforts in these roles are appreciated and highly respected, yet they represent a much lower level of success than was originally predicted for him. But then, a much younger, more modern-styled singer-songwriter named Kit Palmer enters his life through the open-mike, and the two become lovers as well as collaborators. Much of the storyline revolves around their burgeoning relationship, as well as Nathan’s attempts to point Kit toward a musical direction and career path best suited for her talents.

At first it seems as if Alarik might be offering us a roman a clef. In the opening segments, set largely at the open-mike, I was entirely convinced that I knew exactly who Nathan Warren was supposed to be in real life. Then I realized that in many ways Nathan Warren must stand for any number of open-mike hosts whose dreams of a bigger platform for their talents never emerged the way they’d hoped it would. Other characters likewise have inexact or composite parallels in the real world, including a local folk-music critic named Ferguson, whose role in the folk community seems very much akin to what I suppose Alarik’s own role to be in Boston. It is no doubt always a mistake to think that authors are incorporating themselves into their own novels in exact replica. But I’m probably safe in saying that Scott Alarik is in some measure writing about what he knows in the delineation of the Ferguson character, as well as others in the book. I suppose there are people who will read this book with the primary purpose of seeing who else they think can identify, But they would only be shortchanging themselves by doing so, as there is far more at work here than a mere reproduction of particular people at a particular locale, in a particular time.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter who the characters may or may not be modeled after, or whether they are composites of people the author knows. The more one reads, the more Nathan, Kit, and several of the other characters become newly-created individuals, not merely “types”. And the deeper one gets into the reading of this book, it starts to become clear that this is not merely a love story about a middle-aged has-been-who-never-was and his beautiful young lover on the way up. Indeed, it is not really about the people - it is about the music. Nathan instills in Kit an increasing love for the traditions which lie at the foundation of folk music as practiced in the 21st century, traditions which Alarik is careful to discuss openly with the reader. Likewise, Kit teaches Nathan some of the contemporary realities of up-to-date songwriting styles - Alarik inserts adaptations of real songs by Dar Williams and Antje Duvekot (fully credited in an appendix) to stand-in as songs written by a young female writer of considerable talent - while at the same time, she incorporating elements of the traditions she learns from him. Nathan performs traditional songs at his open-mike, while welcoming new songs by newer writers,. He guest-lectures on traditional folk-music at Harvard, and eventually teaches a folk-music-history class at a local folk venue. Alarik gets to draw from his own considerable knowledge of folk traditions, in the service of revealing some of the ways in which older and newer styles of folk music draw from each other. One can read these insertions as adjuncts to the love story, or one can interpret the love story as a means by which the author may express eternal truths about the way folk-music progresses, by always renewing itself while retaining kernels of the old realities, which never really become old, after all.

Thus, the title “Revival”, a book about a cultural idiom - and about characters - perennially in the process of renewal. This is not merely a novel set in the world of folk music, it is ABOUT folk music. Thus, the subtitle, “A Folk Music Novel”, is entirely appropriate. I would think anyone who cares deeply about folk music, its past, present, and future, will find much pleasure and much to ponder while reading this book. I recommended it highly.

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