April 11, 2012
The functions of critic and novelist don’t always sit comfortably together but Scott Alarik’s case is an exception. A folk music critic for the Boston Globe for more than 20 years and a singer/songwriter himself (he performed regularly on A Prairie Home Companion), he’s now a novelist who has writ- ten not only a gripping novel but one that takes place in the folk music world and, in many ways, defines and demonstrates what’s unique and special in that world.
The novel centres on Nathan Warren, a singer/songwriter/ guitarist who runs open-mic nights and jam sessions at Dooley’s, a Boston pub. Once considered the artist most likely to be “the next big thing” before an unreleased album and years of drinking scuttled his career, he’s now clean and sober and an elder statesman of the local scene. Into this milieu comes Kit Palmer, another promising young singer/song- writer who plays fiddle and gui- tar. She’s extremely talented but has a paralyzing case of stage fright. As they get to know each other, Kit creates both artistic and personal sparks that clarify Nathan’s past, focus his ener- gies, revive his life, and create difficult choices for him as both a man and an artist.
Alarik obviously knows the world of the Boston folk scene intimately but his great skill is in conveying that understanding through intelligent, well-de- veloped characters, scenes and a tactile atmosphere. He’s obviously also given a great deal of thought as to what sets folk music apart from every other musical scene and his insights are vivid, clear, and thought-provoking. He captures the entire world of the music, not just the musicians and personalities but the critics, music companies, managers, publicists, sound people and volunteers who organize the venues in coffee houses, bars, festivals, camp fire singalongs and even house parties.
Folk music, like the title of the book, is a music of constant revival and it’s both the theme of the book and its plot. “Tradi- tion,” he says at one point, “is a living thing... It’s a force of nature, a river still running, its current denying our attempts to freeze it in time, file it away, fix its origin or destination.”
There’s a great scene where Nathan and his friend, the fictional critic, Ferguson, are discussing the music and Ferguson points out the apparent conflict that so-called “purists” sometimes miss:
“There’s a funny thing about purists,” Ferguson said, “I have this weird vantage point because I’ll be writing about bluegrass one week, Celtic the next, then maybe the blues. In every kind of music, there are certain artists the purists point to and say, ‘That’s the yardstick. That’s when it was pure, so that’s how it should always be played’.”
“But here’s what’s odd,” he whispered, as if he was sharing a great secret. “The artists the purists point to are always people who changed the music. Always. Think about it. In bluegrass, it’s Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. But man, they invented a whole new way of playing. In Irish music, it’s Turloch O’Carolan, the blind harper from the 1600s. But he broke all the rules; I mean, he wrote chamber music! The jazz purists point to Louis Armstrong, and he’s another guy who changed everything... purists set the rules by exalting people who broke the rules.”
There are these kinds of insights every few pages in the book. At one point the protagonist points out, when discussing carols, that, “the original meaning of the word carol was simply a song meant for dancing, used for rituals, especially to mark the passing of the seasons. Once, long ago, carols for spring, summer, and fall were as important as Christmas carols.”
The characters in the book are just as important as the insights, however, and it would be a very indifferent reader who doesn’t become emotion- ally involved with Nathan, Kit and their friends. Revival is a joyous celebration of life and music and one that deserves to be widely read.
by Barry Hammond, Penguin Eggs Magazine, Spring, 2012