By Art Menius for Artmenius.com March 2, 2012
Scott Alarick, Revival: A Folk Music Novel (Portsmouth: Peter E. Randall, 2011), 312 pp.
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Revival is a serious and important book about folk music that takes the form of a page turning novel. And, believe me, for anyone in the folk world, Revival is a page turner. Alarick delivers a fabulous introduction to the folk music world and as clear an exposition of the connections between the contemporary scene and folk traditions as can be found anywhere.
To say it is an excellent book is not the same as saying it is a great novel. Revival is not that, although consistently entertaining and well written. This, however, is one of those books – 100 years ago they were common; think Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, or Upton Sinclair – where the ideas explored are more significant than the story or typical character development. Scott could have posited his ideas in non-fiction form. I have heard him do in lectures. Instead, he employed a more entertaining method.
An exchange on page 243 captures the central thrust of Revival – a simple proposition that those who want to move forward must know the past. The protagonist, Nathan Warren, legendary in northeastern folk circles for his almost was a star status, is dining with old friend Ferguson. The latter is a freelance music writer for the Boston Globe. Where did Scott, who spent a score in that role, get the idea for that character?
‘All people’s music,’ Ferguson said.
‘Exactly. It is authentic because it’s real, not because it’s old, or Irish, or Appalachian. That is so hip. It took me years to figure it out.’
‘There’s a funny thing about purists,’ Ferguson said…. “The artists the purists point to are always the people who changed the music. Always. Think about it. In bluegrass, it’s Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers…. Purists set the rules by exalting those who broke the rules….’
Nathan let out a long breath, still looking out the window. ‘And that’s how the big river keeps rolling along, isn’t it? We spend part of our lives thinking we’re rebelling and part of our lives thinking we’re resisting rebellion. But we are always doing what the big river wants. What the tradition wants. Taking it up and passing it on.’
The plot is more that of a film than a novel. Nathan is living a middle aged fantasy – a second lease on life thanks to a passionate affair with a much younger singer, songwriter, and fiddler, Kit Palmer. James Mason made a career playing these parts on screen. Nowadays, I’ll cast Steve Earle as Nathan; Paul Giomani as Ferguson, Melissa Leo as Jackie the bartender, and classically trained musician-turned-actress Lucia Micarelli, the street fiddler on Treme, as Kit. Both because of and in spite of Nathan’s help, her career has taken off. Not entirely unlike when 22-year-old harmonica player Annie Raines met Paul Rishell, the country blues guitar player twenty years her senior, in a Boston bar in 1992, and formed a durable partnership.
As their relationship and Kit’s career blossom, Nathan examines his life. He explores how to get out of his own way, and hers, at mid-age, as well as The role of elders in the folk community. . This drives the plot.
Of more interest, perhaps fascination, for most readers will be the myriad details ring true for any veteran of the folk world. Scott takes the reader on an inside tour through the New England folk community of the past thirty years. Some real people prove obvious, such as Betsy Siglin as Betsy Stotts. Others are less clear, more likely compilations.
A disquisition on why some singer-songwriters succeed both artistically and careerwise, Revival also concerns itself with the meaning of home and how to get back there as much as the “Wizard of Oz.” Alarick’s home is the Boston folk scene. He brings it to life on the pages of Revival.