A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors


Book Reviews
: The Digital Folk Life. Org

Book Review: Scott Alarik, Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground, * with Photographs by Robert Corwin.
Copyright 2003, Scott Alarik. Published by Black Wolf Press: ISBN 0-9720270-1-7. 401 pages.

Did you ever read a book that you wish had been around for twenty or thirty years, because of all the doors and windows it opened into a niche community - a “deep community,” in Scott Alarik’s happy phrase – so that you begin to understand something important about its richness and texture?

Scott Alarik’s *Deep Community* is one of those books. Basically a compilation of his columns on folk music and its surrounding community, as they appeared in the *Boston Globe* newspaper, with a few exceptions (some of the articles are reprinted from "Sing Out! ", the folk music magazine-of-record), the book meanders along, here some articles on Boston-area Irish ( and Irish American) music and its musicians’ home lives off the road, there a few articles on the rich bluegrass community in New England, here some articles on the singer-songwriter community, as it continues to evolve into yet another small, independently-maintained “Renaissance,” its progenitors and supporters traveling from church basement coffeehouse to church basement coffeehouse – a largely New England phenomenon, Scott maintains, and gives reasons for the claim – and there some discussion of the “business” of folk music, one of the most fascinating problems in the confrontation of an anti-capitalist ideology with the realities of making a living (not a killing, warns Utah Phillips), in the postmodern world where feminism and Marxism come to terms with low-level corporate response to a music that in some sense precedes the modern world but in other senses is as up-to-date as the daily newspaper.

It’s a complex balancing act, explaining the folk community to itself while opening it out to the readers of the "Boston Globe." It succeeds in large part because Scott can fer sure turn a phrase, in the combined phone interviews and concert or record reviews that appear again and again throughout this collection. It takes a sharp eye to see the shabby drifters in Bill Morrissey’s story-songs, “wearing teen-aged grins on middle-aged faces.” It probably takes the ear of a performing musician (Scott has his own CD, *-30-* in circulation now [you can find it at, or else go to], most of it recorded live at Club Passim in Cambridge, and featuring his own silky baritone), to catch the delivery of John Fitzsimmons, “New England’s saloon singer laureate,” hearing how his “rich baritone is a marvel of honest restraint and casual phrasing, but with an alluring satin resonance shimmering underneath” (could be describing himself, huh?), or to zero in on Lead Belly teaching children to do the exhaled “Whah!” at the end of each line of “Take This Hammer,” until “giggles overtake them – and very nearly Leadbetter.” Perhaps, indeed, it does take a fellow songwriter to convey Richard Shindell’s “uncanny sense of the theatre of a song, building his ballads sparely and subtly, set to sweeping, graceful melodies.” Not for nothing does Pete Seeger proclaim that “Scott Alarik is one of the best writers in America,” promising that “You’ll enjoy this book.” In the end, it’s difficult to disagree with Dar Williams when she pronounces Scott Alarik, “The finest folk writer in the country.”

So if you want to understand how coffeehouse volunteers and festival organizers work together to form the “deep community” of the title to this rich collection of brief essay/reviews, so that the music is to be understood as an extension of people’s lives, the performers embedded in the audience, the concept of the “star system” alien to the entire enterprise, this is the book to get. There are a staggering 304 newspaper or magazine pieces gathered in these 401 pages, and once you start reading, with Garnet Rogers, Greg Brown and the Nields responding to the teaser, “How is a modern folk star measured?,” you may find it near-impossible to stop until you have reached the concluding discussion, with Dar Williams and Jess Klein, Catie Curtis and Ralph Jaccodine discussing how “The pop world is ignoring folk music again,” and why most indie musicians hardly notice. If you hadn’t thought about how the Internet and inexpensive CD production have freed traveling musicians from many of the constraints of prior generations, from doing business thro third parties such as mangers and booking agents, let Scott Alarik explain it to you. It’s an education a week for "Boston Globe" readers. Now you can have it too.

(Review copyright 5/9/2004 by John McLaughlin)