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An Interview with Scott Alarik

Like the email interview with Andrew Calhoun (see elsewhere on this website), this grew out of curiosity I had about the subject of the book review, after I'd already written it. So I contacted Scott, whom I've known for some time thro his involvement in the FOLKDJ-L Internet discussion list we both belong to, and asked if he'd be willing to sit down and respond to some questions, like the following.... He consented, here you go, from now on basically you are in the hands of Scott Alarik, long-time performing singer-songwriter and also folk music (folk life?) critic for the Boston Globe newspaper. Let's let Scott tell it:

Date: Saturday, May 15, 2004 4:22 PM

John: Scott, Where does the term "Deep Community" come from? (It's a great phrase, and it sounds so...anthropological?)

Scott: It seems to reflect back different things to different people - just like a good folk song does. The entire title, including the subtitle, "Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground," came to me whole-cloth a good year before Black Wolf Press approached me about the book. I've been very proud to hear "deep community" being used as kind of a "zeitgeist phrase" to describe our world today. In the recent Peter, Paul and Mary PBS special, Weavers singer Ronnie Gilbert (one of my heroes) said, "You know what folk music is, it's a deep community." She told me later that ever since she read the book, she's been using that phrase. It felt like getting an honorary doctorate.

I have found that "community" is the word artists and fans most often use these days in describing what folk music is to them. To some, it describes the social way the music is supported today, by volunteers and among communities of fans. Others use it to describe how the music is different from most pop songs, that it deals with real people's real lives.

The word "deep" can refer either to what a long, ancient tradition of community music folk belongs to, or to how firmly planted this music is in the lives of the people who love and support it. Or that this is a more thoughtful, reflective music form than some other. As with definitions of folk music, I think all answers are correct. Whatever it means to you, you're exactly right.

John:
Can you discuss further the reason for the non-chronological presentation of the pieces in the book? (They do group very nicely - almost like the stages at an eclectic folk festival, or the block programming of a radio show!)

Scott: Your description of how they group is just what I was after. I did not want to put them chronologically, because I wanted the entire book to feel contemporary. It's a book about the folk world as it exists today. I also didn't want to group them by artist or genre, because I didn't want people to cherry-pick stories about their favorite artists, and leave the rest for later (that's also why I didn't want an index in it). I wanted people to approach it like a buffet, to soak in the vastness of the modern folk waterfront. The rule-of-thumb I used was to put it together the way one might assemble songs on a CD. Sometimes there were obvious connections, one Irish story leading to another. But my favorite connections are the unlikely ones, like Donal Lunny's story about modernizing the sound of Irish music leading to Hankus Netsky's story about doing the same things for klezmer. In so many ways, they're telling the same story. Sometimes, as with a CD, I just made decisions based on groove, mood, length, feeling I needed a funny story here, a short, snappy one there. I wanted the collection to read like a book, with each story somehow threaded to the one it preceding and following it. To me, it's all the same lovely world, and I wanted the reader to share that feeling.

John:
How did you come to write for the Boston Globe in the first place? (Was there much of an apprenticeship, or heavier editing initially rather than later? - but maybe that counts as two questions...).

Scott: The dumb but true answer is simply, "I was asked." I moved to Boston from my native Minnesota in the mid-80s. At that time, I had worked only as a traveling singer-songwriter, and had no plans to change that. I was asked to write for a little folk magazine called "The Black Sheep Review." The Globe's folk and theater critic, Jeff McLaughlin, read my stuff and asked if I'd like to write for the Globe. He was looking for someone to take over the folk beat he almost singlehandedly created, and within a year-and-a-half, I was working pretty much fulltime as a journalist. The paper was very folk-friendly at that time, much more so than it has been since being bought by the New York Times a few years ago. The Globe at that time prided itself on being a writer's paper, so I never experienced the editing horrors many writers do early in their careers. They also tend not to work over freelancers as much, which is what I am, because they're simply not invested in conforming them to their stylistic voice. And they like writers who are storytellers at heart. Folk music is a great teacher for that - and for many rudimentary journalistic things, such as the importance of a good lede and what it's supposed to do; knowing how to form shape and scope to your story before you begin to tell it, so you know what's necessary and what's not. And of course, telling believable stories in small spaces - the old folk ballads are the best teachers you can have for that, I think.

John: Are there any pieces left out here that you'd like to have included if the book could have been longer? (For example, would you have included your writing from the *New England Folk Almanac* on what Paul Stamler has called "The Rashomon of folk music," Bob Dylan's appearance at Newport in 1965, and would you have changed it any if you did? - again, maybe that "for example" pushes one question into more than one, and maybe you would want to skip that one for another time...).

Scott: Oh yes. I trimmed the collection down four times. I've been writing stories almost weekly for the Globe and Sing Out for nearly 20 years, not mentioning the 7 years I spent editing and writing for the New England Folk Almanac. My criteria became to include stories that revealed something about the way this music exists today, rather than just including the big stars or major events in recent folk history. With a few exceptions, I excluded stories that were purely historical, because I wanted this to be a book about today. Not that I don't think history is important or fun - I love pondering folk's olden days - but there are books out there like that.

John:
Would you care to discuss your "other life" as a performer, with what you think that might have contributed in helping you write this book? Could you say something about that life, your current gigs, your current recording and so on, so that people could get a sense of Scott Alarik the folk musician apart from Scott Alarik as folk journalist? - again, maybe two questions, maybe not...).

Scott: For the first 15 years of my adult life, I was a professional folk singer based in Minneapolis. I was fortunate enough to be a local performer where Garrison Keillor launched A Prairie Home Companion, so I became a regular guest performer on that show during the years it was becoming a national phenomenon. It was about the only national airplay for folk music back then, so it was an enormous career-boost. To me, I didn't change jobs when I became a folk journalist; I just changed tools. I've loved turning people on to this music in my shows, mixing traditional and contemporary songs, seeking out the connections that bind folk's past to its present. I believe the best old folk songs did not survive because they were old, but because they continued to speak contemporaneously to generation after generation. That's always been a focus of my performances, so it was an easy leap for me to telling the music's story in a newspaper. For a time, the demands of creating a new journalism career sidetracked my performing, but I play coffeehouses around Boston pretty regularly these days. I love being on a folk stage; audiences give so much back.

John: Any thoughts on how you see Vietnam as compared to Iraq, Scott - if it isn't getting us too far off the subject of folk music (and I can just hear Pete Seeger going, "What? What?")...?"

Scott: In 1969, I resisted the draft by refusing to register for Selective Service and served nineteen months in federal prison. Being a folk singer actually was very helpful to me. I would perform in the compound nearly every night, and made friends of some pretty hard cases who, I found out later, put the word out that I wasn't to be messed with. Talk about the healing power of music! In this case, it kept me from NEEDING to be healed!! Folk music has taught me that it's always useful to look back in time to help understand what's happening today. Sadly, I see far too many parallels with our Vietnam experience, particularly in our government's strange failure to understand the ferocity of anyone's nationalism but our own. We never understood that about Vietnam, either, despite their long, remarkable - and fierce - history of nationalism. Similarly, we thought Saddam's tyranny would translate into a welcome mat for us, never taking into account the powerful latent nationalism that would emerge as soon as he was toppled. History tells us very loudly that as long as we are there, we will remain the point of conflict. What heartens me today is how quickly many Americans seem to be figuring these things out, speaking out against the war, and understanding it is not disloyal to our soldiers nor unpatriotic to protest administration policies. Boy, that took a long time with Vietnam. The desire to be supportive of our troops in the field kept people silent about that war for years. It wasn't until 1969 and 70 that the really massive protests began. Those who oppose the war should be very encouraged by recent poll numbers showing a majority of Americans opposing the war - this is happening very, very fast. And I must say I have great hope for John Kerry. I simply cannot imagine someone with his history presiding over a quagmire like Vietnam. As annoyingly mealy-mouthed as he can be, he's been a good senator for Massachusetts. Most people here just sort of roll their eyes fondly when he starts to spout, because the poor dear has just been a senator way too long, and thinks the sound of his voice is a thing of magic and fancy. Back to my own experience, I can remember thinking when I listened to Kerry speak out against the Vietnam War what a shame it was that he was ruining his chance at a political career. We were all certain he would never be able to run for senator or president after opposing the government so radically. I'm sure he felt the same way, but, ambitious as he clearly was, he was willing to make that sacrifice. It shows me we have made some progress if a guy with his past can run for president. It also reassures me he's got more genuine conviction and integrity than he sometimes sounds like he does. When you take a stand like that, it doesn't wear off - that's the gift it gives you.

Thanks so much for allowing me - and the folk world - this forum. As long as people like you continue to express your love for this music by finding little cracks in the Big Wall that allow it to grow, we'll all be in good hands - Scott Alarik

(And thank you for taking time out of your busy writing and performing schedule to share some of your thought on this "Deep Community" we all belong to, Scott. Best wishes for your book and for your current CD, -30- (the title being the tagline for "end of story in newspaper journalism, obviously), both book and CD being available thro the website for Black Wolf Press, www.blackwolfpress.com. Hope you enjoy the rest of our website as you take a look around it - John McLaughlin)