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7 January 2017

Why Elijah Page is the best folk singer you’ve never heard of

Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W B Belcher reminds us what a good setting the folk scene can be – and what rich characters you can place in it.

By Erica Wagner

Surely you’ve heard of Elijah Page? A voice from the past, yes, but a voice you remember: he played guitar and stood up alone to sing about injustice and heartbreak in the days when it still seemed possible to change the world. Dylan, Guthrie, Seeger, Page – performing in clubs and at festivals, for ­audiences that took those voices to heart, that shaped their lives according to the songs they heard.

In reality, you are unlikely to have heard of Elijah (or Eli) Page, because W B Belcher invented him for his debut novel – but Page is a pretty convincing concoction. A compelling performer in his day, he vanished from the scene and, it seems, disappeared completely, as the narrator, Jack Wyeth, relates. Wyeth is a Page-obsessed folkie, a millennial with father issues (his guitar-playing dad left when he was five) who drops girlfriends and dead-end jobs like so much change from his pocket, never able to settle, never knowing what he wants.

One day, out of the blue, he gets a call from Eli Page’s manager. Page is ready to write a memoir; all he needs is a ghostwriter. Wyeth takes the job and goes to upstate New York but when he gets there he discovers, perhaps unsurprisingly, that his task is not as straightforward as he’d hoped.

The American folk scene offers a good canvas for the shattering of youthful illusions. It is hard to avoid comparing this novel to the Coen brothers’ haunting 2013 film, Inside Llewyn Davis, in which Oscar Isaac plays a 1960s folk musician based on a singer called Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk gets a namecheck in Belcher’s book and, for those who love conspiracy theories, it may be worth noting that the writer who helped Van Ronk put his posthumously published memoir together was called Elijah Wald.

There’s more. Albert E Brumley’s 1929 spiritual “I’ll Fly Away”, which you can find on the soundtrack of the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, also gets a mention here. This is the kind of knitting together that is intrinsic to folk on both sides of the Atlantic, where old tunes and new tunes circle each other and bind until it becomes hard to tell them apart.

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Folk is – let’s be frank – always on the margins. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be a place for rebellion and protest. Both Eli and Jack are marginal figures – even in their own lives, it seems. What brings them together is a need to escape from the confines of the present day, though that desire takes different forms. Eli has become a crank, a near ­recluse: imagine Bob Dylan crossed with J D Salinger and you’ll start to get the picture.

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Belcher’s portrait of small-town life and the dark currents running under any surface is well done, and it’s clear that the author knows the drill. He lives along the same river, the Battenkill, that winds through the book; he is also on the board of directors of Caffe Lena in New York, the most venerable folk venue in United States.

Perhaps, at times, the material is a little too close to his heart. One of the strengths of Lay Down Your Weary Tune is its sense of mystery, but that mystery is stretched out just a little too long. What is going on with Eli? Who is responsible for the strange spate of crime in town? The story is a good one – laced with lost fathers and vanished daughters – but like those long, long Child ballads, it wouldn’t have suffered by losing a verse or two. And sometimes the similes get out of hand: wine glasses that “chirped like falsetto birds” when they clinked; a spine curved “like a lazy creek”. It’s lovely, but occasionally distracting.

The characters, however, are vivid and true. Jack becomes enamoured of Jenny, whose connection to Page is a puzzle right to the end of the book. Jenny is soft and strong and real, and her attachment to her ex-fiancé, a bullying local police officer called Cal, perfectly convincing. Eli stays just out of focus – but by design, dimmed to himself as well as to the people who try to get close to him. In the final pages, Jack finds a moment in which he sees: “Everything was perfect and everything was perfectly broken.” That may be the vision he has to live by. I’ll be happy to listen to the next song Belcher chooses to sing.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W B Belcher is published by Other Press, 408pp, £13.99

This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain