Baron Wormser. Songs from a Voice: Being the Recollections, Stanzas, and Observations of Abe Runyan, Songwriter and Performer. Norwalk, CT: Woodhall Press, 2019. 178 pp. $17.95.
REVIEW BY Tommy Shea
When you’re making yourself up, there’s no map.
– Abe Runyan
He’s a kid from Somethingsville, Minnesota, a place where the wind hits heavy on the borderline, where the rivers freeze and the summers end way too soon.
Before the age of twelve, Abe Starker’s hobby was stamp collecting. But then he was gifted a beige transistor radio. And he started hearing voices.
Hank Williams, Ma Rainey, the Carter Family, Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed . . .
They became another family, different from his mother, father, sister, and grandmother, but no less real.
The new voices sounded like “they were coming a long distance. . . . They weren’t perfect, but that’s why the songs existed, because things weren’t perfect.”
Something then started to change inside Abe Starker.
He was already taking life seriously. He thought a lot but felt even more. His wanting became different. Then Abe diagnosed himself with an incurable case of the metaphysical blues. He had a guitar in his hands when he did.
Abe decided he wanted to take himself home, “to my truest place—my imagination.” He wrote a song, then another.
“What I wanted to do wasn’t taught in any college,” he said.
Abe ended up in Greenwich Village.
Under a personal construction, believing he was in need of a new name, Abe came up with Runyan.
It rhymed with that of his childhood hero, Paul Bunyan, and was also the name of a dead New York writer who wrote about guys and dolls and didn’t need it anymore.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it is.
But this is a new story, as alive as today.
Weaving fact, fiction, and a rare sensitivity, Baron Wormser is a storyteller who’s a master at crafting revealing moments, growing pains, discoveries, and, in prose as smooth as a rhapsody, explores how deep a song can go.
In his novel Songs from a Voice: Being the Recollections, Stanzas, and Observations of Abe Runyan, Songwriter and Performer, Wormser uses the young and old Bob Dylan as his muse.
And those of the Dylanish main character.
Along with Man and God and law, the rest of the sparks to his flames are all here: William Blake, Little Richard, Lord Randall, Odetta, Dostoevsky and Modigliani, just as they all are on Montague Street in the basement down the stairs.
Baron Wormser must have been there, too, leaning close, listening, thinking, taking it all in and all down, merging the music and the art into Abe Runyan, someone who sings from the pages as real as your favorite song.
Dylan fans will nod along to the familiar journey. Readers who don’t know a thing about the North Country will nod as they reflect on the captivating tale of self-reinvention via art that goes on to reinvent the world.
Both camps will find the lyrical in Wormser’s style, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. This Maryland-born, Vermont-based author of seventeen previous books is also an acclaimed and longtime poet who served as the 2000 poet laureate of Maine, where his life included nearly twenty-five years living off the grid, a timespan and experience gorgeously chronicled in The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid. He’s very much at home dipping his pen into political topics, as he did so deftly in the poems that fill Carthage, a timeless and timely look at the toxic combo of top-level power and ignorance. And fiction set against historical events is not a new avenue for Wormser—find his novel Tom o’Vietnam for his view from a fictional veteran’s boots and journey. Songs from a Voice sings to the author’s ability to take the winds of the old days that are an inspiration and make it his character’s own, to make us want to follow each step Abe Runyan takes, and have the front row seat for not only each song but each sentence.
Wormser has said his goal was to have the reader “feel the complexity of an artistic imagination as it issues from one particular life.” That might be the only time he erred on any of these pages, because we take not just one but two men’s creativity and gifts with us when we close this book, feeling keenly the complexity of both Runyan’s and Wormser’s gifts to the world.