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Musicology 101

Dave Alvin: "One of the things we've done with our folk music is we've declawed it, defanged it."
Stephen W. Smith

"I'm not a musicologist," Dave Alvin insists for the third time in 15 minutes, "but let's say you have a certain amount of knowledge that there was a higher percentage of, maybe, Africans from the northeast quadrant of the continent in a particular section of the American South, as a result of the slave system. Now, you can trace those influences throughout the music of that area -- all the music, by white and black players and songwriters. Or Tex-Mex, you can say, 'Well, the accordion style was a European import that came from polka bands . . . but the fiddle style comes from someplace else, and the guitar style comes from another place.' You can trace a variety of things to a variety of influences.

"You really want to get another side of American history? Go back and pick up some reissues of those old 78s, old 45s, from some of those songwriters. You'll hear it."

If Dave Alvin isn't a musicologist, he'll do until the local college hires one. I mean, I hear Bob Dylan never took a creative writing class, either, but I wouldn't presume to correct him; and likewise, the best thing to do when Alvin starts talking music is just sit quietly and learn a little bit.

What Alvin means by that repeated apologia, you see, is that he doesn't have "academic" credentials. But it only takes a few minutes to realize that he's very learned, ferociously learned, on the subject of American folk music and its long, convoluted history. Since you may not find yourself in the fortunate position of hearing him ramble, though, your best bet is to pick up a copy of Public Domain on Hightone Records, upon which Dave Alvin's Guilty Men, a crack collective of roots musicians, run through 16 interpretations of jewels from America's cluttered and complicated folk-music songbook.

Though Alvin himself likely wouldn't phrase it this way, Public Domain is an album 33 years in the making. When Los Angeles-born Alvin was 12, he and his brother Phil began a lifelong prowl through junk shops, thrift stores, people's attics, antique stores and anyplace else that seemed promising in search of old 78s and 45s. Anything and everything, from folk to bluegrass to gospel and blues, went into their collection. Dave Alvin listened to those records, and he listened hard. Then he went and found more records, and he read up. And he traced the sounds he heard all over the map, from Delta blues to the Piedmont guitar sound, African-American fiddle players to Reconstruction-era gospel. In Alvin's case, "self-taught" wasn't by any stretch a code word for "untrained"; he went at his study with the intensity of a full-on scholar.

Come the 1980s, both Alvins were working in the Blasters, an acclaimed roots-rock outfit that developed a hard-core fan base during the second wave of SoCal punk. In the late '80s, the Blasters disbanded, and Dave Alvin found himself involved in a variety of projects. He served as guitarist for seminal L.A. punk band X (as well as its acoustic offshoot, the Knitters) and front man for the all-star collective called Pleasure Barons, and maintained a solo career that saw his songs covered by artists ranging from former collaborators X to Dwight Yoakam. 1994's Tulare Dust, an album of Merle Haggard covers, was Alvin's first full-ahead country project, though the influences had been there all along; 1991's Blue Blvd. is probably the best example of his merging of roots-rock with country overtones, and well worth the seeking out.

But Public Domain is another beast altogether. If Dave Alvin's solo career has been a long nod to the musical traditions from which he's drawn in order to craft his own songs, then his latest album is an explicit unpacking of those influences, the laying bare of his own musical roots, going back well over 100 years. Public Domain is to Alvin's career what Good As I Been to You is to Dylan's, and though it's decidedly less traditionalist than Dylan's homage, it's every bit as respectful, every bit as knowledgeable.

And it also happens to be one of the best albums of the year, in case anyone's keeping score.


"We tend to tame things in America," says Dave Alvin. "We've tamed the land, the rivers, animals -- and we've tamed our folk music. That's what the album's subtitle, Songs From the Wild Land, refers to. There aren't any morals to these songs."

The 16 tunes on Public Domain --15 listed and one, an amalgam of Big Bill Broonzy's "Saturday Night Rub" and Georgia Tom Dorsey's "Hokum Stomp," unlisted -- will sometimes be familiar to the folk music aficionado, but more than likely, these are songs that you'll only have heard a snatch of here or there, or in a radically different form. Early on, Alvin decided that the m.o. for this album would be deeply personal -- fair enough, given that he'd tried to faithfully represent the vast tradition that had helped shape his own songwriting -- and that meant he often intentionally passed over songs that were too closely associated with a particular interpreter.  

"When I was choosing which blues songs I wanted to put on the record," he says, "most of the really great ones have been covered, and they've been covered a lot. I didn't want to do songs that were absolutely connected with a single writer . . . so that meant I didn't want to do any Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton or what have you. The one I chose, 'Mama, Ain't Long for Day' [attributed to Blind Willie McTell], isn't as widely known. It's a great song, and you can interpret it in a few different ways. I choose to interpret it as . . . well, I guess it's the weight of the world on you when you try to sleep," says Alvin, laughing.

Though Public Domain is a collection of songs ranging from simply old to downright ancient, this isn't a stuffily reverent preservation project. Alvin and the Guilty Men are capable of whipping through full-band arrangements (and rearrangements) with unrestrained joy, like a cathouse combo on a hot Saturday night; then, on a song like "Murder of the Lawson Family" or the stunning "Texas Rangers," they slow it down so that the fragile instrumentation hangs from Alvin's voice like a feather caught on a humming power line.

"Yeah, there are surely people who are better at doing a note-for-note re-creation. But I thought a song like 'Don't Let Your Deal Go Down' . . . it was probably an African-American song originally, but it's come to us in the popular mind as a bluegrass song. And there was no way I could do a bluegrass version better than Bill Monroe did. There's not any set way of doing a folk song, you know . . . I mean, there are direct lines you can draw from, but they take you to other, stranger places the farther back you go. From one angle, you can go back through Son House to Charlie Patton, and another route takes you from Bill Monroe back to the Carter Family . . . any time you reinterpret something, you're preserving it. You remember when Moby was DJ'ing over those Alan Lomax field recordings? Man, I thought that was great. I didn't think it was disrespectful at all, I thought it was great.

"The only basic criteria for selection on this album, really, was that these were all songs I liked. Most were old songs that I'd found on records when I was a kid. . . . These were songs that had influenced me as a songwriter. But I left smaller little manifestos all over the record, where each song reflected a point that I wanted to make. Like that song, 'Walk Right In'? That one's pretty well known, but -- see, where I'd heard that song was on this record by Gus Cannon and his Jug Stompers, a long time ago. Now years later, this real whitewashed group called the Rooftop Singers did a version of it. Man, they sucked the life out of that song. It became this really awful 'Sing Along With Mitch' rendition, and it lost all of its meaning. So I wanted to do a few of those, the better known ones. Because mostly these songs, even the ones that people know and think of as being these really tame tunes, are really about going down to Beale Street after hours, to an illegal part of town, to some illegal joint, doing illegal things with illegal people --" Alvin breaks off laughing again.

Dave Alvin's got a voice that sounds like it came from the bottom of the Marianas Trench, a stout, rolling basso profundo. To this listener, the Alvin on Public Domain sounds more at home than he ever has on record, partly because that voice shores up the weight of history behind each song. Listen to it: That world-weary tone on "Delia," or the lines about "It rolled and it foamed, and it crashed and it moaned" on "What Did the Deep Sea Say," or that pain-filled plea on "Mama, Ain't Long for Day," or even the barrelhouse bawd on "Walk Right In" -- that voice plunges in and makes itself at home on all these songs, like stepping into an old pair of shoes. It's just that comfortable, and Alvin sings each one like his life depended on it.

"These songs, they mean a lot of things. 'Railroad Bill' -- the guy that song's originally based on was an African-American bandit in north Alabama. The song in its earliest form was probably an African-American ballad. I've always liked that one, and one of the reasons is the twist in the narrative. After you get a bit along in it, it stops being about Railroad Bill and becomes this really intense first-person revenge story . . . it's about the narrator's desire to kill Railroad Bill.  

"A lot of these songs, in fact, are very violent," Alvin continues, warming to his topic. "That's one of the things we've done with our folk music, is we've declawed it, defanged it. A lot of serious work is going on in music even today, you know . . . everything from some contemporary folk singers to certain rap or hip-hop groups. I mean, there's bullshitters in all fields. . . . But it's difficult because everything we do is scrutinized. Even, let's say, up to the mid-'60s, a lot of stuff that was folk-related, there weren't music reviewers working when those guys were inventing the Piedmont guitar style. But anything that sells over a million today is scrutinized to death. Hip-hop kind of develops off the radar, some of us roots songwriters, we develop off the radar, because we're not in the mainstream.

"Traditional folk songs, when they're handed down, you can't ask who wrote them, because we don't know. When you have that many editors changing and contributing to something, it has so many different meanings. I've said before, in other contexts, that maybe 80, 100 years from now, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will be doing Snoop Dogg songs, but they'll be doing them in the blandest, safest version you ever heard. No, that's not what the songs are about, that was never what they were about. These songs [on Public Domain]are survivor tales. A lot of them come from people who are caught between worlds: in the switch from a pastoral or agrarian life to an industrial one, or caught between forces bigger than themselves.

"Wynton Marsalis said this, and I wish I'd said it -- he said that the place where our real American values, the Constitution and all of it, the place where those things work is, unfortunately, not in our day-to-day lives. It's in our music. Music isn't segregated. America's music -- how are you going to apply Jim Crow laws to a guitar lick? I don't think there are any Reconstruction-era songs [on Public Domain], but those styles are so interconnected that -- well, like fiddle styles. The American fiddle style is a mix of two or three different approaches. There's the Celtic style and the African-American approach, mixed with the style that developed in the South in Anglo communities. In the 1920s, you could put a recording of a white fiddle player up against a recording of an African-American fiddle player, and you couldn't tell them apart. Those guys who went into the fields to make those recordings in the 1920s, the 1930s? Nine times out of 10 they were only interested in hearing the blues or gospel, and that's all that got preserved. But these guys we know today as blues players, Charlie Patton, Lemon Jefferson -- these guys could play anything. They just weren't given the opportunity to put it on record.

"But we tend to like categories," Alvin says with the barest of sighs. "We like being able to tame things."

Alvin sounds like he's been waiting all his life to sing these songs, but that's not quite it. As he observes in the liner notes, these songs "are in the public domain. They belong to nobody. They belong to all of us."

Well, maybe so, but it takes a musicologist like Alvin to give them back to us. Because despite all his protestations to the title, that's exactly what he is. And we're the luckier for it.


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