Bob Dylan, one of America’s great songwriters, loves to sing traditional songs and usually includes a couple in each of his shows. Dave Alvin, a singer, songwriter and guitarist who grew up on folk music and has toured with Dylan, understands why.
“They are sacred texts,” Alvin explains during a phone interview from his home in the Silver Lake community of Los Angeles. “One of the reasons why so-called sacred texts are sacred is because they may be a thousand years old, but there is still much to be learned from them.
“Many of the old folk songs are vital today, and the people they’re about are exactly the same people we are now,” he contends. “You might substitute a train for an airplane, something like that, but the emotional things are still relevant. The fragileness of life, the tenderness, the jealousy, the anger, it’s as contemporary as your lover whispering in your ear.”
Like Dylan, Alvin is a natural songwriter, as adept at blues and country music as he is at rock. His best known songs are “Long White Cadillac,” a Top 40 country hit for Dwight Yoakam in 1989; “Fourth of July,” which Alvin first recorded with celebrated punk band X; and “Marie, Marie,” a favorite with bar bands. The way Alvin hears, plays and writes music has been defined by America’s folk music traditions.
In the same way that Dylan returned to traditional music in the early ’90s with Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, collections of blues and folk songs, Alvin, 44, has turned to the old songs for his new album, Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land.
Alvin’s collection, released Tuesday (Aug. 15), is his sixth album for HighTone, and his seventh solo release. Before beginning a career in his own right, Alvin was chief songwriter and lead guitarist for seminal Los Angeles roots rock band The Blasters, which he formed with his brother, singer Phil Alvin, in 1979. After leaving the band and joining X and its country alter ego, The Knitters, for a short stint, Alvin signed with Epic and released Romeo’s Escape in 1987.
Regarded by many as a rip-roaring guitar hero, Alvin also has gained a reputation as a great producer of roots music with credits on albums by Sonny Burgess, Tom Russell, The Derailers, Chris Gaffney, Katy Moffatt, Christy McWilson and Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys. In 1994, he put together the excellent Merle Haggard tribute album Tulare Dust, featuring Yoakam, Lucinda Williams, Joe Ely, Iris DeMent and others. He also is an accomplished poet with two books, Any Rough Times Are Now Behind You and The Crazy Ones, to his credit.
Public Domain encompasses acoustic and electric blues, spirituals, Cajun, rockabilly, folk ballads and old-time mountain music in songs such as “Shenandoah,” “What Did the Deep Sea Say,” “Walk Right In” and “Sign of Judgment.” Alvin learned “Delia” and “Mama, Ain’t Long for Day” from recordings by Georgia blues singer Blind Willie McTell (an artist heralded in song by Dylan).
The songs on Public Domain have informed Alvin’s music since he was a teen. Twenty years ago, he shared his love for these musical forms in a song, “American Music.” “We got the Louisiana boogie and the Delta blues/We got country swing and rockabilly too/We got jazz, country-western and Chicago blues/It’s the greatest music that you ever knew,” goes The Blasters anthem.
Alvin put off recording the songs on this album until his 84-year-old father’s health began to fail earlier this year. He took a bad fall in February, broke his arm, got pneumonia and began going in and out of hospitals and nursing homes. He died in May.
“My dad’s illness caused me to not over-think whether or not I should do this kind of album,” Alvin explains. “I just did it. You only live a little while, and I’ve always put off projects like this because I’m mainly a songwriter. Typically, I only make records when I feel I have written enough good songs to warrant one. Well, you know, to hell with it. You only live once and I just wanted to do it.”
Using traditional compositions to comment on modern society, Alvin says more than many artists do with their own, original compositions. Alvin rearranged all of the songs and recorded them with his band The Guilty Men, featuring Rick Shea (guitar, pedal steel, mandolin), Bobby Lloyd Hicks (drums), Joe Terry (piano, accordion) and Greg Boaz (bass). Additional players included Brantley Kearns (fiddle), David Jackson (bass), John “Juke” Logan (harmonica) and Greg Leisz (Dobro, slide guitar). Their interpretations breathe new life into the songs.
Some of the changes are drastic. So many of the old folk songs are combinations of various stray verses, added and subtracted as the singers saw fit. Alvin continues the tradition. His “East Virginia Blues,” for instance, deviates from the popular Carter Family version. Alvin learned the song from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who, in his version, supplies a chorus by inserting a portion of another traditional song, “Greenback Dollar.” Alvin, in turn, worked up a rockabilly arrangement of the song adapted from Ray Harris’ Sun recording of “Greenback Dollar.”
“Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” perhaps best known in a bluegrass version by Flatt & Scruggs, sounds fresh in a blues setting.
“I don’t know the exact origins of ‘Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,’ but it is primarily known as a bluegrass song,” Alvin explains. “I attempted to turn it into a Chicago electric blues thing. I wanted it to sound like Muddy Waters on Chess Records. I rearranged it into a whole different song. It definitely made it a whole different song for my fiddle player, who was counting on playing it in a bluegrass style. I told him to go have a cigarette outside because we were going to do it like Muddy Waters.
“My definition of folk music is pretty broad,” Alvin continues. “Somewhere in the past few decades we have re-defined a folk music musician as a singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar. That’s fine. Many times in my life I’m a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar. But that is a narrow definition.”