Dave Alvin – Welcome to the working week
There’s somethin’ in a Sunday
Makes a body feel alone
— “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”,
The calendar may portray it as the beginning of the week, but in reality, we all know Sunday is the end of the weekend. The psychological impact traces back to those early memories of childhood: Bolting out of school Friday afternoon was a radiant rush of freedom; Saturday promised morning cartoons and afternoons in the park. By Sunday, though, that feeling of impending doom was settling back in, knowing another long week of classes was just around the corner.
“Sunday nights, in some ways to me, represent death,” Dave Alvin says. “Friday night is full of hope — ‘I’m gonna go out this weekend and I’m gonna fall in love and my life’s gonna be different.’ And Saturday night’s the pinnacle. But by Sunday night, you’re like, ‘Oh well, nothing’s changed.’…Sometimes on Sunday nights, I sit at the kitchen table, writing letters that I never send to people that I still love or that I miss.”
All this is by way of explaining “From A Kitchen Table”, a song on Alvin’s new album, Blackjack David, which came out June 16 on HighTone. A quiet, reflective, melancholy tune, “From A Kitchen Table” tells the story of a man stuck in the small town where he grew up, still living with his mom and working the same job, years after his high school sweetheart has gone on to another life with another man in another place.
It’s about regrets, really. “In most people,” Alvin continues, “there’s a feeling of, ‘What if I had married this person?’ Or ‘What if I had studied harder and not been a musician and gone to Harvard; maybe I could be president now or something.’ Or whatever — ‘Maybe I could be a great bowler, if only I had taken up bowling before my muscles atrophied.”
Ruminations of such regrets echo through much of Blackjack David. In “Abilene”, a woman runs from a series of abusive relationships, wondering if she should just move to a town she’s never seen and “try to forget everything.” In “Laurel Lynn”, a man wishes he hadn’t carelessly let a woman get away, even though he knows she deserved more than he was willing to give: “I can’t say that I love you darlin’, but you cross my mind every now and then.”
In “California Snow”, a collaboration with Tom Russell that’s perhaps the album’s most poignant moment, the narrator is a border patrolman who finds a couple of illegal aliens in the mountains outside San Diego in wintertime. The woman has frozen to death; the man is sent back to Mexico. The experience makes him think maybe he should get back together with his ex-wife, or perhaps simply “drive as far as I can go, away from all the ghosts that haunt the California snow.”
Musically, much of Blackjack David also is more in tune with the mood of a Sunday morning coming down than with the allright fighting of Saturday night. Produced by master multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, who also helmed Alvin’s 1994 acoustic-oriented gem King Of California, the new album stresses the more delicate side of Alvin’s artistry.
Though a couple of more down-and-dirty tracks spike the record with a healthy sneer — most notably “The Way You Say Good-Bye”, a slyly worded, can’t-live-with-’em/can’t-live-without-’em love song — most of the material is carried by Alvin’s tough-yet-tender singing and the deft touch of he and Leisz on a range of stringed instruments.
On “Evening Blues”, the rolling, rhythmic picking of an acoustic guitar becomes the breeze on which a fading love affair is quietly carried away. “California Snow” is a classic folk ballad with a simple but haunting melody that underscores the tragedy of its true-life story. And on “Abilene”, perhaps the most carefully crafted tune on the record, Leisz uses “the wash between the acoustics, the electrics and the harmonium,” as Alvin describes it, to create a number that ranks with “Fourth Of July” as among the most hit-worthy tracks of his career.
Framing the album are two exquisitely hushed tunes that lend a timeless quality to the proceedings. “Tall Trees”, co-written with Fontaine Brown, concludes the disc on an eerily meditative note, churning along calmly but mysteriously, like a fog bank slowly spreading through the forest. And Blackjack David opens with the title track, a traditional song Alvin has been playing for decades but which has been around much, much longer than that.
“I’m sure it’s at least Elizabethan,” Alvin says. “Buck Ramsey, the cowboy poet and singer, says that he somehow could trace it back to Greek mythology. Most people know it from the Woody Guthrie version, [which was titled] ‘The Gypsy Davey’. The version I’m doing, we used to do it in the Blasters, in the very, very, early days. We did the Warren Smith version, which is on Sun; it’s kind of somewhere between rockabilly and Johnny Cash, and we did it note-for-note.”
Alvin stumbled upon his new, acoustic interpretation of the song while touring with slide guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps a year or two ago. “Lately I’d gotten into strange guitar tunings, and one night we were just goofing around, and I had my guitar in a really bizarre tuning, and I just started singing ‘Blackjack David’. We started doing it live on a couple acoustic tours that we had done, and it just kind of made sense….The lyrics are still based mainly on the Warren Smith version, but I also threw in a verse from Cliff Carlisle’s version from the 1920s. And it just kind of fit with the rest of the songs on this record.”
Part of the reason Alvin’s version of “Blackjack David” works is that his interpretation breathes new life and vitality into the song; it’s not simply the customary trotting out of an old standard. “That’s kind of the whole folk process; it’s supposed to be a generational thing,” he says. “The great thing about folk songs is, after eight million people have sung ’em for 400 years, you get rid of all those words that don’t matter, and also, you get rid of a lot of intent. Like, if I sit down and write an anti-big-business song, and my sole intent is to say, ‘Down with world corporate culture’ — well, 400 years from now, if people are still singing that song, it might be about a flower.
“So the great thing to me about the song is its ambiguity. What the hell really is this song about? In the Woody Guthrie version, there’s a lot of the ‘lord’ thing in there — not god, but, the woman is the wife of a rich guy. And Blackjack David is this wandering ne’er-do-well minstrel. And in the Warren Smith version — and I guess his version came from T. Texas Tyler, and his came from Cliff Carlisle — in those versions, it’s even more ambiguous. It’s like, who is this Blackjack David, and why would this woman just up and leave him, and what happens to him? And what a weird ending; there’s a story with a beginning, a middle, and no end. That’s intriguing to me, and that’s why it can still be reinterpreted. A lot of the old folk songs can still be reinterpreted a million ways.”
Though Alvin has long been interested in traditional folk music, it’s not the way he first made a mark as a musician, or how he’s perceived by many of his fans today. As lead guitarist for the Blasters in the early ’80s, he became known for his blazing roots-rock chops and for writing rave-ups such as “Marie Marie” and “American Music”, which were sung feverishly by his brother Phil, the group’s lead singer. (HighTone recently reissued American Music, the Blasters’ long-out-of-print debut album from 1980, but Alvin says he doesn’t hold out much hope for CD reissues of any of the band’s other albums.)