Dead Babies Can Take Care of Themselves

Film director Luis Bunuel once said that any artist who claimed not to be working in a tradition was either a fool or a liar. He was right, of course, and today, Luis and I tip our surrealist chapeaus to Dave Alvin and his new CD, Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land, which itself is a tip of the ol' 10-gallon (or do-rag or fedora or Blue Cap) to songs — some well known, some obscure — from the deepest roots of American music.

These orphan tunes of loss and love, of small but mighty events and the people surrounding them (what singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell calls "those old dead baby songs"), have been Alvin's constant companions over his 20-year career. In fact, when he was the big hair, lead guitar and lead pen of L.A.'s presciently pioneering roots-rock band, the Blasters, Alvin titled their 1980 debut LP (and its opening track) American Music. Though Public Domain might seem an obvious and straightforward project, one recalls Bob Dylan's peculiar and confounding Self Portrait, from 1970, as an early example of just how difficult it can be (and revealing in a way that one's own writing sometimes isn't) to record the songs you sing to yourself in the shower, or to your kids, or when you're loaded. But the temptation is clear: What great material!

Public Domain starts slowly, as the deep-voiced Alvin takes the folk chestnut "Shenandoah" at a rich, riverine pace, slides through Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson's "Maggie Campbell" and into one of my favorite Appalachian laments, "Short Life of Trouble." The resonant and smooth singing takes some getting used to if you're familiar with earlier, craggier, quirkier recordings, but by the gallant train-wreck tragedy of "Engine 143" ("I'm proud to be born for an engineer/ On the C&O road to die"), I found myself singing along.

If this were vinyl, I'd be spending a lot of time on side two because things get really interesting with "Dark Eyes" (RealAudio excerpt), a vivid, sentimental ("When morning tints the Eastern sky") old lost-love song taken as a fiddle-driven Cajun two-step, that's a hit on a radio station somewhere. A chilling old-time "true" mountain ballad, "Murder of the Lawson Family" (RealAudio excerpt), the real-as-this-morning's-paper account of a Carolina man who unaccountably killed his family and himself one long-ago Christmas, is perfectly served by Alvin's atmospheric, mournful vocal. The jaunty 1925 hillbilly classic, "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" (RealAudio excerpt), by my beloved Charlie Poole (a cotton-mill dropout who truly lived a short life of trouble), is here reconceived as a mid-'50s Chicago blues, as it might have been cut by the Muddy Waters Band, complete with harp through hand-held mic! You heard it here first. And there's much, much more — both here and especially out there, in the wild land we all hold in common.

Sometimes valuable new work comes from brash, unstudied appropriation; sometimes it comes from enduring love and familiarity. So thanks, Dave. While you're on the road, I'll be collecting songs for volume two.