Category: Dave Alvin

California Coverfolk, Vol. 3: Dave Alvin’s West Of The West

August 8th, 2010 — 10:00 am

Previously in this series

“There are two types of folk music: quiet folk music and loud folk music.
I play both.”

Dave Alvin – most recently of Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women; previously of the LA suburbs – has always played roots music, whether it’s the early rockabilly roots rock of The Blasters, the Punk of seminal LA band X, the countrified blues he generated earlier in his career as a solo artist, or the tejano-roots-rock-Americana hybrid he’s evolved and developed as his own. But in the world of Grammys, as in my own, roots music and folk music are closely intertwined, or so said the Academy when it granted Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land, his 2000 collection of traditional folk and blues classics, highest honors in the Contemporary Folk category despite a heavy country clang and twang on Railroad Bill and a strong blues harmonica leading the barrelhouse on Don’t Let Your Deal Go Round.

There’s plenty of beautiful troubadour balladry on that album, too, to be fair. His Delia sounds centrally like a well-produced cowboy folksinger’s piece, and his Texas Rangers is as haunting as any. And 1994 release King of California – his first attempt at a more acoustic solo sound after years of harder-edged roots rock – is a gorgeous piece of work, low and steady as a Townes album, as much a tribute to Alvin’s talent as arranger and performer as it is a tribute to Alvin the songwriter and lyricist, the man who has also published two books of poetry.

But it’s the fourth-generation Californian’s tribute to the singer-songwriters of his native state which concerns us today, as the miles speed on by up the coast towards Oregon. His slightly croaky, smoky voice is perfectly suited for reinvention, and on concept covers album West of the West, it covers his fellow Californians with aplomb, moving fluidly between blues, rock, and folk.

And when it works, it really works. His Los Lobos cover, for example, opens up a murky hole with blues banjo, faint drumcrashes, string bass and Tom Waits’ phrasing, exposing the dark blues at the song’s core. And where Keller Williams’ recent cover of the Grateful Dead tune Loser is delicate and humorous, calling to its ragged origins, Alvin whispers and wails, wringing the darkness from the tune with Pink Floyd guitar majesty. It’s no wonder the man’s name keeps cropping up on so many tribute compilations, taking on everyone from Springsteen to Haggard.

Here’s three of the slower, less rockin’ cuts from the West of the West tribute, followed by a handful of other, similarly toned-down covers from Dave Alvin’s “quiet” acoustic side. (I know it seems anomalous at first, but trust me on the Surfer Girl cover – the tension between the traditional doo-wop and that distinctive voice are what makes it worth it.) Buy it all here when you’re done.

1,130 comments » | California Coverfolk, Dave Alvin

Covered in Kidfolk, Vol. 6: Movement Songs for Runners, Dancers, and Wiggleworms

October 12th, 2008 — 09:28 pm

After two years of dance class, my elder daughter decided this year to switch over to Yoga. Meanwhile, her sister is a budding musical theater fan, one who takes to preschool sing-and-dancealongs as easily as she does craft projects. Neither comes from particularly athletic genepools – my wife and I were chorus and theater geeks, not track and field stars — and given their natural tendencies, they’re not about to turn into the kind of kid who rules the schoolyard. But the common thread is clear, I think: both have a strong affinity for being in motion.

The practice of movement is healthy for kids. Studies show that kids who experience rhythm often enough are better able to recognize and work with patterns later in life; there is, it turns out, a direct correlation between Math SAT scores and the study of dance and musicmaking at a young age. I also think that kids who learn to move in time with music learn to know their bodies better, in ways which can make it easier to think of exercise as natural, and to have respect for other connections of mind and body.

I’m proud of my kids for their love of movement, and nurture it as I can. They love bluegrass music, and can be caught kicking up their heels in their carseats when it plays, so I always make sure to keep some ready wherever we go. I chase them, as good Daddies do, and try to teach them to dance as long as I’ve got the energy to do so. We walk to the dam spillway, and fish; I show them how casting, too, has its body rhythms, and how those rhythms might match the drift of the bobber as the water pulls our hooks downstream, and how the slow jerk and rest of the spinner can make the hook dance under the water.

Mommy’s approach to bedtime is to help the kids settle into slow mode, using warm bath and storytime and lullabies as a mechanism for sleepiness, but I’m a big fan of exhaustion: when it’s Daddy’s turn to put them to bed, we crank up the danceable tunes, and have a good and gleeful bodyrhythm session around and around the coffeetable.

Previously, of course, we’ve covered both high-octane and sleepytime sorts of music in our Covered in Kidfolk series, but our focus back then was on tempo and emotional tone; since then, my kids have grown just enough to be able to better attend to the explicit messages of lyric and rhythm together. Today, then, a few tunes, the vast majority of them from the public domain, which explicitly encourage movement of various sorts, from running and walking to swinging, riding, and jumping that our kids might better consider moving their bodies as a vital part of their abilities, and know the various ways that such movement can be accomplished.

  • Run Molly Run: Sweet Honey in the Rock (trad.)
    This great a capella gospel folk take on an old folksong comes from Grammy-winning African American female roots cooperative Sweet Honey in the Rock; though it’s been on plenty of compilations, the song was first released way back in 1994 on I Got Shoes. A slow start to a set of movement songs, but call it a warm up.

  • Dave Alvin: Walk Right In (orig. Gus Cannon; pop. The Rooftop Singers)
    Not technically a kidsong, but something I learned as a kid, and subsequently one of those movement songs I will forever associate with childhood. This relatively stately cover by Dave Alvin comes from his 2000 Grammy-winning folk recording Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land.
  • Colin Meloy: Dance to Your Daddy (trad.)
    A dark waltz from Colin Meloy‘s 2006 tour-only EP of Shirley Collins “covers”, most of which were originally traditional britfolk. The tinkly xylophone here seems to encourage slow, stately twirling in my own children, as if they were ballerinas atop a music box.
  • Elizabeth Mitchell: Skip to My Lou (trad.)
  • John McCutcheon: Skip to My Lou (ibid.)
    Two very differently-paced takes on what might just be the most famous skipping song in the kiddie canon. Cover Lay Down favorite Elizabeth Mitchell‘s typically delicate, lighthearted take comes from her breakthrough kids album You Are My Sunshine. Meanwhile, the John McCutcheon is the version that I used to swing my elderchild around to, back when it was just the two of us. McCutcheon is so old-school, his website address is actually

  • Sonny Terry : Pick a Bale O’ Cotton (trad.)
    Folk-style harmonica wizard Sonny Terry gave this old “jump down turn-around” fieldfolk worksong an authentically old-school makeover with jangly guitar, harmonica, a percussive shaker, and a couple of harmony vocalists straight out of the thirties. Found on Music for Little People collection Big Blues: Blues Music For Kids, which runs a great gamut, and is a steal at $7.99.
  • Erin McKeown: Thanks for the Boogie Ride (Buck/Mitchell)
    Given the tight-buttoned era from which retro swingfolk artist Erin McKeown pulled the source material for her pre-1950s covers album Sing You Sinners, there’s surely some sort of innuendo buried in this track, if you look deep enough. But on the surface, it’s about boogying, and riding, a high-energy celebration of travel and ride-sharing perfect for kids on the go.
  • Michelle Shocked w/ Taj Mahal: Jump Jim Crow (trad.)
    Though it has roots in the early blackface minstrel shows of the early eighteen hundreds, like the other older songs on Michelle Shocked‘s 1992 release Arkansas Traveler, this jangly song manages to recapture the song as true-blue folk while stripping out much of the racism, and recontextualizing the rest as historically truthful.
  • Plain White T’s: When I See An Elephant Fly (orig. Disney)
    Speaking of crows, this song is famous from Dumbo, where it was performed by a set of racist stereotypes that just wouldn’t fly in today’s world. Disneyfied acoustic popgroup the Plain White T’s would be perfectly legitimate folk, if the suits behind them didn’t insist on presenting them as a kind of pre-plugged radiopop act.
  • New Lost City Ramblers: Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss (trad.)
    Another song about flying, since my kids asked for that form of movement song first and repeatedly when I mentioned I was posting this entry. Old-timey folkband the New Lost City Ramblers creates a great bluegrassy energy here; in our house, this means full-speed sprint-dancing and plenty of glee, so watch out for the furniture.
  • Dan Zanes feat. Loudon Wainwright III: All Around the Kitchen (trad.)
    A movement song that coaxes kids to dance along, first collected by John and Alan Lomax in the thirties, and now one of my favorite tracks on the aptly-titled 2003 release Family Dance from ex-Del Fuegos founder and Covered in Kidfolk series favorite Dan Zanes, who has remade himself as the forefather of cool for kids and families over the last decade.

Cover Lay Down publishes new folkfeatures and coversets Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday.

1,244 comments » | Colin Meloy, Dan Zanes, Dave Alvin, Elizabeth Mitchell, Erin McKeown, John McCutcheon, Kidfolk, Michelle Shocked, Plain White T's, Sonny Terry

RIP, Erik Darling 1933-2008 (Arranger of folksong, member of The Weavers)

August 13th, 2008 — 10:47 pm

Guitarist, banjo player, and well-respected arranger of folksong Erik Darling, who passed away last week at the age of 74, tended towards the leeward side of fame: he was the guy who replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers, if that rings a bell among any of the oldguard folkies who remember a time before Dylan. He was also an Ayn Rand libertarian in the midst of a solidarity-minded social revolution, which caused friction in the midst of the pro-labor, liberal folk revival of the fifties and sixties, and probably contributed to the fact that you have no idea who he was.

But significantly, despite his political incompatibility with much of his audience, Darling had a gifted sense of how to reframe and update older, more traditional folksongs in ways which made them more atractive and fun for the predominantly young, white urban and suburban audiences that were discovering folk music in the fifties and sixties.

The impact of this on folk, writ large, cannot be underestimated.

Though Darling was well known within the folkworld for his virtuoso stringwork, which graced early recording sessions of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Judy Collins, Jean Ritchie, and others before becoming part of the core sound of such early folk groups as the Folksay Trio, The Tarriers, The Weavers, and later, the Rooftop Singers, it is no accident that his peers and fans, in their obituary quotes and radioplay tributes, have primarily celebrated him for his talents as an arranger. Darling’s deliberate approach to building song structure and song performance to maximize a given song’s power was a revelation; the half century of folk groups and folksingers who followed in his footsteps owe him a huge debt of gratitude. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Darling’s short exposition on the Anatomy of an Arrangement is a tight treatise that should be required reading for all songwriters.

In tribute, then, to Darling and other group members and early folkies who have faded out of our consciousness, while their work lives on as part of the folk tradition: roots folksman Dave Alvin with a swinging barrelhouse take on Erik’s arrangement of old folksong Walk Right In, which was one of the early folkworld’s biggest hits, and the beginning of the twelve-string craze; The Tarriers with their “original” version of what would become one of Harry Belafonte’s longest-lasting chart-toppers, though the song, which was actually created by fusing two Jamaican folksongs, was a #4 hit for the Tarriers themselves; and the Grateful Dead with a very ragged but more traditional take on old Kingston Trio standard Tom Dooley, which turns out to have been based on Darling’s arrangement from his early days with the Folksay Trio.

Bonus points: actor Alan Arkin was a member of the Tarriers, too. Yeah, that Alan Arkin. Really.

1,022 comments » | Dave Alvin, Erik Darling, Grateful Dead, The Tarriers