Brother, I’m fighting for you as well as me. I gave them my sweat, they want my dignity. When the boss man shakes your hand and says, ‘Son, you’ll do just fine,’And you walk into the factory to a job that once was mine, Please don’t forget your brother who’s still standing on the line.
Dave Alvin, ‘Brother on the Line’
You won’t find many songs like ‘Brother on the Line’ on the pop music charts. You won’t find many Grammy winners who say things like, ‘Most people don’t know what the pioneers of the labor movement did for this country.’ But Dave Alvin is not your typical pop star, or your average Grammy winner.
Steeped in the deepest traditions of American music, from folk, blues and country, to rockabilly and R&B, Alvin has the musical chops to keep up with anyone on stage. But what sets him above and beyond most of his peers is his storytelling, which comes from learning about class and labor issues from about the time he could walk.
‘My old man was an organizer for the Steel Workers,’ he says in his rich, warm baritone, ‘which in the west was steel mills in Maywood, and Fontana and South Gate (California), and then copper mines and coal mines in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming. He was involved in all the great copper strikes in southern Arizona. Sometimes our family vacation was going with him on his organizing trips. He’d throw my brother Phil and me in the car and we’d spend the summer going from mining town to Indian reservation to mining town. I saw things as a five-year old that most five-year olds don’t see, or don’t even have a concept of.’
Alvin tells the story of driving with his dad into Red Cloud, Colorado, on a one-lane dirt road into a canyon to hold a secret union meeting, because they had to hide in a company town. ‘Seeing things like that, you learn that there’s more than one side to every story, and that’s what I’m going for. What’s the side that you’re not hearing?’ he says.
Dave and his brother Phil also learned to love the rock and roll music they’d listen to on those car trips. The early R&B, soul, honky-tonk and rockabilly you find on AM radio were their first brushes with the music that would shape their lives. They would go on to form The Blasters, a rockabilly band that tore up the Los Angeles club scene and spearheaded the roots rock revival that included bands like the Stray Cats in the 1980s. Eventually, Dave wanted to explore other musical influences and left the band in 1986 to develop his own thoughtful, storytelling style.
Since then, he has put out ten solo albums, including 2000’s Grammy-winning ‘Public Domain.’ The albums slide easily between the musical styles that he grew up with, and plays soulfully and skillfully. But they are all linked by a Jack London or John Steinbeck-like, gritty truth.
The stories Alvin tells are powerful and moving, full of working class heroes and anti-heroes, people for whom the American Dream is just a dream. They’re about the folks who live in faded houses off the highway, a liquor store with bars on the windows selling lotto tickets on the corner, whose jobs provide just enough to get by. Alvin tells their stories with blunt honesty, sometimes heart-breakingly so, but never makes them appear pathetic. Rather, he defends the dignity of their day-to-day struggle. For Alvin, it comes from the class consciousness his father instilled in him.
‘I have a song on my most recent album, “Ash Grove,” called “Out of Control,” he says. ‘It’s a song about methamphetamine addicts, a tweaker and his girlfriend. She’s turning tricks in a motel while he waits in the car, and he’s telling his life story. And it all revolves around when the Fontana plant closed.’
Fontana is a town in the Inland Empire, a dusty, windy patch of arid land between Los Angeles and Las Vegas about the size of Massachusetts. Formerly the home of steel plants and industry, the economic slide that began when a lot of well-paid factory and mill jobs started disappearing in the mid 1970s never quite stopped in some foothill and high desert towns surrounding San Bernardino. With the loss of work came a loss of purpose for a lot of people, and a decline in the community. A 2004 report by the San Bernardino County Health Department shows parallel trends in unemployment and drug addiction, with similar trends in domestic violence and teen runaways.
‘What I was trying to get at in the song is, this is what happens when you remove jobs,’ Alvin says. ‘Most people find meaning in their lives from their work. And when you close the factory, when you close the mill, you take the meaning out of their lives. Some people might find good jobs as teachers, or some might find good jobs in the sanitation department, but a lot of them are going to find lives of meth and petty crime.’
For Alvin, and for a lot of his fans, telling intimate stories about working people’s lives is more effective than putting slogans to music. ‘Some of the best songs, the songs everyone relates to, are your most personal,’ he says. ‘There’s a tendency to go for the big grandiose statement, especially in political songs.
But sometimes when you go for the universal, you fall on your face.’
Fortunately, part of Alvin’s personal story is being raised to respect the history of labor and the struggle of working people. He knows the songs of Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and Ralph Chapin, but has too much respect to mimic their work.
‘Joe Hill was a Wobbly, and he wrote great Wobbly songs, because he had a right to do that,’ he says. ‘It would be presumptuous of me to go in that direction.
I’ll write a song about a garment worker, and he or she can talk about their issues. But for me to stand up there and sing ‘Garment workers of the world, unite’ would be a little bit disingenuous because I’m not a garment worker, and I think the workers would see right through that.’
But that doesn’t mean Alvin believes he can’t speak to workers. He learned growing up in the heart of post- war, working-class suburban L.A., tagging along with his father to union meetings, that Black, Latino, Asian, and white workers all had the same issues.
‘There are differences between everybody, but what I’ve tried to say is, what are the connections. On a working class level, you’re connected by that,’ he says. ‘You’re all working men and -women.’
Though times have been tough for unions, Alvin believes there is cause for optimism. But it requires the union movement to bring the uninformed and unorganized on board. ‘People think that all their benefits were given to them by the great humanitarian impulses of the owners. These CEOs – who I’m sure are good people in their own way, and they love their families and give to charity – if you think they’re looking out for the interests of their workers, you’re out of your mind. A single worker on his own can’t stand up to those guys,’
And where union-busters and management lackeys paint unions as gangsters and grifters, Alvin says that should only provide more incentive for workers to take control. ‘To most people, unions are a vague notion with a bad rap. Have some unions, some locals been corrupted? Sure,’ he says. ‘But so have people in the Army, and in the churches, and in the government. Does that make the whole thing useless? No. In fact, it makes the workers’ involvement more necessary.’
Dave Alvin’s next album, ‘West of the West,’ is a collection of cover songs from California singer- songwriters like Jackson Browne, Merle Haggard and Brian Wilson, due out in May. Dave will tour throughout the U.S. starting in June.
Tour dates are posted at yeproc.com.