Wednesday, July 4, 2012

National Celebrations: 4th of July

X: Fourth of July


Two weeks in a row of me going with the obvious choice. But, sometimes the obvious choice can be a good one. Dave Alvin's "Fourth of July" is a great song. It's not necessarily about patriotism, and yet it is. Alvin's lyrics ostensibly tell the story of a deteriorating relationship. (Could his declaration "We gave up trying so long ago" refer to both his romance and his nation?) It's also a tale of working class poverty, a familiar theme in Alvin's music. The song's narrator lives "on the lost side of town" and isn't getting July 4 as a day off from work. And why are those darn kids shooting off fireworks?! Oh, yeah: "We forgot all about the Fourth of July!"

Despite the despair, the song ends on an optimistic note. "Whatever happens, I apologize," he tells his wife/lover. And he finds an appreciation for those kids -- Mexican kids, he specifies throughout the song -- celebrating their country and the American spirit.

Pretty good songwriting for a guy who started out as "merely" an ace rockabilly guitarist. Through a long career, Alvin has grown so much as a composer that he's now as much known for his songwriting as his virtuoso guitar work.

In a book about the influences of Townes Van Zandt's songwriting (I'll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt), Alvin identifies with another Texas songwriting legend: "I'd probably be more in the Guy Clark camp, because my songwriting style is more journalistic....The drama is in the stories, in life is where dreams and reality collide. We go through the day-to-day life...and that's where the collision between how we think it should be and the humdrum of survival is."

"Fourth of July" is Alvin's signature song, and he's recorded it many times. My favorite remains the first version, from his brief stint with X, on which he plays guitar, with John and Exene handling vocals.

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