It's a long stretch from the American Dust Bowl to a concrete-lined riverbed at the foot of southern California's mountains; and it's almost as far from that dry ditch to the River of Lost Souls draining the south side of my home range. Last night I listened to a bridge, designed by roots musician Dave Alvin, that connected these three pieces of our common past.
Guitarist Chris Miller's hands helped Alvin build this bridge on the Durango Arts Center's new and improved performance stage, in front of a packed house of appreciative locals. Like Dave Alvin, most of us were too young to remember the Great Depression evoked by Alvin's cover of Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi," but old enough to recall seizures of family farms and homes in the late 1980's, that signaled the demise of our nation's last embrace of 'free-market' economic fantasy.
For the young and/or innocent among us, a short history follows. Savings and Loan Associations were once the less regulated half of our banking industry (think of the lately lamented 'sub-prime' mortgage industry, except with at least a little in the cookie jar). 1932's Federal Home Loan Bank Act encouraged citizens to borrow money to buy a home or farm, using S & L's to finance the endeavor. In the early 1980's, deregulated free-marketeers mined S & Ls' assets to fuel a false economic boom. The inevitable collapse helped ensure that the first president named Bush would leave office four years later in disgrace, derided as one of our least competent chief executives, with a deregulated billionaire named Perot helping apply a boot from the right wing as Bush went out the West Wing's revolving door. Most of us voting in the recent election remember at least a part of what followed (boom, crash, wars, bail-outs, hand-wringing, etc.), and as our economy spirals into depths not seen since the 1930's, 70% to 80% of us now place our current Bush president in the running for least popular decider-in-chief in U. S. history.
But I digress, for last night's performance was presented more in the spirit of a peoples' music, than the dry language of economic politics. The bridge grew from roots of folk, blues, rock and jazz rhythms and riffs, and it drove the crowd from the depths of rivers, through the dives of Dave Alvin's late and lamented youth, past fallen heroes and knaves, and into a vision best described by Alvin himself, in this 1987 performance of his Jubilee Train.
The roots of American music seem to always revisit a theme of movement, and more of us than not have recently jumped on a train to change the place our country has become. It wasn't easy in 1932. It won't be easy now, but at least there are still bridges, and musicians helping us remember just where we can go.
(More about Dave Alvin is here, and you can also preview a new compilation of his music online.)