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Son of A Union Man     By Dave Saldana
from Znet: The United Electrical Workers News   www.zmag.org   February 23, 2006

     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, and 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,
Ashgrove, 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