Over the last thirty years, Dave Mallett has produced a body of work that is as good as folk music gets. On record and in live performance, his evocative baritone voice delivers songs of small town New England life honestly and believably. You know he knows whereof he sings. He has become the embodiment of the lives and land in his beloved home state of Maine.
However, though his own lyrics are impeccably chosen and well crafted, he selected another wordsmith as lyricist for his latest recording.
“I just did a spoken word project,” he told me when I called him at his home in Sebec, Maine. “I took excerpts from Henry David Throreau’s The Maine Woods, 22 stories that I thought were fun to read; they were exciting, and they were about song-length, two to four minutes each. Each one has its own musical score. I did that in honor of his visit to Maine in the 1850s. It was a lot of fun. It was very challenging because he wrote so many words and I had a lot to weed through. But it was just beautiful, stunning stuff.
“He’s definitely the coolest guy that ever came to Maine on vacation. But it’s very humbling to read his words. Did you ever read the book? It begins, ‘On the 31st of August, 1846, I left Concord in Massachusetts for Bangor and the backwoods of Maine by the way of railroad and steamboat.’ And then he tells his journey; it’s just amazing.
“I started doing this stuff in my shows but I found that I couldn’t go on afterwards. So now I save it for the encore. It’s such a powerful thing. The music is pretty simple because I thought that’s what Thoreau would’ve approved of!”
The man from Walden Pond would probably approve of most of Dave Mallett’s catalog of songs. His best known composition, “Garden Song,” is a folk music standard that’s been recorded by a long list of performers, from Arlo Guthrie and John Denver to Maria Muldaur and The Muppets.
“My son bumped into it on the internet,” he laughed, “25 people singing ‘Garden Song’ on YouTube! They were just beginning guys, learning the guitar. It was really funny.”
The veteran folkie is optimistic about the current state of folk music.
“Have you heard of this band called Old Crow Medicine Show?” he asked. “They’re hot as a pistol. My kid’s in college and he says the college kids are raving over these guys. And basically they’re doing old-timey string band music. My daughter is a freshman and a lot of her friends listen to folk music. Folk is hip again!
“Maybe we’re entering a new age of enlightenment. I think people are tired of the whole Britney Spears mentality. She was sort of the culmination of instant plastic music. I think people want to take back music.”
I wondered if it had gotten more difficult for him to find new things to say as a songwriter after all these years.
“It’s hard to find something to say without getting pissed off,” he replied. “It’s an angry time right now.”
Yet his songs have generally not been time-specific.
“Yep,” he said, “songs are timeless; songs have to be able to step back from the time that they are in and apply. They have to look down on the earth—it’s like time sequence photography where you show how the earth changes over time. Songs are kinda like that, they’re not locked in one place. And if they are, they’re limited in their abilities.
“I am going to record a Christmas song today for a compilation that a friend of mine is doing in Portland. I’m going to do Longfellow’s ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.’ When Longfellow wrote that in 1864 in the middle of the Civil War, he wrote two verses that were about the war and about what a hopeless situation we were in. He wrote it as a poem and in 1872 someone turned it into a Christmas song. They left those two verses out; the war was over. But when I record the song today I’m going to include those two verses because they’re about a country being at war and how hate really does rule in these times.
“I started researching the song because I thought it would be cool to do a Longfellow song because he’s a Maine boy too. And I realized he was speaking with dissent in 1864. It’s cool. How can a poet be in a country that is at war and not write about it?”
I asked if his feelings about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq would creep into the songs he’s writing for his next album.
“I did write a song about the war,” he said. “When we were building up to the war in 2003, I and at least 51% of America was going ‘NOOOO!’ I wrote a song called ‘Livin’ on the Edge’ that’s on the album Artist in Me. It was about always being poised on the edge of war, what it did to our country and how we turned the industrial revolution into the military-industrial complex. We’ve got to support it: we built it and now we’re responsible for it. Every few years it goes off somewhere and puffs some smoke, blows up some peasants. Let’s all clap and say ‘rah rah’ and support the troops.
“That song says, ‘We took the home boys from the fields to feed the dogs of war/and the ship of state went sailing and the engines they did roar/The girls back home got factory jobs and moved to bigger towns/spent their whole life standin’ in line, waitin’ for the sun to go down/waitin’ for a word about a young man fallen on a cold and foreign ground/livin’ on the edge.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.