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What's In a Song? 'The Man in the Bed'


Today is Father's Day. And whether you get to be with yours today or spend some time with memories of him, for most of us, there was a time when our fathers loomed large. They seemed immortal. But each generation passes, and we all choose different ways to remember our dads. As part of our occasional series What's in a Song from the Western Folklife Center, Dave Alvin talks about his song "Man in the Bed."

(Soundbite of "Man in the Bed")

Mr. DAVE ALVIN: Hi. This is Dave Alvin, and this is a song I wrote about my old man.

(Soundbite of "Man in the Bed")

Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) The man in the bed isn't me. Now I slipped out the door, and I'm runnin' free.

We had a moment on the day he died where he was begging me to take him out of the nursing home, and I couldn't do it, you know? And so that's really kind of where the song came from.

(Soundbite of "Man in the Bed")

Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) And these tremblin' hands, they're not mine. Now my hands are strong and steady all the time. They can swing a sledge hammer...

He was a tough old coot. He rode the rails out to California from South Bend, Indiana. He fought in World War II. He was a union organizer after the war. He was a great guy, you know?

(Soundbite of "Man in the Bed")

Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) Now the nurse over there doesn't know that I ain't some helpless old so-and-so. I could have broken her heart not that long ago.

When I'm singing a song like "Man in the Bed," I have to go back to where I was when I wrote it and what I was feeling and where I was sitting and what I had had for dinner that evening, you know? Whatever it was, I have to go there to keep the song real. And so, yeah, it gets pretty emotional. And we don't in my band play it very much for two reasons. One, when we're playing in a barroom situation, it takes you a couple songs after you play that one to dig out of the hole, you know, that you've put people in--no pun intended.

(Soundbite of "Man in the Bed")

Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) But the main reason is it rips a couple of the guys in the band apart. One of the guys in my band hates me for writing that song, you know, because it brings up his father's passing. And so, yeah, we don't do it that much.

(Soundbite of "Man in the Bed")

Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) So don't believe what the doctors say. They're just makin' things up so they can get paid.

Somebody came up to me at a show and said that it was a great song about denial. And if it's a song about denial for you, great, you know? But for me, it's a song about survival, you know, and even on your deathbed surviving, you know, if you're laying in some miserable nursing home in a miserable bed. I know when my time comes to face that, I will be living in my mind somewhere far away.

(Soundbite of "Man in the Bed")

Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) 'Cause the man in the bed isn't me. Well, I slipped out the door, and I'm finally free, young and wild like I'll always be.

He'd been through a period of dementia, but then that day, the last day of his life, we sat and had a wonderful conversation. I was really kind of blessed and lucky and all that to have that sort of last conversation that wrapped everything up, you know? And he died that evening.

(Soundbite of "Man in the Bed")

Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) And the man in the bed isn't me.

HANSEN: What's in a Song is produced by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis of the Western Folklife Center.


HANSEN: I'm Edwin Hansen's daughter Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Taki Telonidis