Musician/songwriter Dave Alvin talks about 1920s mystery song

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KPCC's Alex Cohen talks to Dave Alvin, musician and songwriter, on the solved mystery of a So Cal poet and explorer gone missing in the 1920s and the song dedicated to his disappearance.

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Alex Cohen: Well, last week the mystery of Everett Ruess was resolved. Through careful genetic testing and the revelation of a story kept secret for decades by a Navajo man, the truth is now known. It turns out Everett Ruess was killed by a group of Ute teenagers, and his body was later buried among the rocks.

A few years back, musician Dave Alvin wrote that song we just heard about Everett Ruess. Dave Alvin told me he had been enchanted by the haunting story of the young explorer from L.A. for many years.

Dave Alvin: Because of his disappearance, the legend of Everett Ruess never had to give up its dreams. You know, does that make sense? You know, he never had to grow up.

He never had to face some of the mundane things that we all have to face as we age and get older, and he could remain pure and poetic, which is why I have mixed feelings about his body being found after all these years, because as a missing poet and artist, he was romantic poetry. As a found, you know, skeleton, stuck in a crevasse in southern Utah, he's scientific journalism.

Cohen: Hmm.

Alvin: You know? (laughs) And I'm all for scientific journalism, but every now and then, we need the romantic poetry in life.

Cohen: Well in fact, one of the lyrics of your song is "And they never found my body."

Alvin: Mm hmm.

Cohen: And now that they have, does that change your song?

Alvin: Yeah, it makes it that song that I probably will never perform again. (laughs) And a lot of people love the song. I wanted to write it as if you were sitting at a campfire somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and this old man appeared out of the darkness and told his life story, and the old man was Everett Ruess. And he could have been dead, he could have been alive, he could have been anywhere, you know? And now it's kind of settled.

Cohen: Well one of the other lyrics in the song is, "But my end, it doesn't really matter. All that counts is how you live your life." So–

Alvin: Yeah, yeah.

Cohen: – is there something lives on beyond this song? Even if you don't perform it again.

Alvin: Well, you know, I think one of the things that was interesting about him was he was so talented, and so young. And he was, he wasn't like, let's say, he wasn't a ne'er-do-well, and he wasn't even a lost soul. He'd pretty much found his meaning.

You know, he was an excellent artist, he was a very good poet, and he was smarter than hell. More intelligent than I'll ever be. He just didn't fit in, you know? And so I think, for a lot of us that are drawn to people that don't fit in, you know, he was one of our poster boys, you know.

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