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Ry Cooder: Back to the Barricades

©Robert Sebree
Ry Cooder (©Nonesuch Records)

A legendary guitarist and wide-ranging musical missionary comes full circle with 21st-century protest music

By Sam Sutherland
MSN Music

After a far-ranging career that suggests a musical odyssey across different cultures and eras, Ry Cooder could bask in his lengthy résumé. Instead, the veteran multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, arranger and producer has returned to early, deep roots in American folk to forge the most impassioned music of his 50-year career, an album, "Election Special," built from original broadsides, blues and de facto barricade anthems fed by the bitter polarity of a national campaign year.

It's a defiant, unambiguously liberal stance that poses commercial risk, yet for Cooder it's an organic culmination of a life lived through music. In an era when career-conscious musicians work diligently on their "brand," Ryland "Ry" Cooder shrugs off easy descriptions: A superb guitarist, his playing is global in its stylistic breadth, measured in musical dialogues with peers in African, Caribbean and Indian traditions while rightly commanding awe for quintessential American styles, from blues to country to rock. His work has influenced scores of rockers, from Keith Richards (whose indelible slide riffs for "Honky Tonk Women" have been traced to Cooder) to Bruce Springsteen (who revived the Blind Alfred Reed song "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" after hearing Cooder's 1970 studio arrangement).

Instead of cashing in on rock bona fides, Cooder has repeatedly ventured beyond the mainstream, dusting off old blues, folk and jazz material, incorporating Hawaiian, Tex-Mex and gospel elements and delving into decidedly non-rocking terrain for 19th-century folk music (his period score for Walter Hill's "The Long Riders") and 1920s jazz (his impressionistic tribute to Bix Beiderbecke, "Jazz"). The guitarist's sense of cultural adventure attained its most striking success with 1997's "Buena Vista Social Club," an evocative foray into Cuban music from the mid-20th Century. As producer and guitarist, Cooder teamed with a troupe of elderly Havana musicians, all but unknown beyond the island, to create the best-selling world music album of all time.

Bing: Ry Cooder music, videos and more

Ask him how he got from the romantic nostalgia of Havana to the embattled Wall Street of "Election Special," and native Californian Cooder takes a circuitous route. He begins by recalling his own childhood in Santa Monica, "nothing but a grid of streets with aircraft worker housing like what we lived in, for Douglas Aircraft. And at the time, it seemed so dull to me. It seemed like there was nothing there, there never had been anything there." But it was there that Cooder's eyes  and ears  were opened to a real world of people and life experiences as a 5-year-old hearing Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl ballads, courtesy of a family friend, a blacklisted classical violinist. "He was blacklisted and he couldn't play the violin anymore professionally, at all, so he became a camp counselor, for God's sakes.

"These were very left-wing, progressive people, extremely so. And he not only gave me the first guitar I ever had, when I was 4, they [also] had in their house all kinds of things that related, 'Pogo' books and Woody Guthrie records being the two main things." Cartoonist Walt Kelly's "Pogo" strips were sly post-World War II political satire that tweaked the postwar political landscape and the paranoia of the McCarthy hearings. Meanwhile, hearing Guthrie's unvarnished voice and guitar, and viewing Depression-era photographs by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and others who documented those hardships, had a potent  and enduring  impact.

"Now along comes Woody Guthrie, though, with his strumming guitar and his lonesome voice, and you absolutely could see it," Cooder says. "Now this is a person talking about their life, something they know, something they've seen— it happened. And then the photographs were there to prove that it was true. 'Look at that dust storm cloud there, and look at these people running from it and their little farm shacks and their little cars.'"

MSN Music: Listen to Ry Cooder's "Election Special"

After Guthrie came the hillbilly music and honky-tonk atmosphere radiating from a country station in Pasadena, a bug caught "probably in the third grade" that led to dreams of playing rhythm guitar in Ray Price's band. Bluegrass came from a fortuitous friendship with a mailman who distributed records on the side, "including Starday Records, which was all bluegrass records. I'd ride around with him on the mail truck, which you weren't supposed to do, so he said, 'Stay back from the door and no one will see you.' And he'd say, 'Look at this,' and he'd give me Jimmy Martin, and he'd give me Reno & Smiley, and he gave me the Country Gentlemen, Charlie Waller and the incomparable John Duffey."

The folk boom of the late '50s and early '60s found an insatiable listener and budding picker in Cooder, for whom the New Lost City Ramblers, a trio of urban traditionalists that included Pete Seeger's younger brother, Mike, offered the next key: Their authenticity, learned rather than inherited, told Cooder, "See, you can do it, because they did." Learning banjo and mandolin, Cooder was drawing from a well of broad "folk music" that then encompassed blues, country, Southern folk traditions and even far-flung music from Europe, Africa and beyond. The common denominators, however, were the themes of the songs.

"Well, I'm telling you all these things because these songs always say the same things," Cooder explains. "Basically, it's hard times in the country. 'I'm out of a job, my girlfriend's gone, my baby's gone.' 'My baby's gone' is an idea that's easier to deal with in a four-minute song. What they really mean, the real core topic, isn't 'my baby's gone,' I don't think."

MSN Music: Robert Christgau reviews "Election Special"

Both "Election Special" and his preceding album "Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down" focus musically on the country and blues accents of Cooder's earliest work, jettisoning international elements to rely on his guitars, mandolin and bass, with son Joachim on drums. The lyrics meanwhile echo the old ballads and country blues at the core of his early repertoire.

"I spent my whole life, it's fair to say, simply stated, listening to this music," he notes of the original sources behind the new songs. "Whether it was Ray Price, the Country Gentlemen orJohn Lee Hooker or Jimmy Reed. And Mexicans, too. They sing the same stuff. I listened to a lot of that. Being from L.A., you have Mexican music everywhere. Well, then along comes the modern era. Clown One and Clown Two  that's Bush One [George H.W. Bush] and Two [George W. Bush]. And look what started to happen there. All of these themes and all of this language, all of these songs, thousands of thousands of songs, starts to well up. In fact, phrases and words, which are story elements, story tools, the phraseology, the vocabulary. ... Well, let's just go do this. It's all fresh. It's all so now."

On "Election Special," Cooder wanted to address the political influence wielded by GOP supporters David and Charles Koch, who have infused tens of millions of dollars into campaign coffers in a bid to defeat the current administration. To capture a political narrative more concisely, Cooder serves up "Brother Is Gone" as a deceptively graceful, mournful ballad that takes its narrative cue from an early hero, country blues icon Robert Johnson.

"It's the crossroads," explains Cooder. "That makes sense and that's familiar. ... They made their deal with Satan at the crossroads, and of course that's why they have all this power and untouchability. Of course, what's Satan's deal? Let's see what that is. I know: He's coming back for one of them. He doesn't say who and he doesn't say when, but he will come back. But that's still a good deal for them because they get to do all the bad things that they do, and wreak havoc and destruction."

On "Kool-Aid," Cooder's protagonist paraphrases "Cocaine Blues" in the presence of "Kool-Aid all 'round my brain." The song's narrator is "this sort of George Zimmerman guy who says, 'I did everything you told me to do, I went out and I hated the other people. I scorned the poor, which I am one of, then I got a gun because you told me to, and then I stood my ground because you gave me this new lynching law, and yet, I'm out of a job, I'm gonna lose my house. My wife's asleep, she thinks you're all right and I'm starting to wonder. I drank the Kool-Aid.'"

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It helps that between "Buena Vista" and his two protest sets, Cooder crafted a loose "California trilogy" of albums that took on longer narrative elements and explored a sense of time and place. "Chavez Ravine," "My Name Is Buddy" and "I, Flathead" each found Cooder weaving history, fantasy and even sci-fi into detailed story lines. He also took his first steps into pure short story writing, which has shaped his narrative sense.

However real his sense of anger, Ry Cooder doesn't come across like a modern-day Howard Beale: Barbed humor and uptempo rocking do find their way into "Election Special," as on the raucous opener, "Mutt Romney's Blues," sung by the presumptive presidential candidate's dog exiled to his car roof pet carrier. Cooder takes cautious comfort from the signs of a rekindled tradition for "populist" music with political purpose, as in the Occupy movement.

His solo tours long past, Cooder has avoided live concerts, yet he talks excitedly about a rare recent show: "I did a little union hall show recently with 200 people in a longshoreman's union, in San Francisco, and, man, they got every turn of phrase. They'd never heard of me before or any of my records, but they understood all of these lyric things immediately. Because they've been educated in the union, you know what I mean? Because they lived it."

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Aug 27, 2012 7:46AM
Yet another talented musician outside of his area of expertise. Just shut up and sing. NOBODY that matters cares what you think. No problem with Ry or anyone saying what they think. The constitution that the BO regime has set fire to guarantees it. Who will support your right of free speech when the constitution is in ashes? Yet you back bo and his anti-colonialist hate the US. If you hate this country so much find a better one...well?
Aug 27, 2012 7:26AM
I like Cooder's music, but anyone who thinks all the blame falls on one side is an idiot. 
Aug 27, 2012 7:21AM

this all comes from a legend among legends


Aug 27, 2012 6:49AM
You couldn't come up with a more obscure left wing nut if you tried. Lots of people played guitar in the 1960's. Maybe he could be the next gov. of Calf. You deserve it.
Aug 27, 2012 5:36AM
only a musician could hold such silly views
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