Ry Cooder: songs for grubby, grabbing times

‘These times call for a very different kind of protest song. ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ We’re way down the road from that’.
– Ry Cooder

Which album released this year speaks most plainly to the times in which we live?  No contest: it’s Ry Cooder’s latest, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, an overtly political work which opens with ‘No Banker Left Behind’, a stomping old-time, jug-band tune that paints an image of bankers fleeing the country after ‘they robbed the nation blind’.  It was inspired by a news headline about the bailout of the America’s big banks.  Reviewing the album on the BBC website, Andy Fyfe concluded:

This is about as good and sustained a riposte to the grubby, grabbing times we live in as any artist has mustered, which makes it essential listening.

The songs on the album are angry, regretful, impassioned. Cooder is angry about the financial collapse, the bailout of the banks, despoilation of the environment and senseless wars. Embracing just about every musical style in the Americana bag – blues, folk, ragtime, Tex-Mex, conjunto, rock, and country – he has produced a set of scathing protest songs aimed at Wall Street bankers, Republican politicians, George W. Bush, anti-immigrant vigilantes and war profiteers.  Uncut magazine has called this ‘one of his best albums ever … an impassioned portrait of 21st century America and its injustices’ in which Cooder is ‘remade as a modern-day Woody Guthrie, fearless and funny, for like Guthrie he nails his targets with droll humour while empathising with society’s underdogs’.

My telephone rang one evening, my buddy called for me
Said the bankers are all leavin’, you better come round and see
It started revelation, they robbed the nation blind,
They’re all down at the station, no banker left behind.
No banker, no banker, no banker could I find.
They were all down at the station, no banker left behind

Well the bankers called a meetin’, to the White House they went one day
They was going to call one the president, in a quiet and a sociable way
The afternoon was sunny and the weather it was fine
They counted all our money and no banker was left behind
No banker, no banker, no banker could I find.
They were all down at the White House, no banker was left behind

Well I hear the whistle blowin, it plays a happy tune
The conductor is calling  ‘all aboard’, we’ll be leavin soon
With champagne and shrimp cocktails and that’s not all you’ll find
There’s a billion dollar bonus and no banker left behind.

A couple of weeks ago, Ry Cooder hammered the message home with a brand new song about the Occupy Wall Street movement, ‘Wall Street Part of Town’.  Listen to it here:

Back with Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, Cooder pulls no punches, laying into greed and inhumanity.  After ‘No Banker Left Behind’ with its bleak humour, ‘El Corrido de Jesse James’ offers up, in waltz time, the notion that Jesse James is so disgusted watching the bankers rip us all off that begs to be allowed to visit some Old West justice on Wall Street with his ‘trusty 44’.

The outlaw Jesse James was up in heaven
With old friends around the kingdom throne
Boys I was branded as a bandit and bank robber
But I never turned a family from their home

We’re sworn to pass no judgments here in heaven
But there’s goings on a man can’t stand no more
There’s no open carry up in heaven
But please give me back my trusty .44

‘Quicksand’  is a pounding electric rocker concerned with the plight of illegal immigrants crossing into Arizona, the state with the strictest immigration law that makes failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives the police power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally:

Thought we was getting close to Yuma
I heard it’s an unfriendly town
We just need a cool drink of water
Even Yuma can’t turn a poor boy down
Then a Dodge Ram truck drove down on us
Saying I’m your Arizona vigilante man
I’m here to say you ain’t welcome in Yuma
I’m taking you out just as hard as I can

From Pull Up's back cover

The very next track, ‘Dirty Chateau’, condemns the hypocrisy surrounding Mexican immigration in a song in which two voices weave around each other: that of a rich man in a Hollywood chateau and his Mexican maid.

I had a maid she used to come in days
Made the bed and mopped the fIoor
She didn’t like my rowdy ways
And she ain’t coming back no more:

‘You waste all your precious time
Italian movies and Portuguese wine
Little round bottles all in a row
You’re an unclean man in a dirty chateau’

She started life in the lettuce fields
Up in Salinas where the farm work is done

‘You go streaking by in your automobiles
You don’t even know where your lettuce comes from
The short handled hoe it scarred my hands
Tell me why do they love it so
It broke mama down daddy too
Now I work for you in your dirty chateau’

My friends are coming and they’d like to hear
A real sad Mexican song or two
They’ve been drinking and they don’t care
Just what you been goin’ through
How about Paloma Sin Nido
Pa Que Me Sirve la Vida
What about Pobre del Pobre
Also Lamento de un Prisionero

She used to call me borracho y perdido
Said I was loco y jodido
Buena para nada
Nunca quiero ver tu cara
But she’s gone in the world somewhere
Turlock somewhere, Stockton somewhere,
Salinas somewhere, Los Angeles somewhere, I just don’t know

‘If There’s A God’ also lays into Arizona’s immigration laws, with God driven from heaven by laws that herald a return to Jim Crow segregation. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joe’ all hit the road for Mexico. The anti-war message is delivered in various flavours: in the sleepy blues number, ‘Baby Joined the Army’, a father laments his child’s misguided decision to sign up for the armed forces, while ‘Christmas Time This Year’ laces a jaunty Polka with dark, savage humour:

Everybody stand up tall and cheer
Our children will be coming home in plastic bags I fear
Then we’ll know it’s Christmas time this year

Cooder provides a hilarious and convincing impersonation of the blues singer on ‘John Lee Hooker for President’, which imagines Hooker’s manifesto for the White House:

I want everybody to know I’m strictly copastatic, I ain’t Republican or Democratic. I got a new program for the nation. It’s gonna be groove time, a big sensation. Every man and woman gets one scotch, one bourbon and one beer, three times a day if they stay cool. Little chillens gets milk, cream and alcohol, two times a day if they stay involved in school. Now boogie chillen.

In an essay on the website of Nonesuch, Ry Cooder’s record label, Lynell George writes:

A succession of world-altering events scrolled across our collective screens and our consciousness the world at war, the mortgage crisis, the rollback of immigrant rights and civil liberties, the war on the environment—more than ever, it seemed, we needed to fight back, hold some one’s feet to the fire—but whose? “Fear and isolation,” he’s learned, “are the ways you keep people under control.”

His latest album, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down grew out of this information void—and the pervasive political and corporate double-speak that began swirling in its absence. Snaking through it are familiar themes—the struggle toward real democracy, the trials of the working man, the elusive goal of equality—set against the mayhem of contemporary front page news. Paired with it is Cooder’s fluent command of the rhythms and textures of American vernacular music—but bent and reshaped for this moment: “Some of this should be vivid and intense and it should roll right at you,” he says, “but it shouldn’t tire you out so you stop paying attention. I don’t think they’ll listen to this and say: ‘Hey, I wonder what was on his mind?’”

The album is a trenchant examination of power and the abuses of it. Accordingly, it’s also a measure of Cooder’s own growing sense of disaffection. “Never have I seen the Republicans be so tight-fisted as they are now. The worst of it is the chipping away of what people, by rights, ought to have, should have … the resources they deserve, pay taxes for.” […]

These 14 songs—voices from the wreckage—work as a meditation on not just the state of the union or of the world, but really the state of our hearts and minds—our priorities and values. What happened to the concept of community? Who are we behind our fences and multi-billion dollar homes? What have we—or are poised to—become? Cooder sets these questions in motion, some as “eyewitness” soliloquies, others as allegories

There are quieter moments on the album as well.  The pleasures of an uncomplicated life are extolled in the Tex-Mex ballad ‘Simple Tools’, while ‘Dreamer’ is a an unashamedly nostalgic number that begins:

I wonder would you like to meet a dreamer
Would you share a glass or two
Of red red wine and you might find
I’m a simple one like you

The final song on ‘No Hard Feelings’ has a Buddhist sensibility, taking a philosophical view and dismissing humanity as a passing annoyance, whose misdeeds are ‘just a murmur on the whispering sands of time‘ and soon forgotten:

This land should have been our land
You took it for your land
You got a use for every stream and tree
When I go up the highway old trees are dying up that way
You pump out the water and sell it back to me
You build mansions in the city, prisons in Mojave
Bet you’re quite a pillar of high society
You call it law and order I call it dirty money
You lock the young ones down or send ’em off to war
But it’s no hard feelings, no offence taken
You’re just a ripple in the shifting sands of time
No bad karma no curses on ya
You go your way I’ll go mine

You remind me of a fellow I heard of in the city
Nervous kind of fellow he loved money like you do
He derived no satisfaction so he jumped clear out the window
They tell me that he bounced a time or two
So take in mind the credo of a jackass prospector
‘Take what you need but, please, leave the rest alone
Try and live in harmony with old Mother Nature
You’ll remain in grace after you have gone’

Don’t get many callers that little road leads nowhere
Been here 40 years, seems like yesterday
There’s an old screech owl living in my chimney
I don ‘t build no fires, he keeps the mice away
No hard feelings no offence taken

No hard feelings no offence taken
You’re just a murmur on the whispering sands of time
No bad karma no curses on you
You go your way I’ll go mine

Ry Cooder with Robert Francis (left) and Hugo Arroyo in Berkeley, February 2011

Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down is an album on which Ry Cooder has reached back to his earliest recordings for musical inspiration – those songs by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Blake and the rest.  In parts its songs sound like they came from the 1930s, but they tell topical stories about corruption and social inequality straight out of the America of 2011.  ‘No Banker Left Behind’ is an anthem for the Occupy camps, destined to become as much the Depression-era classic that Ry Cooder almost single-handedly resurrected from obscurity: Alfred Reed’s  ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’   Recorded on 4 December 1929 in New York City, the song told of hard times in the last Great Depression.

There was once a time when everything was cheap.
But now prices almost puts a man to sleep.
When we pay our grocery bill
We just feel like making our will.
Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Video from Ry Cooder & The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces: Let’s Have A Ball, a film by Les Blank recorded at The Catalyst, Santa Cruz, California on 25 March 1987 and broadcast on Channel 4.

4 thoughts on “Ry Cooder: songs for grubby, grabbing times

  1. I am listening to this album on Spotify (brilliant, free music service online). I will agree with Mr. Donavan above: “Bloody Marvellous! Thanks!” Check out a song entitled “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall” by Tom Russell!! Very funny dig at immigration.

  2. Oh, Tom Russell, he’s one of those great songwriters from the American south and west – think Guy Clark, Butch Hancock, Dave Alvin, Lyle Lovett and the rest. I first heard him years ago on the much-missed Andy Kershaw radio show singing the title track from his album, ‘Road to Bayamon’. His album ‘Blood and Candle Smoke’ from a couple of years back was excellent. Lawrence Ferlinghetti said of Russell: “I feel great affinity with Tom Russell’s songs for he’s writing out of the wounded heart of America”.

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