I’ve got a bad feeling about the American Presidential election, and so has Ry Cooder. He’s so worried that he’s rushed out a new album, Election Special, on which every track is dedicated to alerting his fellow-countrymen and the rest of the world to evil intentions of the Tea Party Republicans and their wealthy backers only interested in power, profit and war. Yes, it’s uncompromising, unapologetic, and concerned that this may be the last chance for ‘the 90 and the 9’ to hold on to their rights, their jobs, and a future for their children:
This may be the last time , I don’t know
It may be the last time for the 90 and the 9
If the Democrats don’t make it
Then I’ll have myself to blame
If we don’t raise some sand
Then our votes might slip away
And our civil rights and our equal pay
And then it’s too bad, Jim, for the 90 and the 9
They promised war was done but peace didn’t declare
Our young folks are still going there
I didn’t raise our child to go to war this time
Honey, they’re just shootin’
At the 90 and the 9
Opinion polls show Romney and Obama neck and neck. Some say that the sane majority of Americans will remember why they voted for Obama in the first place. But, is there a sane majority in America these days? That’s what worries me. Yesterday, The Guardian reported that an attendee at this week’s Republican party convention was removed from the conference after allegedly throwing nuts at a black camerawoman from CNN, saying ‘this is how we feed animals’.
Released in the US just in time for the Tampa Convention, Ry Cooder’s album features a cheeky ditty, ‘Going to Tampa’, voiced by a delegate who’s heading there to get ‘my ashes hauled’:
Goodbye my honey, farewell my baby
Don’t look for me around convention time
I’m bound for Tampa, in the great state of Florida
To see some distinguished friends of mine
Mitt and Rick and the pitbulls, the jolly ride and step forth
To the highest bidder each will guarantee
I’d give all my money sir if Palin calls me honey
And shakes the pizzas on my tree
‘Cause I’m goin’ to Tampa in the morning
Got my credentials in my overalls
But I can’t take you with me little darling
I’m going down to get my ashes hauled
If they can just find another Willie Horton, he opines, ‘we can petrify the nation and bring the votes from Mexico somehow’. This guy dreams of reasserting states’ rights and Jim Crow laws. In his sleeve notes to the album, Cooder wonders whether ‘as a mother, will Sarah Palin lead the Republican convention in a prayer for Treyvon?’
Election Special is full of folk, blues, and gospel themes brilliantly played by Cooder on guitar, mandolin and bass, with his son Joachim on drums. Its songs draw upon old traditions of radical America reinterpreted for 2012, and in them Cooder takes direct and sometimes humorous aim at rapacious capitalists, big corporations and corrupt politicians. An album consisting of nothing but political songs could end up an unlistenable disaster, but Election Special is entertaining, enjoyable to listen to, and musically seductive. Many of these songs will last, like Woody Guthrie’s did.
In an interview with The Guardian, Cooder explained how these songs differ from the protest songs of the sixties:
Well, I don’t know how to write soldier music. They were soldiers’ songs so people could go out and hit the frontline. We shall overcome and so forth. And you need those types of songs. Especially in the Occupy movement. I think they’re going to want to have songs like that, it’ll be helpful. But I don’t know how to do that really. That’s a different kind of musical brain up there. So what I look at is these bleak stories: they’re narratives and they introduce you to a character and the character says something.
The album opens with the plaintive ‘Mutt Romney Blues’, voiced by the dog that Romney once strapped to the roof of his car for a long family road trip. In his forthright Guardian interview, Cooder explained that his loathing for Romney is fuelled as much by the way his business interests have raped the environment, as by his policies:
Romney is as bad as anyone can be. He’s a dangerous man. He’s a cruel man. He’s a perfect creation for what the Republican party is all about. And that is to say, a rapacious capitalist. Anyone who ran Bain Capital is not your friend. All they’re going to do is rape and pillage the land.
The targets in ‘Brother Is Gone’ are the Koch Brothers who head up Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the United States and who liberally fund a bewildering range of conservative, free market and libertarian policy groups, lobbying organisations and right-wing foundations in the United States.
In an article a couple of years ago in New Yorker, Jane Mayer wrote:
The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry – especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests…. Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a ‘kingpin of climate science denial’. The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program – that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.
In his sleeve notes, Ry Cooder observes, ‘The only logical explanation for the Brothers I could come up with is, they made their deal at the crossroads with Satan. Satan will need to get paid, but in the meantime, they are doing everything in their power to hurt you and me. The big hurt’.
Oil spills and cancer towns was our stepping stones
Immigration bills and foreclosure homes
States’ rights we proclaimed
Like in the good old Jim Crow days
Our highest aim was to take your vote away
So, in the manner of Robert Johnson’s encounter with the devil at the crossroads, and decorated with a lovely mandolin arrangement, ‘Brother is Gone’ imagines the Koch brothers owing the devil, as Cooder explained in a New York Times interview:
I thought how could you – in a song phrase – explain them? Then I thought the crossroads. Everybody understands that. I thought, That’s how I’ll start: “We made the deal, and Satan’s deal was good, ’cause he said we could have all that horrible power and do anything we want.” But Satan’s price is he’ll come for one of the Koch brothers and take him back down. He won’t say which one. He won’t say when.
‘The Wall Street Part of Town’ was clearly inspired by the spirit of solidarity invoked by the Occupy movement:
I’m in trouble again but this time I’m not the only one
I was hurtin’ before but this time I’m not a lonely one
Divide and rule, that’s always been their plan
We’re in trouble again but this time we’ve got friends
So I’ll keep walkin’ if it takes all night
Hopin’ we gonna make things right
I’m lookin’ for the Wall Street part of town
‘Is there a Wall Street part of town in your town?’ Ry asks in his sleeve note. ‘Start your own, it’s easy. When the police come, remind them that you pay their salary, such as it may be’. Or, as he put it more bluntly in the New York Times:
The only way we are going to save the country from these bastards is unity and solidarity, and the conservatives went after unity and solidarity when they started to dismantle the labor force under Reagan.
‘Guantanamo’ is not the lilting Cuban song about a country girl from Guantanamo, but a thunderous attack on prisons everywhere, and one notorious one in particular: ‘You can’t come back from Guantanamo’.
The striking thing about this election is the lack of any of the fervour that surrounded the Obama campaign in 2008, and there’s certainly no will.i.am ‘Yes We Can’ video this time. Then, youth voter turnout was the highest it had been in 35 years, and it helped propel Obama to the White House. Now, according to an article in The Guardian earlier this month, as Obama strikes a centrist tone in order to reach crucial swing voters and conditions on the ground worsen, rappers see him as ‘part of the very political establishment rappers have long held in contempt’.
But Cooder will have none of this: at the heart of this collection of songs is his belief that Americans who want to preserve their liberties, defend jobs, health care and public services must stand up for Obama. In ‘Cold Cold Feeling’ he imagines the president, alone in the dark, walking the Oval Office floor. ‘Before you criticize and accuse, walk a mile in his shoes’, he says on the album’s sleeve. In the Guardian interview, Cooder was asked whether he saw Obama as a good man trapped in an impossible situation:
Yes, 110%. He’s set upon by dogs. He’s prevented from doing anything because the Republicans ensured that no president and no Democrat president can ever do good again. That’s what Bush was sent in there to do: destroy the presidency, and that’s what I think he did. How do you come back from that? How do you make the presidency good again? They talk about bi-partisanship but that’s an empty word, doesn’t mean a thing. So what is Obama supposed to do? How can he operate? This healthcare thing is really quite something, if it lives. They’re going to go after it and try to destroy it, that’s the leading end of the Republican effort right now, that’s going to sink the Titanic, you know? I mean, I think he’s a good man. He’s a smart man. He understands the constitution, therefore he must respect it. They don’t. I believe that he does.
‘Kool-Aid’ is a fearsome blues enhanced by some classic Cooder slide guitar that gives voice to a poor man who swallowed conservative arguments. Too late, he realises that the rich have given the the poor gun rights and ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws – but defaulted on the promise of well-paid jobs and a secure future. He drank the Kool-Aid, they really drank it down.
Your poor white people — conservatives want to split them off and say, “We are going to engineer it so these people will vote against their own self-interest.” But this character in the “Kool-Aid” song says I did everything that was asked of me but I’m still losing my job and I’m going to lose my house. Finally, it occurs to him at 3 o’clock in the morning, what my friend Jim Dickinson used to call the moment of the horrible hillbilly reality, as his wife’s asleep and he’s smoking Chesterfields, and he says: “Wait a minute — this didn’t work at all. I’m hung out to dry. I’m twisting in the wind. I drank the Kool-Aid.”
Perhaps the best tracks on the album are the two with which it closes – the aforementioned ‘The 90 and the 9’ and ‘ Take Your Hands off It’, an out-and-out rocker co-written with his son Joachim. They see this as a re-working of Woody Guthrie’s, ‘This Land is Your Land’. In it the Cooders storm, ‘take your hands off my Constitution, my Bill of Rights, my polling rights, my reproductive rights’. ‘Take your hands of it, you know it don’t belong to you’.
Get your bloody hands off the peoples of the world
And your war machine and your corporation thieves
That lets you keep your job and pays your dirty salary
Take your hands off us, you know we don’t belong to you
This isn’t the first time that Cooder has gone overtly political: his last album, Pull Up Some Dust opened with ‘No Banker Left Behind’ and may prove to be the record that future generations look to in order to understand this recession. And, of course, throughout his lengthy musical career Cooder has immersed himself in Dustbowl era music and social history, always seeing the parallels to the modern-day situation.
Ry Cooder first surfaced in 1964, at the age of 17, playing in the blues-rock band Rising Sons with Taj Mahal. They recorded an album’s worth of material that was not released until 1992. After that, Cooder was in demand as a studio musician, working with everyone from Captain Beefheart to the Monkees, and making classic contributions to Rolling Stones recordings, including the mandolin break on their cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain’ (on Gimme Shelter) and the slide guitar solo on Sticky Fingers‘ ‘Sister Morphine’.
His first solo record came out in 1970 and largely consisted of old folk and blues covers, including radical classics like Woody Guthrie’s ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’. That began a pattern of albums early in his career that had at their centre classics of the Dust Bowl era, with songs by by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and others.
More recently he produced two concept albums that documented social change in America in the years before and after the Second World War. His 2005 masterpiece Chavez Ravine, dealt with the true story of destruction of a Latino neighbourhood in Los Angeles, a land grab to build Dodger Stadium. It was a heartfelt work about the forgotten victims of political and corporate shenanigans, built around the Hispanic sounds that permeated that displaced community. He followed that with My Name Is Buddy, a collection of songs imbued with socialist values about unions in the Depression as seen through the eyes of a cat named Buddy and his friends Lefty Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad.
A Ry Cooder radical America playlist
No Bankers Left Behind (from Pull Up Some Dust)
Do Re Mi (from Ry Cooder, 1970)
Strike! (from My Name Is Buddy, 2007)
One Cat, One Vote, One Beer (from My Name Is Buddy, 2007)
The Bourgeois Blues (from Chicken Skin Music, 1976)
Vigilante Man (from Into The Purple Valley, 1972)
How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? (from Ry Cooder, 1970)
Take Your Hands Off It (from Election Special, 2012)