It’s hard to think of another musical career quite like that of guitar legend Ry Cooder. He first surfaced in 1964, at the age of 17, playing in a rootsy blues-rock band called Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and drummer Ed Cassidy (who later co-founded Spirit with his stepson Randy California). They cut an album’s worth of material that went unreleased until 1992 before going their separate ways in 1966. At that point, Cooder became a much in-demand studio musician, working with everyone from Captain Beefheart to the Monkees. Most famously, he played with the Rolling Stones, including the mandolin break on their cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and a classic slide solo on “Sister Morphine”.
His first, eponymous solo record came out in 1970 and largely consisted of old folk and blues covers, including left-wing political classics like Woody Guthrie’s “Do-Re-Mi” and Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”(later covered and partially rewritten, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, by Bruce Springsteen). Over the course of the decade, he released seven albums that flew in the face of every current trend, from metal to singer-songwriter soft rock to disco and punk, exploring various American roots styles, incorporating sounds from gospel and soul to Tex-Mex and Cajun into his instantly recognizable music. One thing that didn’t seem to interest him, though, was songwriting. Aside from the scores he did for his friend Walter Hill’s films (starting with The Long Riders in 1980), he confined himself to playing other people’s music. Over the first two decades of his career, he never included more than one or two originals on each of his records, and they were never more than pastiches of the various styles that surrounded them.
Finally, in 1987, he seemed to have reached a dead-end: his album Get Rhythm was lively, but it covered no new ground. And new ground seemed to be what he was after: over the next 18 years, he released collaborations with the Indian slide player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (A Meeting By the River, the Malian singer/guitarist Ali Farka Toure (Talking Timbuktu, and the Cuban jazz combo the Buena Vista Social Club among many others, but he didn’t record a single new solo album in all that time.
But when he finally returned to his own work, he did so with a vengeance, in the process transforming himself from interpreter and sideman into a full-fledged folksinger, albeit one with a remarkably diverse musical palate. His “comeback album”, the 2005 masterpiece Chavez Ravine, dealt with the true story of destruction of a Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles, allegedly to create public housing, but ultimately to build Dodger Stadium: it was a wistful, heartfelt work about the forgotten victims of political and corporate shenanigans, built around the Hispanic sounds that permeated that displaced community. Clearly invigorated by the conceptual and compositional challenge of that work, he followed it with My Name Is Buddy, a Grapes of Wrath-inspired socialist concept album about labor and the Great Depression as seen through the eyes of a cat named Buddy and his friends Lefty Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad. After a brief detour into 1960s car culture with I, Flathead, he returned to Guthrie-style folk with last year’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down. He also published Los Angeles Stories, a book of short fiction about the lost L.A. of his youth, that would have done John Fante proud.
Cooder’s new album is called Election Special, and it is as direct as its title. A political broadside aimed at the hostile takeover of America by Wall Street traders and greedy corporate raiders, it’s guaranteed to please anyone inclined to give it a sympathetic listen — that is to say, anyone to the left of the spineless, mainstream Democratic Party. The music is the same basic mix of folk and blues that Cooder made his mark with, not that far removed from touchstones like Guthrie and Johnson. The stories are likewise timeless, though they are very much of this time in their details. The opening track, for starters, is called “Mutt Romney Blues”, and it is told from the point of view of Mitt’s martyred dog Seamus:
“Boss Mitt Romney went for a ride
Pulled up on the highway side
Tied me down up on the roof
Boss I hollered woof woof woof”
It’s funny stuff, but pointed too, drawing parallels between Mitt’s treatment of the family pet and his political “plans and schemes”.
Cooder’s penchant for satire takes in everyone from President Obama (in “Cold, Cold Feeling” he sings “We got Jim Crow coming ’round once more / If they resegregate the White House / I’ll have to go in through the kitchen door“) to the politically misguided lower-middle-class who support Republican tax cuts for the rich (“Kool Aid”) to a family values-spouting fat cat who’s “Going to Tampa”, site of the GOP convention, “to get my ashes hauled”.
If Guthrie is the primary influence Cooder is channeling with his political songcraft, it’s Johnson who inspires the album’s best track, “Brother Is Gone”. A modern retelling of the “Crossroads” parable , it’s about two brothers who sell their souls to the devil in exchange for power rather than musical gifts:
“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”
While the Koch brothers are never mentioned by name, the location of their crossroads — “the prairie town of Wichita” — leaves no doubt who Cooder’s singing about; like the Robert Johnson of legend, their dirty deal with the Prince of Darkness puts a hellhound on their trail. As Cooder makes clear on Election Special, anyone who casts a vote for Mutt Romney’s boss in November is likely to find themselves in the same precarious position come Judgment Day.