A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 11, 2007
“People don’t know this history anymore. ... All these young parents and these little kids, they live in almost total ignorance of American history, which is very rich and colorful and sort of mysterious — poignant really. So I got to thinking, ‘How would you go about telling them about it? ...The ideal setting for this ... is where the little kid says, ‘Mommy, why is Buddy in jail?’ And then the mommy says, ‘Well, there was a miner’s strike.’ And the little kid says, ‘Mommy, what’s a miner’s strike?’ And the parent goes, ‘Well, let’s see. Let’s look into this a little.’”
— Ry Cooder interview with Bill Fiskics-Warren, No Depression, March-April 2007
I suppose I was thinking along the same lines as Ry Cooder last summer when, coming back from a trip to Denver with my teenage son, I made a little side trip off Interstate 25 to visit the site of the Ludlow Massacre.
They didn’t teach about the Ludlow Massacre when I was in school, and my son had never heard about it either.
In case you didn’t learn about Ludlow in your history class, on April 20, 1914, at least 18 miners and members of their families, according to the official monument, were killed by Colorado National Guard troops called out on behalf of John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. “Not one of the perpetrators of the slaughter [was] ever punished, but scores of miners and their leaders were arrested and blackballed from the coal industry,” the United Mine Workers Web site says.
The Ludlow monument isn’t exactly a tourist trap. No gift shop; no snack bar. Just a monument and some historical text and old newspaper clippings behind glass. And there’s a cellar in which two women and 11 children were burned to death. You can descend a ladder into the empty cellar. Nothing’s there — unless your imagination takes you back to that terrible day.
There’s no dark and violent imagery in Cooder’s new album My Name is Buddy, though it does express an old-time, Western-state, union-man worldview, a universe populated by the likes of Joe Hill, Tom Joad, Woody Guthrie, and the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies (or, as folksinger and card-carrying Wobblie Dave Van Ronk called it, “the I trouble ya, trouble ya”).
But the story told in this song cycle (folk opera?) concerns talking animals — a mouse named Lefty, Rev. Tom Toad, and a red cat named Buddy. The CD comes with a fun little storybook with illustrations by San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez. But don’t expect a Disney cartoon version to follow.
My Name is Buddy is like a musical cross between Animal Farm and The Grapes of Wrath. Buddy and Lefty are itinerant workers and hobos, while Tom Toad is a blind preacher. They get arrested, they flee racists, they praise radicals, and they mock J. Edgar Hoover.
To be honest, as a registered adult I find Cooder’s animal concept a little cutesy and cloying at times. (Cooder says he got the idea when a friend sent him a Photoshopped picture of a cat’s head on Leadbelly’s body.) But he’s telling important American stories here, and you tend to forget the narrator is a talking cat.
The music is so good, it’s hard to hold that against him.
In many ways, Buddy is a return to Cooder’s classic 1970s albums like Chicken Skin Music (my personal favorite), Into the Purple Valley, Paradise and Lunch, and so on. Back then, Cooder was known as a hip and innovative interpreter of various strains of American music — folk, blues, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian. Cooder knew what “ditty wah ditty” meant. He helped introduce the My Generation to the likes of Flaco Jimenez, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and Gabby Pahinui. But more importantly, he found ways to mix up these sounds and have it sound natural.
Cooder went through a decade or so of doing virtually nothing but movie soundtracks, then started a series of collaborations with international musicians such as Ali Farka Toure and, most famously, master Cuban jazzmen in Buena Vista Social Club. Like Buddy, his Latin-flavored 2005 release Chavez Ravine was a concept album dealing with social injustice. It was a strong work, but it didn’t sound much like Chicken Skin.
On the new album Cooder brings back some of his finest sidemen from years past. Jimenez plays accordion on several numbers, and soul men Terry Evans and Bobby King sing on “Sundown Town (The Reverend Tom Toad).” Plus you’ll hear chief Chieftain Paddy Moloney on tin whistle and uilleann pipes, bluegrass mandolinist Roland White, Mike Seeger on fiddle and banjo (and his brother Pete playing banjo on one song), Van Dyke Parks on piano, and Jim Keltner and Cooder’s son Joachim on drums.
Given the setting of the story, it’s only natural that the spirit of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads is the foundation of the basic sound of most of the songs. It’s fun to try to trace the echoes of Americana and Irish folk melodies in many of the tunes. “Christmas in Southgate,” for instance, sounds a lot like Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh.” And if you didn’t get it, Cooder even borrows a phrase from that song: “Well the telephone rang and it jumped off the wall.”
But as much as I love the old Cooder sound, some of the most interesting cuts here are when he strays from it. “Three Chords and the Truth” is a hard-edged blues rocker that pays tribute to persecuted leftist troubadours Joe Hill, Paul Robeson, and Pete Seeger.
It’s obvious that Cooder is emulating these singers with My Name is Buddy. I hope the story of this ramblin’ red cat gets told to a lot of people — children and adults alike.
A big shot of Ry
Hear a long stretch of Cooder — Buddy songs and older works — from 10 p.m. to midnight Friday, May 11, on The Santa Fe Opry, country music as the good Lord intended it to sound, on KSFR-FM 90.7. (I’ll start the Cooder segment shortly after 11 p.m.)
And don’t forget Terrell’s Sound World, free-form, weirdo radio, same time, same station, Sunday night.
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