/ 26 April 2012

There is magic in the music and meaning in the message

There Is Magic In The Music And Meaning In The Message

Much like Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder is an American music veteran; he first recorded in the mid-Sixties and released his debut solo album in 1970.

But unlike Springsteen, who began his own recording career in 1973, Cooder’s fan base has been built on the musical projects he has been involved in and not on a personality cult, like the Boss. To put it bluntly, no one is pulling up in their car next to Cooder and saying “we need you now”.

Both have released albums recently that can be seen as state-of-the-nation addresses to the United States, but the difference in their approaches is stark. Whereas Springsteen took a typically earnest, overwrought, heart-on-sleeve approach, Cooder tackled the subject matter tongue in cheek and his new album, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Gallo), is the better for it.

The US’s bankers are targets of both: Springsteen sings about working-class men struggling to make ends meet and threatening to shoot the bankers on sight, whereas Cooder writes a hilarious little ditty about the bankers making off with everyone’s cash.

“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.”

Diamond in the dirt
Incorporating diverse musical styles such as blues, folk, country, ragtime and Mexican norteño, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down is a real gem that can be listened to simply for pleasure, or enjoyed as a grander political statement.

Set to a carnivalesque tune, Cooder’s Christmas Time This Year is a creepy song that talks about US soldiers coming back from war.

“Now Johnny ain’t got no legs and Billy ain’t got no face/ Do they know it’s Christmas time this year/ Tommy looks about the same but his mind is gone/ Does he know it’s Christmas time this year?” sings Cooder in a song that pulls no punches and uses contrast to marvellous effect.

“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/ Thank you Mr President for your kind words and deeds/ There’s just one thing I’d like for you to hear/ Take this war and shove it up your Crawford, Texas ass/ And then you’ll know it’s Christmas time this year.”

The anger is visceral, the music infectious.

Then there is the hilarious John Lee Hooker for President, a song in which Cooder imagines the infamous bluesman on a presidential campaign.

“All you backbiters and syndicators, hear what I say/ I ain’t gonna stand for no trash talkin’ and double dealin’/ If I catch you messin’ ’round the White House, I might cut you, I might shoot you, I just don’t know/ And there’s one point I really want to prove/ If you vote for John Lee Hooker you know you gonna groove/ Don’t be fooled by the Republican, don’t pity the Democratic/ Vote John Lee Hooker and everything gone be mellow, knocked out, copacetic.”

It is a light-hearted song with strong messages buried beneath the humour.

Much like Woody Guthrie, Cooder has written an album of protest songs that work just as songs too, which I guess is the ultimate test of success.