Monday, June 25, 2007

CD Review: Ry Cooder, "My Name Is Buddy"

Any song that begins with the lines:

Down on the farm we had a pig
J Edgar was his name

is OK with me.

And any CD that has a song that begins with those lines is OK with me too.

I’m talking about Ry Cooder’s newie, My Name Is Buddy. Set during the Depression of the 30’s, it’s a three-way combination of Woody Guthrie’s union and children’s songs, Neil Young’s thematic/concept CD Greendale, and Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions.

And none of its songs would sound out of place in that eclectic mix that is Bob Dylan’s weekly Theme Time Radio Hour program.

Let’s judge the CD by its cover first. The only clue on the front is a pencil drawing of a cat. This is Buddy Red Cat, the central figure in the series of songs on the CD, and also the protagonist in the little children’s story book that is part of the CD’s packaging. (There is one short chapter in the book complementing each song on the CD.)

Buddy is joined by traveling companions Lefty Mouse and the blind Reverend Tom Toad (a nod in the direction of Tom Joad from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath).

It is the accidental coming together of Buddy and Lefty that provides us with our first sense of political direction. Buddy has to overcome his narrow upbringing which taught him to stick with his own kind. But in giving Lefty shelter in a storm (my nod in the direction of Dylan), Buddy gets some lessons in life:

“I never knew anything about unions and solidarity before I met Lefty. Back home, you just worked all your life and died poor….Lefty showed me we have to work together in this world if we want to get something done and make things better for everybody.”

Buddy gets caught up in a strike by zinc miners, hearing some singing that he thought might be a birthday party:

It was miners and their families
They had left the mine that day
Walked out for safe conditions,
On strike for decent pay.

He gets thrown in jail with the miners, then released, then jumps back in through a window to rejoin the singing of miners’ songs.

There is reference to a brief love affair with a “little union kitty” named Nellie, who spends all winter on the Ladies’ Garment Workers picket line.

The chapter that accompanies the lament called “The Dying Truck Driver” begins:

“The American worker-citizen is fed a daily diet of garbage and lies that makes him sick. Lefty Mouse likes to think of the power elite as a bunch of garbage collectors in reverse…”

The song relates how Buddy, Lefty and the Rev. Tom Toad making their way up Highway 99 come across a dying truck driver by the side of the road. They suspect he may have been done in by either a vigilante gang or a ranch-boss, but he tells them that it was the meatloaf special he had just eaten in a roadside diner. They revive him with whiskey and join him for the trip to Frisco town, singing:

Now the working man must be well-warned
Whenever headlines scream
“Your rights must yield, the bombs must fall
To save democracy”
The flag they fly, their stew of lies
Served up at voting time
Like poison under the gravy
On Highway 99.

“Red Cat Till I Die” is a song about staying loyal to who and what you are, sticking to your politics no matter what. “One Cat, One Vote, One Beer” references John Lee Hooker’s classic “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” and attacks (contemporary) intereference with the voting process in the US. “Cardboard Avenue” is structured a bit like an abridged version of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and is a tribute to the American underdog.

The CD’s 17 tracks pay more than one tribute to the pioneers of the musical Left, including the cowboy junkie Hank Williams. “Three Chords and the Truth” sings the praises of Joe Hill, Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger (Seeger plays banjo on “J Edgar”) - for all three, see below.

Perhaps more than anything, the CD pays tribute, although there is no acknowledgement of this, to Cooder’s parents, supporters of the Communist Party of the USA who Cooder has previously spoken of as having introduced him as an infant to the music that influenced his life.

A great album at a critical time!

(Left: The body of Joe Hill, executed by the state on false charges, but really for his labour agitation and union songs)

(Above: Great singer, great communist Paul
Robeson, picketing for civil rights)

(Right: Folk singer Pete Seeger, testifying before McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee hearings which sought to persecute communists and other progressive activists in the USA)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Aloha Mike,
Thanks for the comment on my review and the link to your own. I enjoyed it very much!