"I was thinking about the disappearing American working man or woman," musician Ry Cooder told an interviewer. "The labor scene and the unions. Solidarity and unity. All the things that seem to be retreating or slipping away. We have a country here built by those people …." Then he trailed off because what more can you say? You can make some idiotic statement of blind optimism, or you can admit that it's all gone for good. That the sun has gone down on the America of Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, and Paul Robeson, and it is never coming back.
For the true believer in the dream of solidarity—even one hardened by bitter experience—that admission is just too painful to utter aloud. So, if you're Ry Cooder, you buckle down to make some songs that tell the old, old story. Just because it's gone doesn't mean it has to be forgotten.
So we have My Name Is Buddy, a 17-song Dust Bowl fable about Buddy the Red Cat, Lefty Mouse, and Rev. Tom Toad. Cooder's animal characters follow the familiar path of Dust Bowl refugees from lost farms in the southern Midwest, on a trail of tears across the burning deserts of the Southwest to the Promised Land of California. All this, only to be beaten, abused, and starved in California's farm labor camps.
It's a familiar path if you know U.S. history or the literature of the Great Depression—or if you know the recorded work of Ry Cooder. He's been obsessed with the music and politics of Greil Marcus' "old, weird America" since he was a teenager. His first album included a cover of "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," by West Virginia's Blind Alfred Reed, who, Cooder noted in his World Café interview, "literally starved to death." He also did Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl classic, "Do Re Mi."
In the decades since, Cooder has recorded with Hawaiian slack key guitar masters, Norteño accordionist Flaco Jimenez (who joins him on My Name Is Buddy), East Indian string players, and, most famously, the Cuban salsa kings of the Buena Vista Social Club. He's sometimes risked coming off like a globe-hopping, World Music dilettante (à la David Byrne), but Cooder's transnational adventures have always been motivated by empathy and respect for the musicians he's encountered, and, more important, Cooder started the journey with his own, very deep set of roots firmly planted. Now he's returned to those roots, bringing with him all that he learned along the way.
THE MUSIC ON My Name is Buddy covers the terrain of those American roots. There's lots of gutbucket, John Lee Hooker-inspired blues. These include the song, "One Cat, One Vote, One Beer," the refrain of which is a play on Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." Another is "Three Chords and the Truth," an ode to those great singing organizers Joe Hill, Paul Robeson, and Pete Seeger.
The sound of the album is mostly rough and unprettified, though "Sundown Town," sung by gospel vocalist Bobby King, approaches the polish of contemporary rhythm and blues. Elsewhere you'll find string band music that the Okies and Arkies could have played around a campfire. And there's a nod to international solidarity on the album's closer, "There's a Bright Side Somewhere," a gospel song by the Rev. Gary Davis, which includes the accordion of Flaco Jimenez and the Irish pipes of Chieftain Paddy Moloney.
Cooder is right that the world of this music is slipping away. And the values of solidarity among American workers are going with it. Even many union members no longer know the words to their anthem, "Solidarity Forever." And if other self-identified progressives still use the word "solidarity" anymore, it is probably with reference to poor people somewhere very far away, not our neighbors here in the good old U.S.A.
But at least Ry Cooder still remembers the songs.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.