Ry Cooder has widened our apertures before. Back in the 1970s he introduced many of us to the wondrous likes of Fitz MacLean, Joseph Spence, Washington Phillips, Gabby Pahinui, and Dickey Doo. Later he brought us Indian multi-instrumentalist V.M. Bhatt, Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, and Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club.
As might be expected from an artist whose work is similarly expansive and imaginative, his new album, My Name Is Buddy (released March 6 on Nonesuch/Perro Verde), is not, as it wryly promises in its subtitle, just Another Record By Ry Cooder. Availing himself of all manner of North American vernacular music, the peripatetic guitarist and accidental ethnomusicologist charts the political awakening of an everyday hero who, in league with a couple of spirited companions, arrives at a hard-won ethic of solidarity and resistance.
In his book Pedagogy Of The Oppressed, the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire describes a process by which people submerged in a “culture of silence” can learn to reflect critically on the social and political realities in which they find themselves. Freire calls this process “conscientization,” arguing that anyone who has known what it’s like to be powerless can go from being an object of history to becoming a subject or agent of change within it. Anybody, but especially those who act in solidarity with others who have gone through a similar awakening of consciousness, can alter the circumstances that dispossess and keep them in the dark.
Freire was writing during the 1960s, a revolutionary time where in many quarters hopes for a more just society ran high. Today, the reins of history seem hopelessly beyond the masses’ grasp in places like Baghdad, New Orleans and Mogadishu. Freire’s notion of empowerment now sounds quixotic, the remnant, like paisley and Day-Glo, of a naive and idealistic age. Whether it involves tilting at windmills or not, his theory of conscientization is dramatized anew on Cooder’s prophetic new album, and through the unlikely person of a barnyard cat named Buddy.
Cooder’s story begins with his protagonist, his suitcase in hand, leaving the comfort of the farm and crossing the tracks — the first of many symbolic crossings he’ll make — in search of a freight train to ride. Out on the road he meets a mouse named Lefty who’s stranded in the snow.
“Stay amongst your own kind; don’t take no mice to be your friend,” Buddy’s uncle told him just as he was about to venture out on his own. Yet instead of heeding that advice and keeping up his guard, Buddy welcomes the encounter with the stranger. True to his name, he befriends Lefty, a confirmed union “man,” and offers him the shelter of his suitcase. “Just because you’ve been told a story back in your hometown don’t have to mean that story’s always true,” Buddy observes in the song “Cat And Mouse”.
The two friends later meet up with the Reverend Tom Toad, a creature inspired by Reverend Gary Davis, the sanctified blues singer and guitarist. The itinerant trio travel on together, going through scraps and scrapes as Buddy’s eyes are opened to things he never fathomed while “safe” within the provincial confines of the farm. He has much to learn and unlearn. His coloring notwithstanding, it is only after his political education, his conscientization, that Buddy truly becomes Red — that is, a union cat.
Cooder sets his tale in a Dust Bowl akin to that of the southwestern United States during the Depression. Along the way, Buddy and his fellow travelers get thrown in jails, visit labor camps, and flee sundown towns redolent of that period in U.S. history. But the violence, prejudice and greed they encounter isn’t just the province of a bygone era. The inhumanity they experience speaks to the aggression, intolerance and disenfranchisement that oppress people throughout the world today.
Cooder amplifies his fable with a libretto of sorts, offering a corresponding vignette, usually more sobering in tone than its musical counterpart, for each of the album’s seventeen tracks. Lifelike images of Cooder’s characters drawn by a young Chicano artist from San Antonio named Vincent Valdez flesh out the story further. Everything comes in a hardbound, CD-sized book like the one the Revenant label used for its 1997 reissue of Dock Boggs’ early recordings.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, right down to the supporting cast Cooder recruited to play on the album, a mix of usual suspects and ringers that includes Flaco Jimenez, Van Dyke Parks, Jim Keltner, Roland White, Mike and Pete Seeger, and Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains. The album invokes everyone from Charlie Poole, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie to Earl Robinson, Harlan Howard, the Heavenly Gospel Singers, and the labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill — and, in one delicious savaging, the nefarious G man J. Edgar Hoover.
The inspiration for Cooder’s project was a photo of Lead Belly he received in the mail from a friend. Somebody had used Photoshop to superimpose the unruffled countenance of a red tabby where the singer’s face should have been. The cat, Cooder eventually learned, was named Buddy and had been found living in a suitcase in the alley behind a record store in Vancouver.
“Buddy was an accident,” Cooder explains, speaking by phone from his home on the west side of Santa Monica. “It was just a thing that came across the table here.” The essay that accompanied advances of the album reports that along with the mashed-up photo of Buddy and Lead Belly was a note which read, “You’ll know what to do with this.”
Cooder sure did. Before long, Buddy became a vehicle for him to express ideas that had been germinating since the release of his 2005 album Chavez Ravine, a record that topped the No Depression Third Annual Critics’ Poll.
“I’d been thinking a lot about the American working man,” he says. “I kept thinking about how this character that we know in our history, in our stories and music, is going to pass from the scene and drift off, kind of like Hobo Bill.”
That Cooder’s thoughts would turn to the nation’s vanishing working class is hardly surprising. (Not the disappearance of working people, of course, and certainly not of the ever-expanding ranks of “the working poor,” but the loss of a labor movement that, for all of its problems, had political franchise.) This is, after all, the guy who on the first side of his 1970 solo debut included a trio of down-at-the-heel plaints from the Depression: “Do Re Mi”, “One Meat Ball”, and “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?”