Conversations: Ry Cooder

The legendary guitarist talks about storytelling, dilettantism and protest music in this podcast and interview.

Published March 14, 2007 8:00AM (EDT)

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He taught Keith Richards the riff to "Honky Tonk Woman," he's a master guitarist capable of playing everything from African grooves to Appalachian folk ballads, and his work on the "Buena Vista Social Club" album sparked a renewed interest in Cuban music, but these days, all Ry Cooder wants to do is tell stories. Cooder's newest album, "My Name Is Buddy," tells the tale in song of a red cat named Buddy, whose run-ins with folks like Hank Williams, Lefty Mouse and J. Edgar Hoover shed light on the rise and fall of the American working class. The album follows the storytelling template of Cooder's last album, 2005's "Chavez Ravine," which told of a Mexican-American neighborhood in Los Angeles that was razed to make way for a baseball stadium. One of contemporary music's most versatile and respected musicians, Cooder, who turns 60 on Thursday, spoke with Salon about his recent emphasis on storytelling, what's happened to protest music in contemporary culture and why his genre jumping doesn't make him a musical dilettante.

-- David Marchese

The new album and "Chavez Ravine" are both conceptually bound -- they both tell stories. What made you interested in longer narrative?

The thing with "Chavez Ravine" is that I could see that a story was the key. An imaginary story was the way to make it work. I couldn't make solo records anymore. I hadn't done that since '88 -- "I/Me" records, I call 'em. What the hell are you going to sing about? The "Chavez Ravine" thing was a real breakthrough because I could see the answer -- you make up a story. You write songs through these characters.

The new album's musical style is rooted in a place where music as a tool for worker solidarity had more social impact than it does now.

In my teenage years, I learned a lot about country music and bluegrass and learned all this old-time stuff. I really loved that music. But would you do it now? What relevance would it have? That's the time when people sang about themselves, the working people sang about their working-class problems -- and the problems of poor people -- and what they thought about because nobody told them what to do; they didn't have any other directive. [Old-time country musician] Charlie Poole I'm sure never said to himself, I've got to change, I've got to make more money.

On the record, you write about people like Paul Robeson, and you've mentioned the Seeger brothers and Woody Guthrie -- people very conscious of using music as a political tool. Does music perform that function anymore?

It doesn't seem to. After World War II, there was this tremendous optimism that fascism was dead and that we were all going to join hands, and folk music was seen as a technique to bridge the gap between the intelligentsia and the underclass. The whole progressive movement said, "In unity there is strength." This is the theme of the "Buddy" record: You've got to stay together. What the power structure of the elite wants to do is set you against each other; therefore cats and mice can't get along. Now of course, the movement was attacked by J. Edgar Hoover and his minions -- they'll never stop trying to force people apart and frighten people -- but the whole folk song movement was very powerful. People like Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson became very dangerous.

What happened in music was, after the Beatles, so much money began to circulate and music became sort of a commodity. Then it got corporate in the '70s. Suddenly Warner Bros. Records appeared to be something different. Instead of a two-story building where you could literally walk into chairman Mo Ostin's office and say "Hi, Mo" and sit down and chew the fat, as of the '70s, the guy would've been up on the 10th floor and you would have to penetrate through secretaries and middle management and lawyers and you never could get an answer. The whole thing became number crunching. That changes people. Rather than a reaction like, "I believe this, therefore I sing this song," you say, "I better sing like this because it makes money and the audience expects it."

Talk a bit more about why you decided to tell the story of the American working class through an animal?

What we have here is a generation of young parents and their children, and none of these people are ever going to learn this story. They don't teach this in schools. They teach fascism in schools. At least they did in Santa Monica in the '50s. They wanted us to be law-abiding, docile insurance salesmen. The idea that you might be taught the history of America from the point of view of Howard Zinn is laughable. So you have young parents and their children who are ignorant of all this. There are children who will never know what kind of place America is. I thought, let's make this record for them so the little kid says, "Why'd Buddy get arrested? Why's Buddy in jail?" And then Mommy says, "Well, there was a strike and he got caught up in a police dragnet." And the kid says, "Mommy, what's a strike?" In an ideal world, young parents might get this record and go home and have a dialogue with their kids. It's a nice idea. I don't know that anybody's going to have time for "Buddy" -- everybody's in a hurry and running around being good little consumers.

How did somebody growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., get interested in the issues you address on "My Name Is Buddy"?

My parents had these friends, and one of their friends was a blacklisted violinist. I used to go spend a lot of time in their house. They had everything: They had the Pogo books and the Leadbelly records and the Woody Guthrie records. They had the photographs. It just knocked me out. This fella, Leo, gave me, when I was 4, a little guitar. These people got me started. I heard hillbilly radio, too, which they had in Los Angeles in those days -- a working-class radio station they had for the dock workers. It was Merle Travis and Bob Wills and I wondered, "Where is this coming from?" When I began to see musicians when I was a teenager, I thought, "It's the people" -- that's the thing to pay attention to. Why do they play the way they play? Why do they sit the way they sit? What'd they say? If you understand the people, you'll be able to play their music. It's not easy. Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt -- it's a stretch when you're from Santa Monica.

With your widespread musical interests, some people have charged you with being a dilettante.

"Cooder and his round-trip tickets" -- I've heard this all my life. I just say "fuck you" because I'm out there trying to do something that I think is good. And if you meet somebody and the association helps them ... that's a good thing. I got a lot of flak and took a lot of shit on the "Buena Vista" side because, "Oh, who are you to go down there?" By the way, one fallout benefit is that there are more Cubans working in music than ever before, and what's wrong with that? I don't say I'm going around with a magic wand. As one old friend of mine, Jim Dickinson, once said, "Neglect will kill music."

By Salon Staff

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