For the last forty years or so Ry Cooder has devotedly created music that tells the American people’s story through the folk history of the 1920s, the Depression and the Roosevelt era. He has always sung about the political and economic situation, re-imagining the music of Woody Guthrie, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Blake and many others; mining deeply the musical traditions of the Mexican border lands, Hawaii, the Mississippi Delta, Piedmont ragtime guitar, Gospel, Nashville, Western Swing, Southern Soul, Old Time styles and even the pop music of Okinawa (a nation tied to the US culturally as well as to Japan). Name any genre that could be listed beneath the rubric Americana, and the chances are that Cooder has gone there.
Cooder has always been firmly and righteously on the political Left. His songs speak for the common working man and woman, the immigrant whose labour is exploited in the lettuce fields, the soldier made to do the killing and dying for the politician’s aggrandisement, the victim of the cop’s flailing baton, the union man beaten by the boss man’s hired thugs, for the black, Latino, Hispanic and white folk who are downtrodden by taxes and bills and racism and homelessness and the whole rotten system.
Pull up Some Dust and Sit Down is a continuation of the political-concept-album genre which he began to explore in the social history extravaganza Chavez Ravine and the delightfully whacky My Name Is Buddy. Cooder presents a kaleidoscopic collection of acerbic and poignant songs that tell the truth about the social and economic fallout of the international banking crisis, the pain behind all the partisan whooping-up of globalised capitalism.
Every track is a masterpiece, for which reason it is impossible to single out highlights. The range of musical effects is, as always on a Ry Cooder record, impressively varied and inclusive, but it’s unmistakably his own sound simmering in the folkloric melting pot, telling the listener as much about American roots culture and history as the lyrics: well-crafted short stories about housemaids, folk-heroes, soldiers and simple working men. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll Steinbeck, a Tex Mex Sherwood Anderson, a Delta Blues Faulkner.
It’s all laid bare here. In No Banker Left Behind the reivers and carpetbaggers of financial speculation are heading out of town pronto, on the lam and leaving a wrecked economy behind. I can see myself enjoying a knees-up listening to this track while watching Sir Fred Goodwin being hanged upside-down on a lamp-post. You will too. Revolutionary party music for a soundtrack to the Occupy movement. Roots rocker Quick Sand is a tale of the tribulations of the poor who try to cross the border in search of a better life. Quick sand is a metonym and a metaphor, simultaneously standing in for the hardships of migration and the great con of globalisation and concentrated wealth. The up-tempo exuberance of Christmas Time This Year satirically mocks the enforced jollity of the season as the lyrics tell of returning military vets, maimed physically and emotionally or in body bags. It ends with an unambiguous message to George W. Bush. Lord Tell Me Why is told from the perspective of a man who asks why ‘a white man ain’t worth nothin’ in this world no more’. This is perhaps the most conceptually layered track. Cooder gives this character his voice too, letting him vent his despair at his situation as he bemoans his being made homeless by rioters. Yet the multiculturally flavoured music behind the words stands in ironic mode, almost like a chorus commenting on the man’s words. It implies that this man, who is a victim too, is looking at the wrong target; that social unrest, with its interracial tensions, is a symptom of the political and economic system; that it isn’t the immigrant or the black man who is his true enemy.
Lyrics reference Skip James,The Temptations, Big Bill Broonzy and The Bible and give a nod to Jimmy Reed and Johnny Taylor; the music spans a wide swath of the American tradition, built up from a sonic palette of many shades and rhythms. The beat of the human heart pulsates loud and strong throughout, sometimes sardonic, other times melancholic, despairing or just downright angry at the lousiness of being powerless in a world where power drives everything. Even God looks down at the world and is saddened to see how it has turned out. But there is humour too – check out John Lee Hooker for President (I’d vote for the great man running on that manifesto) wherein Cooder delivers a convincing interpretation of The Hook’s singing style and thumping guitar-and-foot-tapping groove, or his vocal tribute to Captain Beefheart on the sinister slide-guitar rocker I Want My Crown, as a robber-baron capitalist gloats over his wealth and power. And America’s version of Robin Hood, the folk legend Jesse James, is invoked as a man who stood for the people and only stole from the rich, powerful bankers – a romanticised figure, perhaps, but he stands as a stirring symbol in these times. In El Corrido de Jesse James we see him in heaven, telling his buddies how he’d like to go back down to earth with his .44 and shoot up Wall Street. His statement ‘Boys, I was branded as a bandit and bank robber, but I never turned a family out of their home’ prompts us to ask who the real criminals are.
The music reflects Cooder’s ethnographical fascination with the people’s music of the American mid-century, and he evokes those times so vividly through those styles that it’s impossible not to draw historical parallels between then and now. Cooder says it’s time for a new New Deal.
Considering the supremely high quality of Ry Cooder’s recorded output, it is quite a claim to say that this is probably his greatest album. But the stylistic range, the brilliance of the song writing, the soulfulness and depth of characterisation in his vocal delivery (this is definitely his finest work singing-wise), the stellar accordion and vocal contributions by the great Flaco Jimenez and the sheer political and social timeliness of Pull up Some Dust and Sit Down must point to it being a classic of American roots music, or maybe even one of the greatest albums of all time.