There is a species of young folk walking the streets (and middle-aged folks too, I guess, not to be ageist about it), who will have you believe that dissent – the spirit which animated everyone from Woody Guthrie to The Clash – in popular music is dead, and that the whole shooting match has been reduced to nothing more than a corporate-led charade. When, as anyone who bothers to keep their eyes and ears open for this sort of thing knows, the diametric opposite is actually the case.
From elder statesmen (Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young) to their immediate successors (Steve Earle, Todd Snider, Lucinda Williams) to long-enduring anarcho-punks (The Levellers) to the recent adventures of Pussy Riot, evidence to the contrary is everywhere available. Indeed, for those who harken back nostalgically to a rose-tinted vision of the 60s counterculture, it could be argued that protest against perceived hypocrisy and injustice through accessible forms of musical expression has never been greater than at the present time, especially when allied to the fact that today’s socio-political and socio-economic criticism is rather less self-serving, delusional and downright naïve than that of its parents’ generation. Hell, even The Dixie Chicks got into trouble with the Republican Party not so long ago, and were defiantly unrepentant about it. Add to that, has anyone been keeping tabs on what Ryland Peter Cooder has been up to for the better part of the last decade?
What began with the broad canvas of American history yielding the class war vignettes and sympathy for minorities contained on his loose Southern Californian trilogy of Chavez Ravine (2005), My Name Is Buddy (2007) and I, Flathead (2008) became even more focused with the contemporary issues of bank bailouts and recession dealt with on last year’s excellent Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down, and leads to its logical full-flowering on this unabashed broadside, released a week before the Grand Old Party’s convention and two months before Obama seeks a second term in the Presidential election.
An entire album of political salvos, in this case left-wing ones, can feel like being hit over the head repeatedly with a copy of Socialist Worker (or Das Kapital), but what differentiates Cooder’s jeremiads from those of many of his contemporaries is that his songs are character-driven and tell a story, rather being a mere list of complaints or calls-to-arms. Thus, the man who introduced Keith Richards to the open G tuning (as finally acknowledged in the latter’s autobiography Life) is out of the traps with the political cartoon of ‘Mutt Romney’s Blues’, apparently the true story of how Republican hopeful Mitt once lashed his dog to the roof of his car on a family outing, all told from the point-of-view of the unfortunate canine. As Reverend Al Sharpton said, “how he treated his dog tells you a lot about him.”
This is followed by the mandolin-led ‘Brother Is Gone’, which updates and relocates the Robert Johnson myth to Wichita, where the rich and influential Koch Brothers make a deal with the Devil, ‘We met old Satan where the two roads cross’, but he is coming back for one of them. Again, Charlie is singing about the disappearance of Davy, in this song for the new depression.
‘The Wall Street Part Of Town’, a holdover from the more country and folk-styled Pull Up Some Dust…, for which it was considered too boisterous, expresses solidarity with the Occupy movement. As the liner notes say: ‘Is there a Wall Street part of town in your town? Start your own, it’s easy. When the police come, remind them that you pay their salary, such as it may be.’
‘Going To Tampa’, ‘Kool-Aid’ and ‘The 90 and The 9’ are again all first person narratives, the first a country hoedown about a good ol’ boy on his way to meet the Tea Party at the Republican convention, the second a shuffle about a ripped-off kid who bought the controversial ‘Stand Your Ground’ self-defense gun laws, but now finds himself jobless – he ‘drank the Kool-Aid’, the last a downhome Woody Guthrie-style, Joe Hill traditional workers’ song, about a father and daughter setting off for a demo against those ‘jackin’ with the 90 and the 9’. It’s all topped off with the raucous rock’n’roll finale of ‘Take Your Hands Off It’, where the trusty Stratocaster is unleashed in a fit of righteous anger to upbraid right-wing tampering with, and monopolisation of, everything from the Bill of Rights to reproductive rights, the Constitution to God.
So there you have it, the short sharp shock of 9 tracks in 38 minutes, largely first-takes with no overdubs. Of course, there is the question of how efficacious protest song is in contributing to social change, and how could such an effect be measured anyway? If Obama is re-elected, what part will Election Special have played? But, in one sense, such considerations entirely miss the point of the sub-genre, and in another they are another day’s work. There is also the criticism that exclusive concentration on the social eschews exploration of the personal, the private realm of intimate relationships. But there is plenty of time for that elsewhere, no? Nina Simone could do ‘Mississippi Goddamn’, and follow it with “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl’. Moreover, the personal is political, right? And vice versa, needless to say.
Besides, who says topical music has to be boring, or won’t stand the test of time? While there are those who hold that poetry should not be ripped from yesterday’s headlines, and that conscripted soldiers are the first to die, in the hands of a master craftsman like Cooder, who just seems to be getting better and better the older he gets (as writer, as vocalist, and of course as player), it is amply demonstrated that there is plenty of life in these old dogs yet. What’s more, social comment once again becomes high art, in the finest American tradition.