Oh Yes! A New Record From Ry Cooder

The announcement of a forthcoming LP by master guitarist Ry Cooder, his first since “Election Special” (2012) is nothing but good news. The video of the title track, “The Prodigal Son”, a re-vamped Gospel song, makes me think that spending some of my hard-earned on something I won’t get for 6 weeks is probably a smart move.



“Election Special” is a collection of modern protest songs continuing the liberal, populist themes of Cooder’s more recent releases. The best of them, “Brother is Gone”, concerning the deal with Satan made by the polluting, Tea Party sponsoring, Obama opposing Koch Brothers, would make it on to a compilation of his finest work & there’s a lot of competition for places on that. Ry’s 21st Century work has consisted of more of his own songs than before. That’s OK, he has made his socio-political commentaries with integrity & wit while continuing to enhance his reputation as one of the best guitarists on the planet.


Image result for ry cooder 2018“The Prodigal Son” returns to a template that has served him very well in the past. His interpretations of Blues, Gospel & R&B tunes, some obscure, some not, have pointed us in the direction of some of the finest 20th Century American music. The title track came his way via the Henley Family Gospel Singers who have been spreading the good word since 1961. Ry has added lyrics which pay tribute to Ralph Mooney, the great pedal steel guitarist who was an essential part of the Bakersfield sound in Country music. He has injected the Blues into the song & though the live video with his new band has been repeatedly viewed,my jaw still drops every time. OK, before we get into the other songs Ry has resurrected for the album let’s hear “Shrinking Man”, the other original tune that Fantasy Records have kindly uploaded to the Y-tube.



Blind Alfred Reed has been a source of songs for Ry Cooder before. “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times & Live” was on his very first solo record back in 1970 & if you know Ry’s music you know “Always Lift Him Up & Never Knock Him Down”. The fiddle player performed in Virginia in the 1920’s & 30’s until the state banned street musicians in 1937 ! His songs were social commentaries, urging responsible behaviour in a lovely conversational tone. He’s a treasure. This time around Ry has included Alfred’s warning to rich Christians “You Must Unload”.


There are songs on the new record from the Gospel canon, one from the Carter Family & 2 by other blind musicians. Blind Roosevelt Graves is credited with inventing Rock & Roll in 1929…amazing! Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark is the Night (Cold is the Ground)” has been described by Cooder as “the most transcendent piece in all American music”. It was included on that debut LP & again on the essential “Paris, Texas” soundtrack. He has arranged 2 of Blind Willie’s songs for this record & you know that they are going to be good. Ry has a musicologist’s respect for his selections but he still injects his own modern take into them Let’s hear the stirring original of “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right”, recorded with his wife Willie B Harris, in Atlanta, Georgia in 1930.




Image result for ry cooder 2018This year Ry Cooder is taking the show on the road in the US with his son Joachim on drums, multi-instrumentalist Robert Francis & saxophonist Sam Gendel who have all made their own records. It’s been sometime since I enjoyed the experience of seeing Ry play live & as he is now 71 there are not likely to be many more opportunities to do so. If any dates anywhere in Europe are added then I think that I really will have to dust off my bus pass & my passport.

Ry Cooder Put Me On It (Part 2)

Before Ry Cooder released his first solo LP in 1970 he had an already established reputation as an outstanding exponent of the bottleneck guitar. His work with Taj Mahal in the Rising Sons, on Captain Beefheart’s “Safe As Milk” & sessions for the Rolling Stones, most notably with Jagger’s “Memo From Turner” from the “Performance” soundtrack, marked him as an eloquent young stylist & one to watch. The “Ry Cooder” LP showed him to be a student & an archivist of marginalised American music from the early twentieth century. Side 2 includes songs by Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Arthur “Blind” Blake, Sleepy John Estes & Blind Willie Johnson, all fine Blues names. I was a student too, I knew about these guys. There was another blind musician who was new to me…



Image result for blind alfred reedAlfred Reed was born blind in 1880 & learned to play the violin on the farm in West Virginia where he grew up. He played at fairs, churches, on street corners, selling the sheet music of his compositions. It was 1927 before he recorded any tracks, 4 in July, 5 more in December. Two years later a couple of sessions produced 12 more sides & that’s all there is. “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, heavily re-shuffled by Ry, using only 3 of the 8 verses, is a topical protest song recorded just a week after Black Tuesday, the Wall St Crash & the onset of the Depression. Reed was a conservative Christian, “Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls ?”, a warning that a woman’s short hair is against His will, is now anachronistic & funny. His colloquial, unvarnished lyrics hit the spot & his lament for the working man, “can hardly get our breath, taxed and schooled and preached to death”, certainly still resonates. Reed’s brief collected work, accompanied by his son Arville, includes more of this good country roots stuff & is certainly worth checking.


Ry Cooder was not finished with Alfred Reed. In 1976 he recorded “Always Lift Him Up”, a lovely, sympathetic lyric, & last year he was performing “You Must Unload”, more Appalachian wisdom concerning the road to Heaven for the wealthy churchgoer. “How Can…” has remained a centrepiece of his live sets, sometimes extended to a 10 minute showcase of fine musicality. In 1987 the noted documentarist Les Blank pointed his cameras at the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces for a version which makes space available for the keyboard of Van Dyke Parks & the singular accordion of my good friend (well, I spent one evening in his company) Flaco Jimenez as well as Cooder’s inimitable guitar work.



Cooder’s 2nd LP “Into the Purple Valley” continued his excavations of the Blues & the Dustbowl while incorporating a couple of Caribbean classics. “How Can You Keep On Moving” & “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Us All” were both on the 1959 LP “Songs From the Depression” by folk trio the New Lost City Ramblers which also featured 2 songs by Reed including “How Can a Poor Man…”. “Denomination Blues”, a direct, mocking commentary on 57 varieties of Christianity, was a perfect candidate for revival. “Well, the Primitive Baptists they believe that you can’t go to heaven ‘less you wash your feet & that’s all”. Funny because it’s true ? I couldn’t say. This song was my introduction to the unique talent of Washington Phillips.


Phillips was born in 1880 too, down in Teague Texas. He was a jack-leg preacher, looking for a temporary church gig or delivering street corner sermons. Like Blind Alfred Reed his only recordings, just 15 songs, were made between 1927 & 1929.I guess that his music is gospel-blues & he had some success with “Take Your Burden to the Lord”, a popular hymn. There is no supplication to the spirit of the Lord, moral homilies are delivered in a calm, mature, assured voice. I am not the most religious of men but I’m always open to advice about Life & how to live it from those who have knocked about a bit.From his lyrics Washington Phillips seems to have been a smart man & there’s an eerie beauty about “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” that just enchants me out of my secular socks whenever I listen to it. Then there’s the mysterious matter of his instrument of choice…



Image result for washington phillipsWell, there it is in the one of the surviving photos of Mr Phillips. The technical term is, I believe, 2 big old zithers welded together. It has been variously identified as a dulceola/dolceola, a celestaphone for the right hand, a phonoharp for the left. It does seem that the original instruments were intended to be played with a hammer but Wash chose to strum & pluck them. Whatever he called it the effect is individual & wonderful, providing a gentle, floating accompaniment to his lyrics. Gospel & Blues for sure, in this melodic, mature music I hear the roots of modern popular music & that is something.


Ry Cooder agreed & in 1974 he & producer Russ Titelman re-worked Phillips’ “You Can’t Stop A Tattler” into the classy & classic “The Tattler”. We’ll end with that & then you can get on to the Y-tube & discover more about 2 great musicians who deserve a wider hearing.