Any form of culture has the ability to capture social, political and cultural issues and themes of the era it stems from. Usually, the most poignant snapshots can be found in musical expression. This is particularly striking in American folk and blues music from the 1930s and 40s, which was heavily influenced by the financial collapse of 1929, and the subsequent New Deal. With figureheads like Woody Guthrie (“Hard Travelin'”), Blind Willie Johnson (“Let Your Light Shine on Me”) or Alfred Reed (“How Can a Man Stand Such Times and Live?”), this period continues to inspire politically motivated singer-songwriters, even to this day. Last year, Loudon Wainwright III (“School Days”, “Black Uncle Remus”) released the album 10 Songs for the New Depression, his contribution to the ongoing financial crisis, which started in 2007. Another musician to be inspired by these events is Ry Cooder, one of the great names of americana. Cooder already has a history of covering Depression era songs as well as recording his own tracks in the traditional vein. A great example would be 2007’s brilliant concept album My Name Is Buddy, which tells the story of a cat’s travels through a disillusioned America. This August, he released Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down which retains a 1930s feel, but takes it a step further.
“Reason can oppose evil more vehemently when it is joined by rage”
Although this phrase was coined almost 1,500 years ago by Pope Gregory the Great, it hasn’t ceased to be true. Anger seems to be many people’s most natural reaction to the audacity of investment bankers, political straw men, and private industrial tycoons. This ire is what fuels Ry Cooder’s new album. Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down is a one-hour-long bill of indictment against the very people who caused the financial crisis, and who now profit from it. It is a portrait of American life in turmoil, a lament for the dead American Dream – killed, much like Hunter S. Thompson predicted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by political and economic cynicism.
But Cooder starts on a light note. “No Banker Left Behind”, the album’s wonderful opener, eases you into the musician’s state of mind with its jolly rhythm and ironic tone. It’s a bit like Tom Paxton’s more easygoing songs – “One Million Lawyers” or “The Ballad of Gary Hart”, for instance – with the harshest line being “They robbed the nation blind”. But darker songs are afoot. This is foreshadowed in the dirty Mexican ballad “El Corrido de Jesse James” whose titular character thanks god for his “trusty .44”, which, luckily, is able to persuade bankers to “put that bonus money back where it belongs”.
Things turn exceptionally sardonic in the soldier hymn “Christmas Time This Year”. “Johnny got no legs, Billy got no face […] All I want is two good arms, so I can hug my kids”, Cooder sings. George W. Bush may no longer be president but his legacy – namely two wars Americans pay and sometimes die for – is obviously not forgotten: “Thank you Mr. President for your kind words and deeds / Take this war and shove it up your Crawford, Texas ass / Then you’ll know it’s Christmas time this year”. And the military motif is not over yet. The ensuing “Baby Joined the Army” is a dark, eerie blues that rubs your face in the bleak reality of war.
Cooder returns to Wall Street in “I Want My Crown” where he mimics a jaundiced something, a symbol for everything wrong in today’s United States. This enigma claims it “drove the union down at last”, thanks to it “the House [is] divided” and “the working man has been cast down”. However, it is still waiting for the people who stand to benefit from those developments to properly acknowledge its work, to crown it their saviour.
But there is hope after all, at least according to the utopian “John Lee Hooker for President”, hands down the album’s greatest song and one of 2011’s best tracks. Ry Cooder puts on his finest impression of legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker, his band strikes up a melody that could have been written by the man himself, and he’s off to fantasise about Hooker visiting and eventually taking the White House – without a political party, of course – then proceeding to preach everybody’s right to have the blues, getting people to listen to “Boom Boom” and “Boogie Chillen” and to put on Stetson hats to turn the country into a virtual United States of Cool.
However, turning Hooker into a crossbench president doesn’t mean the Republican Party gets off easy. “If There’s a God” charges the GOP with ousting the man above, “changing the lock on the heaven door”, and making new rules: “If you’re brown, you can’t hang around / If you’re black, better step way back / If you’re red, you’re better off dead / If you’re poor and white, you just ain’t right”.
After 13 songs, Cooder comes to a close with “No Hard Feelings”, a reflection on what has been done and what will matter in the end. Referencing Woody Guthrie (“This land should’ve been our land”), he recaps how the disciples of the Almighty Dollar are corrupting the world. But he won’t leave on a sour note. Instead, he takes the high road and concludes: “No hard feelings, no offense taken / You’re just a murmur in the whispering sands of time / No bad karma, no curses on ya / You go your way and I’ll go mine”. Indeed we will, especially after a musical masterpiece like Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down.