Music: Ry Cooder Gets a Little Catty

"My Name Is Buddy" is coolly billed as "Another record by Ry Cooder," as if it were a casual studio outing in an unremarkable career. But this is, after all, the man who brought us 1997's "Buena Vista Social Club" and, in 2005, "Chavez Ravine," a record about the ugly razing of an immigrant Los Angeles neighborhood to build Dodger Stadium. In his 40-year career, Cooder has jammed with the Rolling Stones, Ali Farka Touré and almost everyone in between. Now he's giving history lessons.

Mostly evocative of the Dust Bowl era, this sly slice of nostalgic Americana brings to mind everyone from Woody Guthrie to Caesar Chavez, the Rev. Gary Davis to George Orwell and Harlan County coal miners to Pete Seeger, who plays banjo on the song "J. Edgar." "My Name Is Buddy," an unapologetically far-left-of-center song cycle that touches on organized labor, racism and the odd extraterrestrial, is a story told from the perspective of a cat who goes a-ramblin', makes friends with Lefty Mouse and the Rev. Tom Toad, and runs afoul of the Man along his travels.

As Buddy becomes more radicalized, the songs evolve from corny old-timey facsimiles to more sophisticated fare (although the political message remains, pardon the pun, belaboredJ. Edgar Hoover is herein reincarnated as a pig). If the first half of the record sounds a bit like children's music, the rest of it shines with bluegrass, polkas, jazz, corridos and bar-brawling rock. Cooder also wrote an illustrated short story for every song on the album, which was inspired by the story of a real-life cat that was adopted by a Vancouver record store owner who found him in a suitcase 10 years ago. Ry Cooder recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about "Buddy." Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: This new record came out awfully soon after "Chavez Ravine," which took you three years to make.
Ry Cooder: Toward the end, trying to finish that record, this friend of mine, a guitar-store owner in Berkeley, sent me a picture of Buddy. He had found it stapled to a telephone pole in Vancouver, Canada. It was Leadbelly with [a cat's] head. You can go online to Red Cat Records and hit "Buddy" and there he is. I wanted to know more about it so I called them up. They said, "We're a record store in Vancouver, and Buddy was our cat. He died and we put this death notice around town." It began to turn around in my mind, the notion that you could tell a story, an animal fablewhich we all like.

Why make it a fable about union workers?
This is a worker's homage because this is who made this country: laboring people and working people and their concerns and what developed into the so-called progressive movement. I thought through this Buddy character, I can say these things that I'd like to say but I personally wouldn't probably get away with.

Why not?
Look, you've got about 100 years since [labor organizer and songwriter] Joe Hill poor people songs, working people songs, unions and so on. We all know Woody [Guthrie] and we all know Pete Seeger, who'd been out there on the barricades for a mighty long time and had to deal with J. Edgar Hoover. Some of these people are not known, not famous, just folks who sat down on the side of the road at some point and maybe made up a song. But I'm not one of these people. I'm from Santa Monica [Calif.], never did that. So, how do I slip into that theme? That's where Buddy comes along.

What are you trying to say about this lost America, as you describe it?
First of all, when work disappears, then the workforce, the sense of unity, is gone. The sense of solidarity in this country is what I feel is missing. As a citizenry, who are we now? There was a time when "we are many, they are few," as Lefty Mouse says, really was true, really meant something. It worked: we got the five-day week, the 40-hour week. We got pensions and benefits, worker safety and all the rest. Then all the while, the "RepubliKlans," as Buddy says, are working against us. The corporations saw that this was definitely not in their interests. They eventually succeeded--the big will always win against the little because the little gets tired. It's exhausting to always be in this posture of defense against this might that's arrayed before you.

Can you not argue that the reason unions don't play the role they once did is because the economy has shifted? We're more of an information-based economy now.
No. Jobs were exported. You can take all the work people used to do, send it to a Third World country like Mexico, which destroys that country as it's been destroyed by NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. You create these horrible sweatshop environments where nobody goes and nobody sees it. China makes our TV sets; we don't make our TV sets.

So you made a record.
Like Pete Seeger said to me the other day: music is one of the few bridges that still work. Among any number of people as different as they might be from one another, they will come together within minutes if they sing. He's proved that over and over and over again. We're always close to being actually unified. The other side toils day and night, 25 hours a day, to set us one against the other. Buddy goes out and he sees this in his simple cat way. So then I get to say the things that I think in a song because a song is four minutes long. Because of our language and the structure of this folk-style music, it's extremely efficient for telling little stories. "I may not be from the farm," you say to yourself, "but I feel kinship with them." I'm making these songs because otherwise, I just end up angry and frustrated.

You mentioned Pete Seeger—he actually plays on your song "J. Edgar." That must have been fun for him.
That was a pleasant day. We sat up in his living room in the house he built himself. Quite a monument to him: photographs everywhere, history everywhere. Listened to him talk because that's what he likes to do. He's a talking machine, but it's all very interesting. [Seeger's wife] Toshi made us this chicken soup that was unbelievable from scratch. The best chicken soup I ever had in my life. She put some kind of wine in it or something.

Doing that song must have been a little bit like dancing on J. Edgar's grave for him.
A little bit like that, I think. [Laughs.] By God he's who we have of that era that's lived through everything. J. Edgar pops up in the Chavez story. I keep running into him. So I thought it would be fun to do a tune with Pete about him as a man-eating pig. It's a cute little song, I think.

In the text accompaniment to "Footprints in the Snow," you write that singing is risky. Do you feel like you're taking risks with this album?
Oh, no, I don't personally. I think it has been shown that it was. Joe Hill was executed. Paul Robeson was ruined by J. Edgar. They tried to unplug Pete, but they couldn't. We know what happened in the witch hunts in the '50s when people were being branded as subversive or un-American, just like they're being now. These soldiers who are speaking out now against the war in Iraq remind me of this.

I first heard "Boomer's Story" in high school when I was learning guitar. That album completely turned me on to open tunings . It's all I use now.
Sure, open tunings are right. You get a little more harmonic richness out of the deal. Plus, you can invent them. I've found that you just come up with these things continuously. There's a bunch of different ones in "Chavez," there's a couple different ones in "Buddy." That "Green Dog" song is a crazy tuning. I don't even know what it was. Some kind of a crazy deal. So you begin to look for things and that's where that tune came from, that tuning. I started messing around and I found that melody in there.