During the present era, as the Iraq war grinds on, Americans are trying belly-button gazing, trying to remember a history where America regarded itself as world citizen, and came to the aid of many nations in trouble and nearing despair. It is true that this is part of our national heritage and America as a whole is, or at least used to be, known the globe over for the generosity of its people. Like any story, there are multiple narrative threads at work in defining such a history, and at least one has been all but forgotten and virtually erased by numerous politicos since the 1980s. Ry Cooder's My Name Is Buddy offers a view of an America in deep trouble with itself during the Great Depression when it either couldn't -- or wouldn't? -- feed its own people. Cooder's narrative is told in his own versions of folk tales through the voices of Buddy Red Cat, Lefty Mouse, and the Reverend Tom Toad. They are set during the Dust Bowl era of the '30s when many people were economically forced to relocate or become ramblers and hoboes, roaming listlessly over the continental terrain. The truth behind these stories is an official part of American history, yet they were all but absent in "popular culture" during the last two decades with few exceptions. Music has recently -- in the mid-'90s tribute to Woody Guthrie, and in the music of Bruce Springsteen, Michael Franti, Mike Ness, and Bob Dylan -- addressed this period and on occasion gotten into the charts.
The politics here are unapologetically left of center: J. Edgar Hoover is portrayed in a song about a pig bearing his name, a copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital adorns the inside cover (one of the beautiful illustrations by Vincent Valdes), the songs are chock-full of unions and strikes, labor and hobo camps, big bosses, sundown towns, bigotry, and corruption. The lyrics have their fair share of real anger in them, though there is no political sloganeering or sermonizing -- just check out "One Cat, One Vote, One Beer" -- Cooder uses humor instead. He introduces each of the 17 tunes with prosaic vignettes (one for each track) in the CD booklet; these provide the context of each song. Old-timey string band music, blues, bluegrass, country, polka, jazz, corridos, and more are the musical vehicles these tunes travel the rails and roads in, and Cooder has again chosen his collaborators well. While Mike Seeger, now a king of the traditional American music scene, is a mainstay on fiddle and other instruments, his brother Pete, an actual warrior of the time period portrayed, is also present , as are Ry's son Joachim, bassist Mike Elizondo, Juliette Commagere, Stefon Harris, Flaco Jimenez, Van Dyke Parks, Roland White, Jim Keltner, Jon Hassell, the Chieftains' Paddy Moloney, and others. Here is a supergroup arranged in various conglomerations to play simple tunes that tell hard stories, funny though they may be on the surface.
Singling out tracks is mostly futile, because all 17 are solid, noteworthy in their own merit making the whole virtually unassailable. Besides, the contextual framing of this concept work is important enough to warrant notice as an "unofficial" history--as if the official version were any more accurate; music has a way of making folk tales true, and when informed by the perspective of history, becomes part and parcel of the thing itself. What can be said is that My Name Is Buddy sounds like another restless Ry Cooder album, though rooted as it is in the very music he was playing when he began his recording career some 17 albums ago (the subtitle of the album is "Another Record by Ry Cooder.") After resurrecting the Buena Vista Social Club, his last outing, Chavez Ravne, was a look at one of the last working class L.A. neighborhoods of the past, from the street and from outer space, through social narrative toward the future of its ruins. My Name Is Buddy is an offering where time and space are erased too; so much so that the past is looking at the future looking back at itself as in some dirty mirror uncovered in a corner of a forgotten closet. All of this said, the set is actually great fun to listen to; it is ever shifting musically, friendly, full of the kind of warmth that folk tales generate. The main characters may be mythological, but these days, when anyone remembers or even speaks of Joe Hill, Paul Robeson, Emma Goldman, Guthrie, C.L.R. James, Stokely Carmichael, David Harris, Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton or even Phil Ochs, it's as if they were mythic creatures who passed through social history to instruct not as real people, but as voices from an ether we can't quite tune in anymore. At least one of these men is alive in the simple, sage-like persona of Pete Seeger, who continues the struggle that his late fellow myths had to hand down. Fans of Cooder's will flip over this; fans of freak folk might get a mighty charge out of it as well and find a way to dig deeper into the subjects addressed. Certainly the NPR crowd will find it an all but obligatory-to-own CD, but in so many ways, My Name Is Buddy isn't really for any of them: it's for those who are encountering these kinds of stories for the first time. It's a record of an era, but it's also an introduction to a way of looking at America from inside that hasn't been represented in "popular" music for quite some time. Instrumentally and lyrically brilliant, sociologically intelligent, and anthropologically astute, My Name Is Buddy stands tall against Cooder's best work from the '70s; whether it be his self-titled debut, Paradise and Lunch, Into the Purple Valley or Boomer's Story. My Name Is Buddy is an equal among greats, and may prove to be as enduring, but it's more than that, too: it's a re-telling; a reclaiming of history in the grand treasure trove of the folk tradition.