Dec 10, 2013
Ry Cooder Listening Party With Robert Scheer
Posted on Oct 2, 2011
Robert Scheer: It’s an amazing disconnect that people have, you know. That somehow people arrived yesterday, illegally, from Mexico or something. And yet when you’re in those communities, you know, that still exist, and you sit in somebody’s backyard as I’ve been doing lately, and people tell you no—I’m here—I’m third generation, I’m fourth generation—no, you know? And we’ve been having the same backyard party in the same backyard with family going back four generations. And of course these are the original inhabitants. And I don’t know, what’d you think of the play? There was, I thought, a very good play on Chavez Ravine; it was at the Ahmanson [Theatre].
Ry Cooder: Well, yeah, I liked the play. The story is so interesting; everything about it is—you know, David and Goliath and all this. And then you had J. Edgar Hoover was involved, and of course then came the Dodgers. But I mean, all of this—and Fritz Burns, the developer; this tradition, the culture of development in L.A. is nefarious, you know. The satanic builders, I call them. How they want to own everything and sell everything over and over again, and you can’t ever pull this off about public housing, barely, or take care of poor people, barely. You know, and it moves fast, and you can be gone for two weeks, come back and not know whole areas.
Robert Scheer: You know, L.A. has such a rich history. People back East, of course, deny it, you know, have contempt for it. But that story itself is really quite complex. At the heart of it, at one point, you had a well-intentioned—I don’t know, was he a liberal guy or a communist guy or what? The guy who wanted to build the housing thing, and he was working for the city …
Ry Cooder: Well hey, listen, it was a federal—FDR insisted on public housing has got to be done. It was the law, in a sense.
Ry Cooder: Yeah.
Robert Scheer: But in a way, the people who were living in what, I guess, the housing people thought were hovels, had an intact community.
Ry Cooder: Yes, they certainly did.
Robert Scheer: They were living in villages. They had their music, they had their lifestyle and so forth. And then the do-gooders, in a way, felt the need to wipe that out. And then the FBI, you mentioned J. Edgar Hoover—he felt the need to wipe out the do-gooders, because there was some communist connection, now, we were in the Red Scare. And the whole thing got incredibly convoluted. And then you end up with Dodger Stadium. And the history of L.A. is very often that kind of hodgepodge of intentions and avarice and, you know, yes, bring the water; it’s good, people need water; but meanwhile, let’s create the valley—and we have Chinatown! You know, and so forth. And I thought what was really great about your involvement with that in the music is that, to acquaint us with this rich history. I don’t think anything did it as well as that and maybe “Zoot Suit,” you know, the play, originally. But let me ask you—can’t have an interview without asking you about “Buena Vista Social Club” and all that. How did you get involved with that?
Ry Cooder: Well, that was—my friend Nick Gold from England, who heads World Circuit Records, we would speak, and I’d done some work with him. And he called me up and said, would you like to record in Cuba? I’m thinking of going there. I said absolutely. My wife and I had been there in the early ’70s, and never had been able to get back. So well, what do you have in mind? He said I want to do some of this so-called country music of Cuba, and bring some of these West African guitar players who do a similar thing, that highlife, it’s called, or was called. And if we get them all together—said well, it may work and it may not; it’s certainly worth a try; let’s do it. So we got down there, and the Africans couldn’t make it; and then it was a matter of who can we get? Let’s see who’s around. Some people had died; many had died at that point. Some who were reported to have died were very much alive. And it’s a tiny place, Havana, as you know; and you could just go and get them, could knock on the door. Is Ruben home? Yeah, he’s in the back. [laughs] Oh, well, get him, here, let’s bring him down to the studio. Oh, I don’t play piano anymore. Well, see if you feel like you’d like to. And there it was. So yes, I’d say it was [that] fate intervened.
Robert Scheer: Well, you were in the movie. They have you on a motorcycle …
Ry Cooder: Yeah, it was a Russian motorcycle, I think. [laughter] Very bad motorcycle, wouldn’t go out of first gear.
Kasia Anderson: I’ve got a question about music and politics. One of Bob’s favorite contemporary acts, the Dixie Chicks, have been involving themselves in politics, sometimes by mistake, seemingly, and sometimes on purpose. But one of the refrains that came from their controversy was “Shut Up and Sing.” And you know, that comes up a lot, or that sentiment comes up a lot, when it comes to entertainers, musicians, people in the public eye taking a political stance. Have you encountered that kind of thing in your time, and what’s your response to it?
Ry Cooder: No … well, if you’re that well known—and their thin line, or their fine line, is this country music establishment, you know. And it’s odd, because some of the most out-front, bold, political music was made by so-called country musicians, you know. And what happened to that populist tradition there? It’s an odd kind of a thing. Why did it dry up, why is it so…
Robert Scheer: Can you mention some of them? Because I’m not familiar with it.
Ry Cooder: Well, all of the Depression-era music—I used to listen to the New Lost City Ramblers a lot, Mike Seeger and John Cohen, Tom Paley; and there was so much of what they did—like, most of what they did were tunes, white country tunes, mountain people, and miners of course, and textile workers, all of whom were doing what we now think of as—we kind of draw a circle around it and call it country music, you know. But then, after the war, I think, when business started to really—and Hank Williams and others started selling millions of records, then you had the corporate to deal with. Record companies getting big, and wanting to have the widest possible appeal; therefore, you know, clean it up a little bit. And the Red Scare you talk about—I know it affected that music quite a lot. And it became conservative, and then it became right-wing, and isn’t that peculiar.
Kasia Anderson: Well, Nixon’s Southern strategy might have had maybe a little to do with it.
Ry Cooder: Yeah.
Robert Scheer: Well, people don’t—that’s a very important point you make, Kasia, because people don’t understand what Nixon did with the Southern strategy. It was—how are you going to split working-class farmers, white farmers and working people who were with the Democratic Party—how are you going to split them away from the Democratic Party? And he used race. He said oh, the Democratic Party stands for civil rights; which was an irony, since it was Eisenhower’s Republican Party, even when Nixon was vice president, that was actually more effective in breaking Jim Crow than the Democrats. But Nixon’s Southern strategy, incredibly cynical, said no, let’s appeal to these white Southerners on an anti-black basis. And country music fit into it. Also, a certain kind of false patriotism, you know, that had an appeal. But I do—let me revisit the Dixie Chicks, because she always throws it in my face—Kasia Anderson is getting a doctorate at USC, and in her thesis she deals with the Dixie Chicks, and she’s written a paper about it. And when I first listened to the comeback album, I was listening on the treadmill as I often do, and it hit me—I just could not stop listening, I went too long on the treadmill, probably risked my health. But it hit me that this music was more provocative, politically, than Joan Baez; than most of Bob Dylan; than a lot of the stuff in the ’60s that people thought of as political. It was explicit, it was about not selling out, it was about the power of conservatism in the South, of the churches, what, more churches than …
Kasia Anderson: You know it far better than I.
Robert Scheer: Really! And the lyrics of that album, the comeback album—it was about courage. It was about death threats, and I’m not going to shut up and sing, and I’m going to stand here, and you know what, it makes me happy to be protesting. And what got them into all this trouble, after all, was just daring to say on the London stage that George Bush did not speak for [them] when he made an illegal war in Iraq.
Ry Cooder: Right.
Robert Scheer: Right? I mean, it was just what you think your right is in America, and people really dumped on them, you know. But I think Kasia’s point, which is an interesting one, is what is the role of the artist? And why don’t more of them speak up?
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