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On this week’s episode of Truthdig radio in collaboration with KPFK we have legendary musician Ry Cooder (who brought along some songs from his new album), queer historian Michael Bronski and Marcia Dawkins on the real freedom riders.
0:38 - Michael Bronski
14:40 - Marcia Dawkins
25:30 - Ry Cooder
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Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio, bringing you the best interviews and commentary from Truthdig.com and KPFK. I’m going to pretend that was the “Star Wars” intro and not just Fox. On today’s show, we have the legendary Ry Cooder, who brought along some songs from his new album; queer historian Michael Bronski; and also Marcia Dawkins on the real Freedom Riders. Here we go.
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer in studio with Josh Scheer. Our guest is activist and cultural historian Michael Bronski, whose new book is “A Queer History of the United States.” Thanks for joining us.
Michael Bronski: Thank you.
Peter Scheer: So, why a queer history, and not a vanilla history of the United States?
Michael Bronski: Well, I think a queer history would be more interesting than a vanilla history. [Laughter] But I guess the real question is, why not an LGBT history, or an LGBTQ history? And part of what I wanted to do with the book was just not do a snapshot history of sort of famous gay people throughout the ages…
Peter Scheer: Yeah, I notice you don’t, you don’t mention, like, Lincoln…
Michael Bronski:…but rather to look at things in a more comprehensive way.
Peter Scheer: Right. Sorry I interrupted you there, but I noticed you don’t mention Abraham Lincoln in the book, things like that that are sort of titillating news stories. Or do you?
Michael Bronski: I don’t, I do not mention Abraham Lincoln, but I do mention George Washington.
Peter Scheer: Oh, there you go.
Michael Bronski: I thought one major president was enough. [Laughter]
Peter Scheer: Tell us about George Washington.
Michael Bronski: Well, it’s very interesting. People—and, actually, this work has been done in the past by a historian named Charles Shively, and some other people have actually picked up on it—but if you read George Washington’s letters to the Marquis de Lafayette, who was his comrade during the Revolutionary War … and … the letters—these are not, I did not find these on my own; these are printed in the collected letters of Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington, volumes that actually go back to the 1850s when they were first published. The letters are extraordinarily intimate; I would argue romantic, even taking into consideration that, you know, in the 1780s, even then they had written in a more flowery way. There’s a passion and an intimacy there that is unmistakably heightened. So I would not argue that they actually did it [Laughter]; I cannot make that claim, I don’t know what happened in those tents out at Valley Forge.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Michael Bronski: But certainly, the degree of affection, the degree of intimacy between them is enormous. So you know, in the book when I say … I really try to avoid saying, so-and-so was a lesbian, so-and-so was gay. But rather, really look at the quality of these relationships and then I think, more important, really look at how they may have actually affected these people’s lives, and how they shaped the nation after that.
Josh Scheer: In the introduction, you talk about…
Michael Bronski: Shulamith Firestone.
Josh Scheer: Shulamith, and about the idea of snapshots of history, and it was interesting, not…
Peter Scheer: Well, that history should be in motion. Historians’ work should be in motion, not just snapshots.
Josh Scheer:…no, but it’s not—not just for queer history, but also for all history, right?
Michael Bronski: It’s for all history, right.
Josh Scheer: Yeah, we’re kind of being taught this history in snapshots, right?
Michael Bronski: Right. I think that we’re all very used to—because American education is generally so horrible—but you know, this is Columbus; these are the explorers; this is the Revolution. And there’s very little sense of sort of a grand sweep of the major themes that perhaps people are repeating, or if they don’t repeat, why they don’t repeat. And the reason I used that quote from Shulamith Firestone—from a book called “The Dialectic of Sex,” which is one of the earliest…one of the really early, second-wave feminist analyses—is that I think she really gets it right; I think she really … we really have to look at the long movement of things. We have to look at it in the larger picture, and not just focus on “Abraham Lincoln was gay, Eleanor Roosevelt was a lesbian.”
Peter Scheer: Right. What are some of those repeating themes?
Michael Bronski: Well, some of the—it’s interesting. One of the most—I think that the major theme in the book is really that America is almost a myth; that America doesn’t really exist. You know, we think about the American way, the American people, the American ideal. And I argue that because we’re—aside from the native peoples, who were here and then gradually killed off by the Europeans coming over, to a large degree—America is—and this is a bit of a cliché, you know—America is a nation of immigrants of all different sorts. Whether these be actual Italian or Irish immigrants, or Puritans and pilgrims, or whether it be, you know, slaves who were not immigrants but slaves. But you know, outcast groups such as different religious groups, different ethnicity identities, different sexual identities. So that America really is this—not so much a melting pot, because it doesn’t really melt together; these people are all quite separate. So that while we actually have this long view of over 300 years of people coming here, there have always been insiders and outsiders. And part of my book is looking at what it means to be an outsider with sexual orientation or gender, and how that actually influenced the mainstream, and how the mainstream changed because of that.
Josh Scheer: I want to get to the Puritans and early American history, but I know that you talk about war and entertainment being major forces to change.
Michael Bronski: Mm-hmm.
Josh Scheer: And I wanted to get a little bit more on that.
Michael Bronski: Sure. I think the one thing that really surprised me—I mean, they asked me to write this book; I said sure, I’d love to. I began writing it; I gave it, actually, to a former student whom I’m fairly close to. And I said, do you want to read it and tell me what you think. And he said, oh, it’s great; but this theme you have of wars changing everything for gay and lesbian people is so strong. And I didn’t even realize that it was there until he pointed it out. And then I realized that almost every war that we’ve been through has created—obviously, war creates major changes. But the changes around sex and gender, particularly for LGBT people, or the ramifications of that, have been enormous. So the first instance I used, actually, is the Revolutionary War, where literally … to separate ourselves from England, from the mother country, we actually invent an American notion of manhood. Which is quite distinct from what we see as the English fop, and the English effeminate man—the sort of royalty. And it really brings us right to Davy Crockett, to Daniel Boone, to the Wild West. And this is a purely American invention, which impacts enormously upon how men view themselves, and how women end up viewing men, and what it means to be a man—and then, of course, what it means to be a man who loves other men within the culture.
Peter Scheer: Hmm.
Michael Bronski: You know, I would argue that we still have this today, even with … George Bush and his cowboy politics, right? [Laughter] This is a theme—I mean, this also came about, I would argue, in 1816 when Washington Irving writes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which I described as the first fundamental story for all American schoolchildren that’s fundamentally a story about queer-bashing.
Peter Scheer: Ah.
Michael Bronski: Where Brom Bones, who is described as a bully, a mean person, a violent person, ends up being the hero; and Ichabod Crane, who’s described as womanly, effeminate and a gossip, ends up being either killed or driven out of town. So schoolchildren from the earliest years of going to grade school are actually taught that it’s OK to actually attack effeminate men. You know, very much in this notion of creating the real American man.
Peter Scheer: We’re speaking with Michael Bronski, whose new book is “A Queer History of the United States.” This is Truthdig Radio. Let me ask you about Thomas Morton and some of the other queer pioneers of early American history.
Michael Bronski: Right. I think Thomas Morton is very interesting. I think—and again, like “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” I think [his is] one of these fundamental American stories that really, really expose some truth to that American culture.
Peter Scheer: Can you just sum up who he is, or why…
Michael Bronski: Sure. In—I believe it’s 1683; I could double-check that date—Thomas Morton is living—he’s a Puritan—he comes here from England. He’s living in the Bay Colony, which is now called Boston, and decides it’s really not for him. [Laughs] It’s a little bit repressive. Takes a bunch of people, including a bunch of indentured servants, and moves out to a few miles away, a town, it’s now Quincy, Mass., which is a few miles outside of Boston. Sets up his own colony called Merry Mount—you know, so the pun here is like merry mountain; or maybe it means merry and mounting in a sexual way. Some of the earlier versions are calling it Mare Mount, meaning a female horse mount, meaning—almost indicating bestiality.
Peter Scheer: Oh, dear.
Michael Bronski: He actually—so he’s, you know … this isn’t very happy for the Puritans. He actually urges his indentured servants to intermarry with the local native woman. Again, since they’re not Christian, a really heretical…he sets up an 80-foot May Pole which he crowns with a pair of stag horns. Which I’m sure, to the Puritans, looked very much like devil worship, since this refers back to Pan, or to the devil. They had dances around it, they have…he begins to create a society within a few months which has economic equity to it, racial equity, sexual—some degree of gender equity; not completely, but he’s sort of moving there. They even sing songs to Juniper and Ganymede, or Zeus and Ganymede, which the Puritans would have quickly recognized as having homosexual implications, Zeus being the head of the gods and Ganymede being his underage [Laughs] cup-bearer. And … Gov. John Winthrop quickly puts an end to the colony and sends Morton back to England—where he, amazingly, becomes quite vocal in defending the rights of local native people. From the very beginning we see this, sort of like society is repressive; some people move out from it, start their own society, and they’re punished or they’re pushed back into society because of it.
Josh Scheer: You get into that a lot, because when you read about your description of the natives, it’s that they kind of would—if someone was too effeminate they’d actually kind of push them to live with the women, right?
Michael Bronski: Right.
Josh Scheer: …and things like that. And then—but then you get to the European kind of morals and values and everything else. And they were even—the sight of nudeness was kind of shocking, right?
Michael Bronski: Yeah. For—I mean, for the European—and I don’t want to defend the Europeans coming over, because they were for the most part conquerors and exploiters and racists. But you know, imagine their surprise when they came here from European society and saw different degrees of nakedness among people. They saw women building houses, which was actually the role of women in many of the native tribes. They saw people worshiping the corn goddess, and not God the Father. They saw a laxity in gender roles, where in fact some men could live as women; there were some women who were actually warriors. They also saw people having lots of sex in ways that did not cause, would not engender reproductive results. So for them, it was sort of a complete nightmare, and their response was to convert the peoples, or to kill them, or to enslave them. But it must have been a complete shock to them to actually come up against a lifestyle which they…lives and actions which they literally had never imagined before, and which were completely—again, since this is a very religious culture—completely heretical and sinful for them.
Josh Scheer: You talk about the Puritans…and how they left the Church of England because they felt that the sex was too much, right? I mean, because they were becoming too Roman Catholic, and the Church of England was influenced by the Italian love, and all that. And … [the] description of, like, sodomy laws, where men could even be put to death for sodomy; it’s kind of very shocking.
Michael Bronski: In fact, there’s a great…I believe I mentioned in the book that Thomas Jefferson is seen as a huge liberal reformer when he suggests that sodomy be punished by castration and not death.
Peter Scheer: [Laughs] How brave of him.
Michael Bronski: What’s so interesting, right, is that we have all these laws and yet they hardly prosecute anybody under the law. So they actually kind of allow it. So again, there’s that tension between, we want the best, most pure holy society possible, but you know—if it happens, if happens; if it doesn’t hurt the family, then fine.
Peter Scheer: As a final thought here … this keeps happening throughout our history. Where are we now? Are we just on this endless merry-go-round, are we making real progress, where do you see us now?
Michael Bronski: That’s a great question. I think undoubtedly, we’ve actually made enormous progress. Things—you know, we got rid of slavery; women can vote; in 2003 we did get, finally, insanely, get rid of the sodomy laws. I do think that the tensions play over again and again, with slightly different scenarios. I mean, one thing that I think is important to remember is that the road to any liberation, particularly for LGBT people, is—has two major threads to it. One thread is people wanting equality under the law, which is great—if there’s a law, people should be equal under it, obviously. But the second thread is actually—and I don’t want to say that it’s libertarian, because then it makes you sound like one of those crazy tea party people—but really it’s like the government should be out of people’s lives. The government—I should be able to sleep with whomever I want; I want to be able to have sex with whomever I want; I want to be able to have whatever religious beliefs I have.
Peter Scheer: Or George Washington-style romantic letters.
Michael Bronski: [Laughs] Right. These are actually—there’s some tension between them, but both are actually quite important.
Peter Scheer: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Michael Bronski.
Michael Bronski: Well, thank you.
Peter Scheer: His new book is “A Queer History of the United States.” Go check it out.
Kasia Anderson: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Kasia Anderson, associate editor [of Truthdig]. And I’m speaking once more with Dr. Marcia Dawkins. She’s a visiting scholar at Brown University and a graduate of the [USC] Annenberg School for Communication’s Ph.D. program. How are you doing today, Dr. Dawkins?
Marcia Dawkins: I’m fine, Kasia. How are you?
Kasia Anderson: I’m doing great. And I wanted to hear more about a piece that we just posted of yours; by the time that our listeners hear this, it might be a few days later. But its appeal is evergreen, in my humble opinion. And it’s called “50 Years of Freedom,” and it’s about the 50th anniversary of the historic Freedom Riders’ trek through the South. Do you want to tell us kind of what the significance of the event was for you, and a little bit more about your encounter with Student Riders and the Freedom Riders?
Marcia Dawkins: Absolutely, I’d be happy to. I kind of stumbled upon, believe it or not, the Student Riders and original Freedom Riders, as I’m visiting the National Public Library pretty much every day [Laughs] and wrapping up my book on racial passing, “Things Said In Passing.” And so I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and was asked to volunteer for an afternoon to make sure that everything would go smoothly for the program.
Kasia Anderson: So all those posters we got when we were little about “Read,” and, you know … literacy, everything that comes from that is good, were actually true? [Laughter] Hanging out in libraries gets you places. So, sorry, go on.
Marcia Dawkins: It sure enough does. And so it got me into the same room with these amazing people, and these amazing younger people who are trying to follow in their footsteps. So when we talk about significance, the significance is pretty personal for me and my family, actually. This event and this anniversary has caused us to do a lot of talking, and my father’s mother, my grandmother, remembers those “colored” and “white” signs, and going into places and not being served, and not being able to process how that felt for her. And my father, though significantly younger, also remembers traveling through the South when they were going to visit relatives, and not being able to stay in motels, and recounted this one experience, when he couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old, where they finally found a motel where they could stay that had this big red light that said “colored only.” And his grandmother had to stay up all night picking the bedbugs off of him. So that gives you an indication that, certainly, separate is inherently unequal.
Kasia Anderson: Right.
Marcia Dawkins: And, so, that’s kind of what I brought with me to the table when I met these ladies and gentlemen.
Kasia Anderson: How many of them were there? The original ones?
Marcia Dawkins: There were over 400 original Freedom Riders.
Kasia Anderson: OK.
Marcia Dawkins: It started with a group of 12 from D.C., and then it just continued to mushroom from there. The Freedom Riders in particular that I met—and the one who just inspired me to write that piece, Dr. Rip Patton—he’s on the third wave that came from National, Tennessee, and went directly to Mississippi to take on the extreme violence there. And they talk about so many things, but the thing that resonated with me most—certainly, after thanking them for what they did, so that you and I could be sitting here talking about this today—is their experience in prison. And I alluded a little bit to that in the piece, but basically they talked about four or five people being held, or sometimes seven or eight, depending on how overcrowded it got in a six-by-eight cell. They talked about mattresses being taken away; sometimes food and water being taken away; all books confiscated. And so, you know—and being subject to random strip searches. I mean, all the inhumanities we can imagine that they suffered in prison because they chose to challenge this law. And that as a result, you know, you and I and everyone can travel as we please. But yet there are really still no monuments to this. And I don’t just mean, you know, some big statue somewhere, but that it’s really not recorded in the annals of history. These riders are not given the credit, I think, that they really deserve for sparking the Civil Rights Movement on through the 1960s. And, more to the point, they didn’t get counseling afterwards. So they were just kind of expected to go back to life, whether that was to a job or to a family or to school, and never really able to process or talk about some of these horrible things and traumas that they endured.
Kasia Anderson: Yeah, you mention in the piece about the sort of amnesia that some of them still experience around, obviously, traumatic events.
Marcia Dawkins: Absolutely. Dr. Patton says he can’t remember how he got home from the Freedom Rides, after being released from prison. Others, you know, can’t remember the trek from Mississippi or Alabama to the prison, or what happened in prison, or other people’s faces. Others remember smells from the prison, but don’t know why that smell gives them the willies. So a lot of people report having these type of reactions to things like Lysol, and household cleaners, and not being able to really figure out why. So I think that the Freedom Rides are certainly significant for us as a nation, and in terms of history. But they’re really significant for the riders themselves, to put the pieces together, and to get some reconciliation for themselves and for each other.
Kasia Anderson: Well, since you mentioned that you touched on the issue of prison in your piece, but you wanted to expand more on it, just to give listeners a sense of what was at stake, what were some of the most, I guess, violent or, you know, strongest pushback situations that they encountered in any of the waves of Freedom Riders?
Marcia Dawkins: Sure. Again, I’ll quote Dr. Patton here, from a particular event that still stays with him. One of his cellmates, whose name he chose not to mention, was doing a protest within the prison—so they engaged even in civil disobedience within the prison. So they said, you know, if you continue doing something we’re going to take your mattress. And so they came back, well, you can take our mattress; that’s OK. You can take our toothpaste, and different things. And so one of his cellmates was protesting and had had an exchange like this with one of the guards, and it really got escalated. And one of the higher-level prison guards told this guard, you know, you have to get this guy to submit by any means necessary. And so, unfortunately, this guard beat one of Patton’s cellmates very severely. And as he was beating this man, he was crying himself, because he didn’t want to do it. But he knew that he would receive that beating if he didn’t do this. So that’s, you know, that’s kind of one event in the multiple layers of victimization that went on in this prison. Women also experienced some particular horrors of having to be strip-searched. And, as I learned—this is not in any history book that I ever read in school—but every orifice was checked to make sure that no one was smuggling things in. As you can imagine, for women this was particularly traumatic.
Marcia Dawkins: And so one of the Freedom Riders, Joan Mulholland, suggested that perhaps a lot of the women react to Lysol and these household cleaners in this way because that is the smell and those are the materials that were used for the officers to disinfect their hands between examinations.
Kasia Anderson: Hmm. Right.
Marcia Dawkins: So those are two of the events that they mentioned to me that really stick out.
Kasia Anderson: Well, to bring us up to date, and also to the National Public Library events that you witnessed, what do you think is, you know, the goal of the Student Riders now? Like, what kind of legacy are they hoping to carry forward; what’s their mission?
Marcia Dawkins: I think they have at least a twin mission, and that’s reconciliation and communication. And as I was able to speak to several of them, they told me how they’d witnessed several reconciliations over the course of the trip. So, you know, for any of us who watched “Oprah,” we saw some reconciliations there between people who’d been beaten—in fact, Congressman John Lewis, and some people from the Klan who had engaged in those beatings, and how they were able to exercise forgiveness. In Anniston, Alabama, one of the original Riders, Frank Thomas, was approached by the son of the Klansman who nearly beat him to death. And they were able to reconcile and have a very heartfelt and emotional talk. So I think that’s part of it, I think, in the face of these young people who are so hopeful, and want to use these strategies to go out and fight the issues that are important to them—particularly economic inequality is the one that they all mentioned to me when I spoke to them and asked them what was on their hearts and minds. And then underneath that were issues of identity and nation and politics. But economics really seems to be on these student minds. In fact, several of them told me how much they appreciated just visiting the National Public Library, not only because of its historical location—I mean, it’s where a lot of the sit-ins took place—but also because libraries in their hometowns have been closed down.
Kasia Anderson: Wow.
Marcia Dawkins: They have nowhere to go to read and write and learn about these things. So there’s certainly a lot going on here, and I think their ability to document all of this, if you go to the PBS site, you’ll see that the students are engaging in their own citizen journalism. And I think they’re doing honor to their own experience, making use of technology that the original Riders wish that they had had.
Kasia Anderson: Right. And with that, we’re going to have to end. But it’s a nice—this is a very moving story about how social movements can kind of ripple on through the ages. And so … readers and listeners can also refer to Marcia Dawkins’ piece, “50 Years of Freedom,” on Truthdig.com. Thanks so much for your time, Marcia.
Marcia Dawkins: Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Kasia Anderson: This is Kasia Anderson, associate editor at Truthdig. I’m here with Robert Scheer, our editor in chief, and also the musician Ry Cooder, who has written a song based on one of Bob Scheer’s recent columns, called “No Banker Left Behind.” And before we get into our discussion, let’s play that track.
Kasia Anderson: That was “No Banker Left Behind.” And as I understand it, Ry, there’s a bit of an origin story behind this track. Can you tell us about it?
Ry Cooder: Yeah, sure. We at the house, we read Truthdig pretty regularly. And I like to get up in the morning and find it there on the computer and open it up and see what’s what. And I saw this heading—this was during the bank…the whole business with the bailout. And, “No Banker Left Behind”—I said, that’s the voice of Uncle Dave Macon speaking to me. Uncle Dave, who was the very … at one time very well-known medicine show country musician—you’d have called him a banjo player—just the greatest, par excellence. And he had a great gift for making simple statements about life and about society. And this was also during the Depression; he was very popular at that time, made hundreds of records. And so he would take a thing like this and reduce it down to one little statement, and you heard this and you understood it completely, and by the end of the song you’d learned something. He was very entertaining; he’d dance while he played the banjo, and lived to be a very old man. So I thought, “No Banker Left Behind,” by Uncle Dave Macon … who …no banker left behind, what? The train. OK, they’re on the train, the train’s leaving. Why? Because it’s a rich train for only bankers. They’ve got all the money, they get on the train, the train pulls out, and the rest of us all stand there watching and saying, where’d it all go? You know, how did they make off with all this loot? And then it was a matter of telling a little story of going to the White House, what they’re going to eat when they get on the train, and with Uncle Dave in mind. So it was a pretty simple little thing to do, to get the record started.
Robert Scheer: You know—and it’s not even my favorite track on your record—you know, it’s interesting. I was saying before, sometimes your friends work on movies or they make records or write books. And then they want you to listen to it or look at it. And you just don’t want to say the wrong thing if you don’t like it. And somebody once told me if you see your friend’s movie and you didn’t like it at all, you say to them, “You must be very proud.” [Laughter] There’s a couple of screenwriters told me that once, and that gets you off the hook. And so when you gave us this record—and it’s coming out in September—and you know, I was flattered that you said one of the songs was inspired … well, I listened to it, and I could not stop listening to it. I listened to it over and over again. And I paid you a compliment … where as far as the content, I think it’s right up there with John Lennon’s “Working-Class Hero,” which I think trumps just about anything else as far as taking serious political observations and putting them into music. I just do, I think it’s just a great album. And I listened to this over and over, and the range of content—I’m not talking about the music, now; I think the music also has great variety and is fabulous, but that’s to be expected. But you deal with immigration; you deal with war and peace; you deal with the financial crisis; you actually deal with race. It’s startling. This is an intensely political album, you know. So what is this? Is this your manifesto?
Ry Cooder: Yeah. Well, some of this must come from me being quite frustrated and feeling sort of marooned in all of this—you know, like, helpless. I get so angry. And I try not to dwell in that, because it’s bad mental health; it’s bad for you. The best thing I can do is to take an issue or a story, or something that’s coming up in current events, or something I know about—such as recruiting children in the military in poor schools in Los Angeles, the most heinous kind of atrocious thing there ever could be. So you sit and pound the table and feel terrible—I said, no, make a song out of it. At least then you can record it, and go through the exercise of doing that, and the thought of doing that, and the creativity. And it’s fun, besides; I like to do it. So by the time I get done with one of these songs, it feels somehow, you know, that there’s something good about it rather than just something terrible coming in. And then, after we get a few of them, maybe it’s a record; you know, maybe we can call it a record.
Robert Scheer: You know, what’s happening to this industry? We’re here doing this recording at Pacifica, and when we’re done we’re going to have an appeal for funds and keep this station on the air. And we have this appeal for Truthdig, to keep it going. But you’ve been—Rolling Stone said you’re No. 8 on the list of the hundred greatest guitar players and, you know, maybe you’re the greatest living guitar player. And yet I was surprised—you told me your, really, one big success was the Buena Vista Social Club, the Cuban, the old Cuban guys that you pulled together.
Ry Cooder: Yeah. That was the one that people seemed to like the best, yeah.
Robert Scheer: Yeah. And that, you know, that it’s hard to get a record out there.
Ry Cooder: Very hard.
Robert Scheer: It’s hard. So what’s happening to this industry ...?
Ry Cooder: Well, I grew up at a time—and I know you did, too—the heyday of the record business, which my friend Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records believes is a one hundred year business: started with Caruso in 1908, or 1906, if you like—first million seller; was done, basically in a shambles, by 2006 or so. So during that time, and especially after World War II when the LP was developed and radio began to play a great part in promoting these songs, and people wanted to buy them—I did; I’d hear a song on the radio and go out and ask the guy in the record store. And record stores were everywhere, and the little single cost 99 cents, or 50 cents some places; and the records, the LPs, cost $5.99. And I got my first John Lee Hooker record—and I guess I was in junior high school—in a drugstore, on the rack; we used to call them rack jobbing. And this thing cost, I think, $3.99. It was a whole world, there, of sound. And I sat down and tried to learn to do it. So I guess every day of my life, from early childhood on, you know, I spent with these records and the instruments, trying to understand it; trying to absorb it. And it never occurred to me that this was the music of the days of your life. You talk about John Lennon, for instance, or Walter Gieseking on piano, whichever you prefer. And it could be anything, depending on your state of mind or what you’re thinking of—what you’d like to see in your mind, the beautiful visualization that music brings. The understanding that it brings; the insight from great music. I mean, my goodness, at a price anyone could afford, you know, anytime you wanted. How can you improve on that? It’s fantastic—and now it’s all gone. It was records, radio and retail—the three R’s. So the retail outlets basically dried up; the radio is not about that anymore. This radio station is all, I guess, there is. I mean, I listen to Mexican radio stations, it’s true, because I like to hear banda and I like to hear norteño. But I mean, for content and for inspiration, it’s getting kind of hard now. But I still do this, because it’s … it’s all I’m equipped to do, you know.
Kasia Anderson: I’ve got a question. Just listening to the album, there’s quite a mélange of different styles going on. Can you tell us a little bit about your songwriting process? Do you have a concept first and then choose the style of music, or does it all kind of come to you?
Ry Cooder: Yeah … first you need an idea. No banker left behind, Uncle Dave Macon—let’s go there. We’re going to work pretty well. Then, if you’re going to have, let’s say, “The Corrido of Jesse James” where Jesse James asks bilingually: God, give me back my gun, so I can go down to Wall Street and in the manner that I was accustomed to, take care of business—he doesn’t realize that one man, one gun doesn’t work anymore. He’s kind of a naive fellow, Jesse James. So that’s going to be in that accordion style, the conjunto style; I added banda horns in there because it’s exciting. And so I saw that pretty clearly. John Lee Hooker running for president, infomercial about his campaign—you do it in the style as much as you can. I spent a lot of years playing along with his records and knowing him, even, personally. So I thought I’d try that, you know, and see if you can evoke that feeling. But that’s what musicians do, looking for inspiration through the music, through the instruments. But you do need—these are topical songs, so we need the themes; you know, the girl in the army, enlisting in the army; the person trying to cross the border in Sonoita, Arizona, and getting busted by the … that’s everywhere. We hear this story all the time. So … the maid arguing with the guy in the big house, about values, and what life’s all about.
Kasia Anderson: A timely topic. [Laughter] Maids, and big houses, yeah.
Ry Cooder: Yeah, you bet. [Laughs]
Robert Scheer: You know, I just want to throw in a little optimistic note here. And I think it applies to your business as well, but I feel it with the journalism activity that we do on Truthdig. It’s true, we haven’t figured out a way to make real money here. And I guess if we follow the lead of some others and sell ourselves to some very big operation, maybe we’ll do OK. But you know, as an independent voice, it’s rough. On the other hand, we have no trouble reaching people.
Ry Cooder: No, that’s good.
Robert Scheer: You know, we were discussing earlier that Chris Hedges gave this speech at one of our fundraisers; it was the night bin Laden was shot; he gave a little impromptu speech; we transcribed it right away; it’s brilliant, as Hedges always is. And we had 100,000 people come to it in a matter of hours. And I know we’re going to do that with this album of yours. It’s coming out in September. And I think, through the Internet, we can. Now, I don’t know if it turns into record sales; I don’t know how iTunes works; I don’t know…
Ry Cooder: I have no idea. No idea.
Robert Scheer: But you know, it seems to me that the Internet is a great vehicle for letting people in on something. And if we do our job right, you know, and we promote this record, it will be a very good test for us. You know, we want to really push it. It comes out in September, and I’d like to see if we can’t find a big audience for it.
Ry Cooder: Well, I think your audience is right there.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, but not only our audience. We want to share it with The Nation, and AlterNet, and all the other folks that are out there; you know, they’ll steal it anyway, so we might as well share it. [Laughter] In a good spirit; I don’t mean they are, particularly, thieves. But you know, the Internet is a place where people—you know, my column this morning was grabbed on about 10 different sites before I read it on Truthdig.
Ry Cooder: Wow.
Robert Scheer: Why not take advantage of that, get the word out. And then, I think—and you said you’re not familiar with it—but I think with something like iTunes or something, you must get some income … that … no?
Ry Cooder: Not that I know about. It’s tiny. The artist is usually at the bottom of that food chain.
Robert Scheer: Oh, OK. Well, that’s depressing. But anyway, as far as getting the music out, and getting the content of it out, I think the Internet is an incredible vehicle. And you know, someday we’ll figure out how to make a little money off it.
Kasia Anderson: Well, speaking of the Internet, I think this is the point where we’re going to share some of the message on Truthdig.com. And we will start by playing another track from the album. And Ry, can you set that up for us? It’s track nine, another of our favorites.
Ry Cooder: I don’t know how I got to this John Lee Hooker for president idea, except that I began to hear him campaigning. And hear him telling you, the audience, what politics means to him. … He was a very funny fellow, John Lee Hooker. He had a very interesting view of the world, and tremendous language; I just loved to hear him talk. And so, if he did run for president, what would be important, you know? And then juxtaposed along with certain issues like the horrible failure of the Supreme Court to do the right thing—what would he do about that? Would he reorganize the court? Who would be his running mate? [Laughter] You know, Jimmy Reed for vice president. And so forth. And then, so to extrapolate, I took certain passages out of some of his songs where he talks about himself, and just reworked the language a little bit. But I just like to play his music myself on guitar as best I can. It’s something that I like to listen to, and he’s not around to do it anymore.
Kasia Anderson: Let’s hear a couple of minutes from that track, then.
Peter Scheer: That was Ry Cooder, singing a song off his new album, “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down,” which comes out in September….That’s it for this week’s Truthdig Radio. Catch us next week. Thanks for listening.
Posted on May 28, 2015
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