Ry Cooder and Bocephus Face Off On the Election:

A Musical Debate

Moderated by Ross Altman

Left_Right_CenterWelcome to Left, Right and Center, the civilized alternative to the screaming talking heads that dominate the airwaves today; I’m your guest moderator Ross Altman in the center, sitting in for Matt Miller; sitting in for Robert Scheer on the left is Ry Cooder; and sitting in for David Frum on the right is Hank Williams, Jr.

Ry Cooder’s new album Election Special (Nonesuch Records) arrives just in time to take on the biggest mouth in country music, Hank Williams, Jr., whose Old School, New Rules (Bocephus Records) was released last month before he appeared in concert in Iowa—the launching pad for the primaries that put Mitt Romney front and center in the face off with President Obama this November.

Hank Williams hates Obama and wants the world to know it; Cooder put nine new songs on his campaign album which starts out portraying Romney from his abused dog’s perspective: The Mutt Romney Blues. Cooder also has a song attacking the Tea Party, Sarah Palin (who didn’t even speak at the Republican Convention) (Going to Tampa), the Koch Brother’s fundraising machine for all things right wing (Brother Is Gone), Wall Street (The Wall Street Part of Town) and most tellingly, those (like Hank Jr.) who criticize Obama, putting his blues roots world music view squarely behind the President for his reelection (Cold Cold Feeling).

Indeed, Cooder’s album really should have been entitled the Re-election Special, for he has not one word of criticism for Obama, who Cooder says we should not judge “until we’ve walked a mile in his shoes;” whereas Bocephus characterized him as “a Muslim president who hates farming, hates the military, hates the U.S. and we hate him!"

Aside from the political content of the point/counterpoint albums, they are musically not without interest. Williams is a country superstar and this is pure country rock that will be familiar to fans of Monday Night Football whose theme song belonged to Bocephus until he got kicked off the air for comparing Obama to Adolph Hitler. That’s the old school part, represented by the classic Hank theme of drinking till you drop: I’m Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams (a duet with Brad Paisley) and I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink (a duet with composer Merle Haggard). The new rules are the far right bombast that characterizes roughly half the tracks, such as Takin’ Back the Country, Keep the Change, We Don’t Apologize for America, and Who’s Takin’ Care of Number One? Whatever you think of the politics, the title is clever and brilliant.

ry_cooder_election_specialCooder’s album is also musically of a piece—hard-edged rural country blues reminiscent most notably of Huddie Ledbetter—Leadbelly. Cooder takes some of Leadbelly’s best lines and reworks them for some new rules of his own. Leadbelly told his “high-powered women” it was time to “Bottle Up and Go,” this powerful image is now in the mouth of Romney’s Irish Setter, riding up on Romney’s roof rack saying it’s time to “bottle up and go,” or get out of here. Even more dramatically Cooder reworks Leadbelly’s warning to male competitors, Keep Your Hands Off Her into a warning to Republicans Take Your Hands Off It—the object of his ardor not a woman but the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and ultimately his country, for (in Leadbelly’s kicker) “you know it don’t belong to you.”

Of course Leadbelly said, “You know she don’t belong to you.”

One would expect Leadbelly’s name to be somewhere on this wild and wooly album—especially since it is squarely on the side of our first African-American president. Reviewers have regaled Ry Cooder with praise as “a Woody Guthrie” for our time; but they miss the real musical inspiration for Cooder’s protest songs, and that is The King of the Twelve-String Guitar, Huddie Ledbetter. Unfortunately Leadbelly is un-credited.Hank_WIlliams_Jr._Old_School_New_Rules

Both of these albums are morally impassioned and musically sophisticated and accomplished; but unfortunately they also both suffer from the same malady: in an extremely polarized election climate neither will appeal to anyone in the middle hoping for even one word of consensus building to rediscover the “Unum” in “E Pluribus Unum.” If there is a New American Majority out there you won’t find it here. Cooder and Williams play exclusively to their base—Ry’s progressive left that voted for Superman and got Clark Kent and Hank’s Tea Party right that eagerly supports anybody but Obama, even an outsourcing off-shore tax haven cheat who abuses man’s best friend.

What a country we’ve come to; Mount Rushmore need not be concerned—neither party threatens your four distinguished presidents this year.

Both Ry Cooder and Hank Williams, Jr. are superior musicians; but a real folk singer cannot afford to be in anyone’s pocket; and they are both in the pockets of respectively the Democratic and Republican parties.

As for a new Woody Guthrie, I’m afraid we’ll have to be grateful for the Woody we have; a new one is not on the horizon.

Thirty-six years after he took his own life (at the age of 36) Phil Ochs remains the gold standard for a modern protest singer who was not in anyone’s pocket: he stood for the disenfranchised, not the labor movement, and when they were on the take, he didn’t hesitate to call them to account:

Now the labor leaders holler when they close the missile plant;

United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore;

Call it peace or call it treason,

Call it love or call it reason,

But I ain’t marching anymore.

He took big corporations to task, but also big labor. Phil Ochs was not afraid to alienate his base; and as Bob Dylan proved at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he got booed for plugging in, neither was he. These were artists who stood apart from any organized political party and fearlessly spoke truth to power, even biting the hand that fed them. Now that’s a dog to celebrate.

I hate to say it, but on this election eve, music and politics don’t mix. On both sides of the political spectrum are musical party hacks who know all too well where each applause line is coming from. And neither would dare say anything to offend their audience.

Give me Hank Sr.; and give me the old Woody Guthrie—in contrast to their musical heirs they were both rebels without applause.

And that’s about all the civilized rebellion we have time for today.

Ross will be performing a tribute to Woody Guthrie during the Centennial of his birth on Saturday, September 15 at 2:00pm at the Allendale Branch of the Pasadena Public Library, 1130 South Marengo Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106. With Professor Peter Dreier of Occidental College; for more information call 626-744-7260 or visit Pasadena Public Library

This event is free and open to the public.

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.