Like a moth drawn to light, or a bear to honey, I landed on him in the corner of a quiet dinner table, far removed from the piano at the other side of the main room. During a lull in the impromptu performance I quizzed him on how and where he got started, starting the conversation by reminiscing that I had first encountered him when he was just 16 and already accompanying singers Pam Pollard and Jackie De Shannon at the Ash Grove. He nodded in a long ago reverie, and then I mentioned that it was his playing of the guitar solos of master blues and ragtime guitarist Blind Blake that made me fall in love with the instrument.
“Did anyone teach you those solos?” I asked him. “Was there tablature to study in books?” “Oh no,” replied Ry, “You just had to work them out. Nobody knew how to play them. You had to listen to their records—usually on 78s.” “How old were you when you started?” I asked. “Four years old,” said Ry, who was born in Los Angeles on March 15, 1947 “Four?” I replied in disbelief. “How did you come by a guitar at that age?” “My uncle just put one in my hands one day—a ¾ size tenor guitar.” “With four strings?” I asked. “That’s right,” said Ry; “I wouldn’t let it go; I thought, ‘What have we here?’ I still have that guitar.”
By the time Ry acquired a six-string a few years later he’d already worked out the basic chords; then he taught himself to finger pick and use a thumb pick with an alternating bass against the treble strings. He was watching the blues masters who came through town and played at The Ash Grove, as well as the country stylists such as Doc Watson. He quickly decided that flat-picking wasn’t his thing; he was drawn to finger-style guitar playing. He also quickly reached a point where even finger-style guitar as played by most folk musicians seemed like a dead end to him; you could only go so far with it.
Then he heard Bahamanian guitarist Joseph Spence for the first time—and the whole world opened up again—“He was playing alternating bass—but he was syncopating the rhythm with his thumb, and that made me realize you could take it anywhere.” “Didn’t he mostly play in drop D tuning?” I asked Ry. “What else do you need?” Ry replied. “Indeed,” I nodded.
About then our quiet was bombarded by the stentorian tones of Old Man River being belted out at the other end of the room, rattling the walls and commanding our attention. Had the singer left it at that when the last strains of the river just kept rolling along, it would have been a show-stopping performance. But before we knew what was happening it suddenly descended into the quintessential 100% pure unfiltered unadulterated schlock encore of all time—and My Way was rolling our way like an Indonesian tsunami, unstoppable and unavoidable. “Did you think it would come to this?” I asked Ry, and his raised eyebrows told me all I needed to know.
While the basso profundo assured us that he had done it his way, I returned to my inconspicuous guest host—who had in fact helped to put this entire evening together, an outgrowth of his earlier efforts in producing and promoting Cuban music in the now classic Buena Vista Social Club, both the album and the movie, that brought to the ears of American audiences gifted folk and jazz musicians like Ibrahim Ferrer of this embattled isle; and had gone onto such recent projects as his recent trilogy on Nonesuch Records—Chavez Ravine, My Name is Buddy, and I, Flathead, and accompanying the Irish super-group The Chieftains, always reaching out to explore different channels of world music. If anyone had done it his way, I thought, it was Ry Cooder. I wanted to hear more of where this extraordinary LA and global musician had started on his journey.
“Were there other musicians who influenced you when you still finding your way?” I asked. “Oh sure,” said the amiable Ry. “John Fahey came through town and had a major impact. I asked him about this bottle neck thing he used.” “Well,” said Ry, who suddenly recreated a masterful impression of this strange, inventive, finger-style master, his whole face contorting into Fahey’s belabored, rurally inflected speech, “it’s just the neck of a bottle; you slide it up and down the neck to make chord changes.” “So I tried it,” continued Ry, “but it didn’t work for me. I couldn’t hear the changes I was hearing in my head. So I went back to John and asked him what I was doing wrong.” “’Well, Ry, you have to retuuuuune the damn guitar in open tuning’—and when I did that it all fell into place.”
Imagine Rolling Stone’s number 8 guitarist of all time willing to make himself the butt of a joke for the sake of a great story, and you will understand what I find so endearing about this Santa Monica home boy whose music now encircles the world, through film scores, recordings and live performances.
Ry wasn’t through with his brilliant evocation of John Fahey, telling me how he would take trips far from his home in Venice to collect the old 78s that were his music’s primary inspiration and bloodline, coming back with a trunk full of recordings by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon, Blind Blake and Blind Willie McTell, then mastering them and going on to invent his own exploratory guitar compositions built on the foundation of early blues masters. And in the process, Fahey was unstinting in his generously passing on these riches to a young Ry Cooder.
But most entertaining was Ry’s including another strange predilection of this American original; it seems that John Fahey had an obsession with pigs, and along with his record collecting also came back with albums full of photographs of pigs in every kind of pose. When Ry happened to stumble on these photographs one day, while looking through the record albums he thought were his mentor’s exclusive obsession, he asked Fahey where he had found all these pictures of pigs. “’Well,’ said Ry impersonating John once more, his face transformed into a character you could imagine meeting only in fiction, ‘I took them, Ry; they’re my photographs.’” “You took them?” asked Ry, of his dearly remembered interlocutor, “but where did you find them?” “There’s a lot of pigs in this country, Ryland, a lot of pigs.”
Pigs Is Pigs, said Ellis Parker Butler, but the real ham was still on stage, casting about for a second encore to sing. He asked the Cuban jazz master if he knew Joe Hill, a surefire hit for this upscale leftwing audience, and was disappointed that the cultural emissary from the only communist country in the western hemisphere seemed never to have heard of the American communist classic tribute to labor’s original troubadour. I guess the embargo worked; but accompaniment or not, that wasn’t going to stop this intrepid showman from putting on a show. Before we knew it, I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night was blasting through the room, leaving the actual guest of honor sitting at the piano looking bewildered and dazed. It seems nobody clued him in that in addition to playing his own highly charged and complex original compositions he would be prevailed upon to back up a prodigious operatic sound barrier breaker for an impromptu outpouring of song.
Fortunately, the singer could not remember the words past the third verse, and I was thus able to continue my conversation with the person I had come to see.
I asked Ry if he had any words of advice for an amateur guitarist who was just making his way, and got a jolt of unexpected rigor that would depress any music store owner no end: “Never change your strings,” said Ry, “the older the better; they take a long time to break in.” “Wow,” I thought, “how many times have I heard music pros tell me to change your strings at least once a week?” But I was not about to ask him if there was a difference of opinion on this subject; I somehow found the courage to confess to Mr. Cooder, however, that I had just recently changed my strings.
He also warned me to steer clear of those big “boom box guitars” with 14 frets that country singers love—the Gibson Jumbos and Martin Dreadnaughts. “Those black blues singers couldn’t afford guitars like that, and it would have ruined their playing. They preferred smaller guitars with shorter necks, where you can control the sound. I did not have the heart to tell him that I had just acquired a Gibson J-200 from an old friend.
What a pleasure it was to talk to this sturdy link in a chain that goes through John Fahey all the way back to the black originators of America’s classic musical form—the blues. It was even worth having to sit through a vocal performance the likes of which I hope never to hear again, but which reminded me that self confidence and good taste don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
Even more revealing of the occasional disconnect between self confidence and genuine talent came out of an earlier conversation in the evening with a close friend who was helping out at the door. When I told her how delighted I was to be able to have the opportunity to talk to Ry Cooder, she passed on an observation from last year’s 50th anniversary celebration of Ed Pearl’s legendary folk club The Ash Grove, for which Ry performed at Royce Hall. My friend told me that before Ry was to go on, she caught him back stage walking back and forth, his face focused intently on the floor in front of him, and his hands held out tensely as if in prayer, while under his breath he was reciting a few words over and over, “I can do this; I can do this, I can do this.”
Well, dear Reader, I was at that performance, and I can assure you that Ry Cooder, filled with self-doubt and no end of public reserve, letting his guitar speak for him, lit up the room, brought down the house, and made it the most memorable evening of a three-day tribute to the Ash Grove. It made me remember and treasure anew that the gifted 16-year old I had first seen in 1963 at that funky folk club on Melrose Boulevard was still carrying that guitar, making music that no one else can even fathom, let alone duplicate. You can, however, go on the Ry Cooder Easy Chords Home Page and at least approximate what he’s doing.
Most recently he recorded a new song he wrote for the immigrants in Arizona who face daily discouragement and humiliation. Called Quicksand, Ry recorded it with his old Fender electric, telling the stories of a handful of undocumented workers who struggle to get across the border to this inhospitable state that has forgotten everything the Statue of Liberty stands for. He described the recording to me as “gnarly, but honest.” Oh, did I mention that all the proceeds from its’ iTune sales go to benefit MALDEF, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund. To those who wonder if America has lost its way over these past two years, whose ears are constantly ringing with screaming, talking heads of cable news and bottom-feeding, fear-mongering politicians, there are still voices out there who remember and remind us what America once meant to the huddled masses of the world, and who, as John F. Kennedy did, continue to celebrate a nation of immigrants.
I had the pleasure of speaking to one of the most durable, thoughtful, and authentic of these voices, and you can take comfort in knowing that Ry, whose beautiful, roughhewn hands look as weathered as a sailor’s, continues to make music that makes a difference. I assured him before I left that it would be a long time before I changed my strings again. But I ain’t giving up my Gibson J-200, not even for Ry Cooder.
One of Ry Cooder’s fans, called Rylanders, has created an extensive website devoted to his music at
Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at Greygoosemusic@aol.com