"I was thinking about the disappearing American working man or woman," musician Ry Cooder told an interviewer. "The labor scene and the unions. Solidarity and unity. All the things that seem to be retreating or slipping away. We have a country here built by those people …." Then he trailed off because what more can you say? You can make some idiotic statement of blind optimism, or you can admit that it's all gone for good. That the sun has gone down on the America of Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, and Paul Robeson, and it is never coming back.
For the true believer in the dream of solidarity—even one hardened by bitter experience—that admission is just too painful to utter aloud. So, if you're Ry Cooder, you buckle down to make some songs that tell the old, old story. Just because it's gone doesn't mean it has to be forgotten.
So we have My Name Is Buddy, a 17-song Dust Bowl fable about Buddy the Red Cat, Lefty Mouse, and Rev. Tom Toad. Cooder's animal characters follow the familiar path of Dust Bowl refugees from lost farms in the southern Midwest, on a trail of tears across the burning deserts of the Southwest to the Promised Land of California. All this, only to be beaten, abused, and starved in California's farm labor camps.
It's a familiar path if you know U.S. history or the literature of the Great Depression—or if you know the recorded work of Ry Cooder. He's been obsessed with the music and politics of Greil Marcus' "old, weird America" since he was a teenager. His first album included a cover of "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," by West Virginia's Blind Alfred Reed, who, Cooder noted in his World Café interview, "literally starved to death." He also did Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl classic, "Do Re Mi."