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RY COODER - Vocals, guitar, mandolin, bass
VAN DYKE PARKS - Piano
This album by Ry Cooder (simply named "Ry Cooder") was released in 1970, and is a small collection of old blues songs, mainly from the 1920s and 1930s. It doesn't appear to have reached the top 40 album charts in the UK at any time though.
Through his music, you can tell that Ry feels a deep connection with rural blues, and it's rare that a white man can so accurately convey what early 20th century black blues was all about - it's my opinion that there's only one other white guitarist who does it as equally well as Ry Cooder, and that's David Lindley (the two of them have collaborated in the past, and their music is sheer magic).
I've loved deep south blues ever since I was a tiny child - I was brought up in a musical household, given a deep sense of this kind of music probably before I could talk and walk...largely by my father, as he was the musician in the house. When I began buying my own music, I hunted high and low for years and years, but was unable to find the kind of blues I was looking for.....sadly my dad had died so I couldn't ask him for some tips and hints. One day not long after the death of my dad, somebody asked me if I'd ever heard of Ry Cooder; I'd only heard of him in connection with his occasional guitar playing on a Rolling Stones albums, and I borrowed this friend's LP record. I was gobsmacked and played it to death - it was that which prompted me to begin hunting for information on blues in more depth. As a result and to cut a very long story short, I found a wealth of what I was looking for - plus, became a huge fan of Ry Cooder into the bargain.
Regarding the origins of this collection of cover versions by Ry Cooder, I haven't been able to find out as much information as I wanted, because of all the unrelated junk results (despite using the advanced searching facility) - or, I get lots of Ry Cooder related websites, but they don't contain the information I'm looking for. The CD sleeve is very sparse, so in this review I have merely given the information that I know to be true - and I apologise for anything lacking.
Here's my little assessment on the very first Ry Cooder album that I ever listened to.
This is a medium-tempo, old blues song which speaks of the woes of having to pay alimony on several children...not all of which "he" believes are his. The song is mostly about a man standing in court, pleading with the judge to have mercy on him and cut down on the alimony payments he has to make, as it is financially destroying him. Like a lot of old blues songs, this is about poverty, basically. Ry's guitar is deliciously bluesy - part plucking and part slide, and the whole track is backed by piano, drums and gospel-like female vocalists.
2) FRANCE CHANCE
Wow you can almost smell the cottonfields on this one. Ry gives us his deepest, gruffest voice here with 12-bar strumming and slide blues guitar accompaniment. This is a "bangy" sort of song that you can imagine being belted out at the Mardi Gras or something. There's a lovely middle-eight of pure, very skilful guitar - finger picking blues. I'm not sure what the words are about, as they aren't printed on the sleeve and I can't understand most of them, but musically this is a first class piece of authentic-sounding traditional blues.
3) ONE MEAT BALL
Ahhh 98% of albums for me have one bummer track, and here it is....I just don't like the song! The tune of this just plods along with quite an intensive backing of violins and other instruments that I can't identify. The subject matter of the song is a very hungry, poor man stares into the window of a restaurant, watching everybody else eating. He walks in and asks how much he could get for the little money he has, and is told he can only have one meatball, with no bread. The song is largely an expression of the indignity the poor man has to suffer simply through being down on his luck, and contrasting his misfortune up against the amusement that the wealthier diners feel as they watch him just order one meatball, as that is all he can afford. For me, though the backing does contain some rather nice typically Cooder style blues guitar, the over-instrumentalisation detracts too much from the raw essence of the point of the song.
4) DO RE MI
This song was written and originally performed by Woody Guthrie. Ry Cooder's stunning guitar is backed by a small brass section (reminiscent of a Mardis Gras mood), drums, and laid-back strings here and there. I personally think it would be better without the violins, but that's just my preference. Sadly I can't understand most of the words so am unable to pinpoint what the song is about, but with Ry Cooder's music, I largely am attracted to the sound of it, rather than the subject matter of the songs. One bit I can pick out is somebody being disappointed that after having gone to California to try and find fame and fortune by playing music, he is told that he isn't talented......e.g. "you ain't got that do re mi".
5) MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME (TURPENTINE & DANDELION WINE)
This is a very amusing little song of what I take to be the description of a redneck home in the southern states, whereby the subject of the song doesn't care about anything, so long as he can just sit back and get drunk. There are some great verbal descriptions of the man's family in the lines of the song, and as it carries on, the guy appears to be getting drunker and drunker. Similarly to the last track, there is a laid-back violin sound behind Ry's blues guitar, and the drumbeat. I wouldn't personally say this is an out and out blues track in itself, but Ry adds his own touch which lends the song a little of that dustbowl magic.
6) HOW CAN A POOR MAN STAND SUCH TIMES AND LIVE?
This song starts with a little guitar backed by something brass (not sure what), then the violins and Ry's voice join in. It's a tale of woe and poverty....the man in the song can't afford to have the doctor visit when he's ill....he then goes on about how he remembers things being so much cheaper when he was younger, and current prices are making him feel dubious about living. The middle-eight has a lovely bendy note slide guitar blues section, backed by strings, drums and brass. The song then goes on to speak of prohibition, bemoaning the government's attitude to bootleggers, and winds down to a quiet close, all instruments fading out.
7) AVAILABLE SPACE
Well.....you can't get more Mississippi-ish (blues-wise) than this! Ry comes into his element here with this slide guitar instrumental, and it's another of those tracks where you can almost imagine strolling through a little shanty town on the edge of a cotton field - and there at the end of a dusty dirt track, is a little wooden house, a black man sitting on a rocking chair out on his porch, strumming lazily away at a guitar in the hot, hot heat haze of somewhere like Mississippi, Florida (the real Florida I mean), Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana or similar. Ry's guitar is the prominent instrument, backed largely by percussion consisting of mostly drums and tambourine, which just fade away as the song ends.
Ry Cooder here gives us his rendition of an old Leadbelly song. The mood and style of the song is very typically New Orleans, with a Mardis Gras feel...there is a very strong brass section to the forefront...I can't identify all the instruments, but I believe there's a French horn in there somewhere, and a chorus of trumpets. The drumbeat is very strong, accompanied by the occasional rhythmic crash on cymbals, and the whole track is plodding - but deliciously so. Ry doesn't play guitar on this track, but bends his voice into a guttural blues style which sends chills down your spine. I'm not sure what the black Southern Staters mean exactly by pigmeat, but whatever it means....this song is about it.
9) POLICE DOG BLUES
Wow Wow Wow - Ry excels even himself with his rendition of this Blind Blake song. It is just his voice, with astonishing, quite forefront blues guitar. As he sings, the twiddles and slides up and down the scale on his guitar are delicious.....I first heard this by Blind Blake when I was a very small child, and Ry Cooder doesn't deterioriate the original magic in the slightest. The song is really about a man who keeps pestering his girlfriend when she wants him to just leave....she has bought a dog, and is threatening to send the dog into attack mode, if he won't leave her alone. The song ends on a masterfully played small set of blues chords.
10) GOIN' TO BROWNSVILLE
Now this is pure, utter, unadulterated blues at its very core. Though I can't find any information confirming my belief, I think this possibly could be another Leadbelly song. Again it's just Ry Cooder on guitar with some very bendy bluesy notes, and on every 4th beat he will slap the guitar to give a plodding sort of sound. This is so very reminiscent of the deep south....what I believe the very essence, heart and spirit of that part of the USA to be, is held entirely in this one simple, single song. It's largely about a man travelling to Brownsville, Texas, to see his woman after a long absence. True blues!
11) DARK IS THE NIGHT
I will be as short as I can on my description of this track, because if I say everything I feel about it, I will end up typing not just paragraphs, but chapters.....reams and reams. Ry's rendition of genius Blind Willie Johnson's composition is as good as the original. It was used as part of the score for the movie Paris, Texas, for which Ry composed the rest of the music. Not only is this track so exquisitely sad and soulful....very slow with notes bending all over the place, positively oozing great depth....it in my mind can't now be separated from Paris, Texas - I can't hear the track without the association happening. That's fine though as for me Paris, Texas is a masterpiece which was one of the first things I reviewed on DooYoo. Ry's version of this song is entirely instrumental, whereas Blind Willie Johnson hummed some of it in his very distinctive, gruff - but wholly honest and soulful voice. This is one of the most moving pieces of music ever written, and though I do enshrine Blind Willie Johnson's version as something almost holy (along with his other music....of which there is very little available, so what is around, is like gold-dust), Ry does it complete justice - I suspect, because he FEELS blues as it should be felt, and is able to transmute the true feeling via his own musical skill. I want to give this track 100 out of 10, but can't as that would be silly....so, let's settle for a stonking........
....... 10/10 with multiple commendations
This was the very first Ry Cooder album I bought and heard extensively, and I feel it gave me an excellent grounding as regards what to expect of him in general. This man is a true genius, and I'm sad that he is very highly rated only in certain circles.
I often wonder why people say they don't like blues, so I ask them to give me some examples of what to them, typifies blues - and they usually come up with tracks that are essentially urbanised R&B. I like that kind of music myself, but it's only one branch of blues - this offering from Ry Cooder is his own interpretation of the real thing, the core of blues, the birth of the blues, way down in the cotton belt of the USA - blues that arose from slavery, human misery, hardship...yet within its sadness, carrying a strength which saw the people who sung and played it in the first instance, through some of the most awful injustices perpetrated from one human being to another that modern history (outside of war) has known.
Thanks for reading!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 France Chance
3 One Meatball
4 Do Re Mi
5 Old Kentucky Home
6 How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live
7 And Live
8 Available Space
9 Pig Meat
10 Police Dog Blues
11 Goin' To Brownsville
12 Dark Is The Night