Ry Cooder has been making music and recording for the past 50 years and his latest album, The Prodigal Son, his first for six years, has been hailed as “destined to become an instant classic” (Daily Telegraph), the produce of a “musical mastermind” (Rolling Stone) and “completely fresh and contemporary” (NPR). MOJO declared it “A career-high.”
It is, indeed, something of a masterpiece – perhaps remarkable, in that it is a collection of gospel songs and the artist himself makes no claim to belief. But this is music that Cooder has always loved. “I’m not religious,” he says, “but I always felt drawn to these songs. There’s some kind of reverence mood that takes hold when you play and sing.” For Cooder reverence means “being a conduit for the feelings and experiences by people from other times, like when you stand in an old church yard and let the lonely tombs talk to you…I think any creative artist has to have a sense of a truth or force beyond the visible.”
These are songs that will speak to anyone, believer or unbeliever. The arrangements, musicianship and feeling – and the songs, what a collection of songs – are spiritually powerful. There’s humanity, decency, inspiration, hope in these songs, that anyone can feel. If you are a person of faith, however, you’ll find an extra dimension of faith, encouragement and challenge here too.
All of this much needed, of course, in these days of political bitterness, disregard for the truth, corporate greed, and desperate social inequality and injustice. So thanks, Ry, for putting the spotlight on the spiritual values that can ground us and help make us human again.
71-year Cooder plays guitar, bass and mandolin in what is mostly a carefully curated selection of blues and gospel from the early 20th Century. There are three Cooder originals, Shrinking Man, Gentrification and Jesus and Woody, the latter bemoaning the current state of the world and imagining Jesus telling Woody Guthrie “Guess I like sinners better than fascists, And I guess that makes me a dreamer too.”
Cooder’s reworking of other songs include Carter Stanley’s Harbour of Love; Blind Roosevelt Graves’ I’ll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called; You Must Unload by Blind Alfred Reed; Straight Street by The Pilgrim Travelers; William L Dawson’s, In His Care; and two songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Nobody’s Fault But Mine and Everybody Ought to Treat A Stranger Right (“Blind Willie’s music is pure trance, it’s not 12-bar blues or any suchlike…In steel guitar heaven, I felt Willie looked down and saw that was good,” says Cooder. (Mind you I’m not so sure Willie would have been happy about Ry slipping in those couple of lines which adds Buddha to Jesus in Nobody’s Fault But Mine.)).
The choice of songs is masterful, and the treatment of each brings them bang up to date, without losing their original intent or spirit.
One of the most powerful songs on the album us You Must Unload, written by Blind Alfred Reed, who was recorded, along with The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, at the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions (The “Big Bang” of modern country music).
The song mercilessly challenges “fashion-loving, money-loving and power-loving” Christians – arguably broad swathes of self-proclaimed believers in North America and Europe – and tells them they must “unload.” Anyone who has read their New Testament scriptures would recognize the voice of John the Baptist here, with his fiery denunciation of religious self-satisfaction, or indeed, Jesus, with his searing critique of acquisitiveness and love of money. The Old Testament prophets, too, from which John and Jesus took their cue, were unflinching in their lambasting of those who were content with religious observance but yet oppressed the poor, sought power and preferred a nice glass of wine with their feet up to helping their neighbour – go and read the eighth century prophet Amos and you’ll see what I mean.
The song starts with an amusing dig at the fashion conscious whose obsession with “jewellry encrusted high heel shoes” bars them from the joys of heaven. They sure give Ry the blues. And Jesus too.
Then there’s the money loving Christians who don’t pay their way, who think making it in the kingdom of God is easy. Pretty damning of the way a lot of us Western Christians live, isn’t it, indistinguishable from the pushing and shoving and acquisitiveness that is the hallmark of life these days. The urge for more, bigger, better, more choice. And we want it all for ourselves – cut those taxes, let those poor people stand up on their own two feet.
And then the last verse – taking aim at those power-loving Christians. Power is such a seductive thing. As if political power were somehow linked to the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked so much about. But Jesus said his kingdom wasn’t “of this world,” meaning that it wasn’t like the kingdom of Caesar or America or wherever – it isn’t based on violence, the threat of violence, money, or influence. It’s based on love, compassion, generosity. That’s why Christianity was so successful in the first three centuries before it got entangled with government and the trappings of power. Christians lived out the counter-cultural values of love and self-giving service, devoid of political power, and yet ended up attracting huge swathes of the Empire to follow Jesus. Which is what gives the lie to the support for the 45th President of the United States by so many so-called evangelical Christians. Do they understand the message of the person they purport to follow, if they are prepared to sacrifice values of compassion, love for the stranger, truth, and human decency for the passing gratification of temporary political power? What happened to taking up the cross and following the compassionate, justice-announcing Jesus? Wherein, paradoxically, is to be found the real joy of life.
All of which makes Blind Alfred Reed’s song and Ry Cooder’s fresh interpretation so relevant and compelling right now. It strikes at the heart of a false religion that somehow feels that money and power are compatible with the gospel. They’re not. Thank you Ry for this timely reminder.