Cooder's 'Buddy' Revives Tales of a Bygone America On his latest CD, Ry Cooder recounts hardships of the Dust Bowl migration through the story of a "red" cat named Buddy and his two traveling buddies. The story was inspired by a real feline who slept in a suitcase.

Cooder's 'Buddy' Revives Tales of a Bygone America

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Guitarist Ry Cooder is a musician with a great passion for songs from an earlier time. This led him to the rich tradition of Cuban music, and that turned into the hit CD, "The Buena Vista Social Club." Recently, he re-created the music of the lost Chicano community of Chavez Ravine here in Los Angeles. Now he's out with a different kind of musical tale. Actually, the heroes and villains do all have tales.

Mr. RY COODER (Musician): Let's join Buddy Red Cat, Lefty Mouse, and Reverend Tom Toad as they journey through time and space in the days of labor, big bosses, farm failures, strikes, company cops, sundown towns, hobos and trains. The America of yesteryear.

(Soundbite of song from album "My Name is Buddy")

Mr. COODER: (Singing) Well, I'm a red cat 'till I die, I'm a red cat through and through, now you can't turn me yellow and you can't make me blue...

MONTAGNE: Buddy is a hero of the stories in Ry Cooder's new CD. A farm cat who hooks up with the labor agitating mouse and a blind preacher toad. Ry Cooder says he was inspired by a real cat.

Mr. COODER: Buddy was the mascot pet of a record store in Vancouver, Canada. And they found him sleeping in a suitcase in the alley. When I heard that, I thought there's a great story in this - Buddy, the red cat. If he'd been black or white, or the name was Bob, you know, no story. Red - born red, he becomes red.

MONTAGNE: And so Ry Cooder relates Buddy's adventures in songs that labor troubadours Joe Hill or Woody Guthrie might have sung. And he tells them both in song and in print. The CD is paired with a book of stories and drawings. The first one you see on the cover is Buddy perched beside a dirt road, his tail curled around a suitcase.

Mr. COODER: The drawing is very accurate, and that worried look, with the middle distance, staring into the middle distance, waiting for a ride in this case.

MONTAGNE: It illustrates the first song on the CD, "Suitcase in My Hand." And Buddy introduces himself basically in this song.

(Soundbite of song "Suitcase in my Hand")

Mr. COODER: (Singing): When I was still a kitten, daddy told me, son, there's just one thing that you should know. Well, it's true this world is round and it's true this world's (unintelligible) just take this little suitcase when you go.

Mr. COODER: So he goes out, and then of course the story unfolds.

MONTAGNE: He meets up with Lefty Mouse, and then also Reverend Tom Toad.

Mr. COODER: Right. He's on the run from the Ku Klux Klan in the South. And so then you have three characters moving, which I thought was very good. Because each one has special qualities. Three is a good number for traveling partners.

(Soundbite of song from album "My Name is Buddy")

Mr. COODER: (Singing) Now my ladies has gone (unintelligible) workers walked down last wintertime (unintelligible) good kitty was a dear sweetheart of mine. She walked around all winter on the picket line, but I found her when the snow was on the ground.

MONTAGNE: Some of these songs are pretty traditional or hued very closely to traditional working man, union...

Mr. COODER: Type songs.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. But the stories, they're much more about California.

Mr. COODER: Yeah, because I know of California best. And I wanted to get them out here to trace the root of the migrant workers, or they call it the Dust Bowl or whatever, coming from the, let's call it, the border South, you know, those states. Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma in particular, which is where I think Buddy comes from. Comes across the Mojave Desert like everybody has to do at some point.

(Soundbite of song from album "My Name is Buddy")

Mr. COODER: (Singing) Walking cross the desert, it ain't no fun. Too hot in the daytime, too much sun. Lefty says we'll cross at nighttime like my people always have done.

Mr. COODER: When the Arkies and the Okies came across Mojave, they'd never seen anything like this giant desert. And it was hot and it was dry, and their cars broke down and they couldn't go and buy any food and they didn't know what to do. And then get out to California, which is where the real trouble began. Things are much rougher in California in terms of cops and the agri business. They had no preparation for it.

MONTAGNE: Telling this tale, you were able to move through quite a range of music.

Mr. COODER: Yes. The songs are a bit opaque in a way, but then the facts are revealed through Buddy's narration. Because music is light-hearted as a rule, especially in tunes like this, kind of cheerful. Whereas the events behind each song is kind of dire, such as in the case of "One Cat, One Vote, One Beer," where he can't vote. And Buddy, he's so disappointed. He goes into a bar and they won't serve him, so he starts crying because nothing's working that day. He can't vote; he can't get a beer. It's a heck of a situation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song "One Cat, One Vote, One Beer")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) See, I've been trying vote. Now about an hour or more I tried but didn't get nowhere. Joe, you know, I just don't think they're doing this voting fair and square. Better make it one cat, one vote and one beer.

MONTAGNE: We want to end where the CD ends, in a way the story ends, "There's a Bright Side Somewhere."

Mr. COODER: Right.

MONTAGNE: What is that song for you?

Mr. COODER: Well, this is a wonderful old gospel song. I first heard it from Reverend Gary Davis. It says something that we can take some comfort from. There's a bright side, won't rest until I find it. Doesn't say what it is. Now Buddy sees it as a place of family, a place of friendship, you know? Something good - a ham sandwich. He likes ham sandwiches, Buddy does. He's going there.

(Soundbite of song "There's a Bright Side Somewhere")

Mr. COODER: (Singing) People got a good job somewhere, got a lot of good friends somewhere. Got a little suitcase, got a little family, over on the bright side somewhere.

Mr. COODER: I imagine them in the little church and the people walk out and feeling joined in spirits. You know, like well, that's all of us. We're all in the same boat. And that's of course the theme of unity being the whole reason for this record. That's what Buddy really wants. He wants everybody to be happy together, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Ry Cooder, thank you for having us.

Mr. COODER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: "My Name is Buddy" is the title of Ry Cooder's new CD and storybook. You can follow further adventures at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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