By Kevin O’Sullivan
Ry Cooder, to turn a phrase, has previous. In 2005 he released an album entitled Chavez Ravine that told the history of a Mexican-American neighbourhood of Los Angeles, bulldozed to the ground in the 1950s to make way for a housing development that was never built and a baseball stadium that was. On ‘Don’t Call Me Red’ he took on the role of Frank Wilkinson, the public architect who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was condemned to prison as a result. On ‘Chinito Chinito’ he offered a colourful snapshot of inter-race relations in 1940s LA: ‘Washes my shirts, irons my pants/Then he takes his maraca home’. The tale had it all: McCarthyism, cool cats, UFOs, conspiracy, and injustice, with a dash of the boogie-woogie and the jitterbug thrown in for good measure.
No surprise then to hear him return to the album-as-history theme for his new record, San Patricio, recorded with The Chieftains and a troupe of Mexican musicians. The yarn on this occasion: a group of ‘disaffected’ Irish-Americans led by Captain John Riley, who deserted to fight with the Mexicans in the war of the 1840s under the command of General Antonio López de Santa Ana. The men, Cooder sings, had been driven into American military service through a combination of poverty and oppression; they were ‘but trash’ to their superior officers and happy to abandon their lives under ‘the same English and Protestant leanings they had suffered under at home’ in favour of the opportunity to fight and die (after court-martial and execution at Churubusco) with their Catholic Mexican cousins.
So far, so unremarkable. But, like the inhabitants of Chavez Ravine, the story of the San Patricios is presented as the kind of ‘never before told’ history that would make a first-year PhD student proud. Chieftain Paddy Moloney writes of ‘a little discussed and even less understood footnote in the greater panorama of American Westward expansion’. ‘It’s not right that such an event took place and it’s not in the history books’, he told NPR; ‘I mean, nobody knows about it over here [the US], and very few know about it at home.’ Nobody, he added, slightly undermining his case, except the Mexican and Irish governments who created a series of commemorative stamps to mark the events in 1997.
Cooder’s rejoinder that ‘I was never taught this in Los Angeles public schools’ and the cringe-inducing Liam Neeson on ‘March to Battle’ (‘We are the San Patricios, a brave and gallant band/There’ll be no white flag flying within this green band’) should have been enough to set alarm bells ringing. But being a fool for a good concept album – anything from Sgt Pepper’s to Neutral Milk Hotel’s bizarre retelling of the life of Anne Frank, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – I couldn’t help but be taken in by it all. It helps, of course, that the music is compelling: a mix of mariachi, jigs and reels, and voices so romantic sounding to these non-Spanish speaking ears. The songs, too – original compositions and traditional Mexican and Irish tunes – have a humanity that transcends the over-simplicity of the narrative. Should I believe Cooder’s commitment to detail when he sings ‘We went down to Churubusco, but the devil got there first/The road was hard, the way was long, Churubusco was far worse/Pressed in the Union army, and ordered off to go/Along the southern border, to the sands of Mexico’? Probably not, but he does croon it so well.
So, you ask, what’s new about all of this? The voices that regailed us with tales of Molly Malone, Arthur MacBride, the zoological gardens, of medieval wives running away with raggle taggle gypsies, pursued by husbands determined to put enemies to the sword (and often doing so), have for centuries formed an integral part of our society, a way of telling tales, a form of protest, and a manner of communicating a group’s culture and its importance to successive generations. What distinguishes Cooder’s approach, however, is the long-playing record as the medium. He has a strong commitment to social history, to telling a story through the primary source of the traditional song and – in the case of Chavez Ravine – the recorded voices of those who experienced the events, and integrating them into a narrative built around contemporary compositions. Sometimes it falls short, but when it works it provides an intriguing introduction to the history of Hispanic LA; ‘still’, Cooder told Moloney, ‘a Mexican town’.
To spin another, more musical, phrase, it’s not even rock-and-roll, but I like it.