For more than a half century, Ry Cooder has been making music. He is highly regarded for his slide guitar work as well as the affinity he has for roots music and collaborations with musicians throughout the world.
“Gentrification,” which appears on his latest album, “The Prodigal Son,” is a kind of story song that Cooder is known for writing. It also has pretty sly humor.
In the song, a jobless young man is approached by a lady, who says trust me and take a tip. “This building’s been sold to Johnny Depp.” The young man replies, “Who?”
“Take the buyout, relocate. The Googlemen are coming downtown so don’t be late,” Cooder sings.
What could the “Googlemen”—Cooder’s term for gentrifiers—want with his dilapidated studio apartment?
“I live in the heart of the city, ain’t no coffee shops around,” the jobless man thinks. “I heard them Googlemen drink so much coffee, I declare, I think they might drown.”
The Googlemen are obviously going to build up the coffee shops they need for their neighborhood.
The jobless man concludes, “Gentrification is here, sho’ is worryin’ my mind. Can’t understand why an uptown Googleman wants a downtown room like mine.”
Cooder’s tune opens with an upbeat whistle. Its instrumentation seems to celebrate the opportunity that is coming to the community. That gives the song even more of a satirical edge as it becomes clear the opportunity is not for poor and working class people like the main character of the song.
In the 2000s, after about a twenty-year break from recording albums, Cooder put out his “Southern California Trilogy.” Those albums were about solidarity, especially with those who were grappling with how Los Angeles was changing. And, in a sense, that theme of solidarity surfaces again on “Prodigal Son.”
MOJO Magazine featured an interview with Cooder, who is 71 years-old, in their May 2018 issue. He contended all the worst things that could possibly come true with President Donald Trump seem to be happening. “But they were always lurking.”
“This is like germs in the earth that are finally floating to the surface,” Cooder said. “If anybody thinks this is new, they just haven’t read their history. I quote it often, but Pete Seeger’s final remarks as he lay dying [were], ‘I have no hope. I could be wrong.’ And that was the most optimistic man I’ve ever met. At the end, even he was not optimistic.”
Yet, as he acknowledged, there is a catharsis to the gospel nature of his latest album. It has some “nice statements,” some good poetry, and none of the songs are “too preachy.” Perhaps, that comes with age and experience.
Listen to “Gentrification”: