Archive for December, 2014

Ry Cooder and the music of others

When I was a boy, all the music I heard was original – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and many others wrote their own material. Others had favourite songwriters, like Otis Blackwell., who wrote a number of hits for Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, or Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote hits for almost everybody. Indeed, original music has always formed the vast majority of popular music. It never occurred to me at that time that musicians would play music written by other people. Why would anyone want to do that?

In 1956, my parents bought their first television set and, like almost all of Canada, I heard the maritime fiddler Don Messer (1909-1973) on CBC’s extremely polular show, “Don Messer’s Junilee.” Messer specialized not only in other people’s music but in music from foreign countries, mainly Scotland and Ireland. It was the first time I realized that music extended beyond North America.

Later on in the 60s, I started listening to Doc Watson (1923-2012) and traditional American music became a life-long passion. I had the chance to hear Doc and his son Merle (1949-1885) in concert and the respect with which he approached traditional music was certainly the most important music lesson I ever learned. At the same time, folk music boomed and I heard Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, who played

music from the early 20th century with objects like washboards, jugs, washtubs and combs. More and more, I was listening to music from the past.

In the early 70s, Ry Cooder became a veritable apostle for traditional music, breathing new life into songs from the depression era and the early beginnings of jazz and blues. Winner of six Grammy awards, Cooder extended his work to the music of other cultutres and collaborated with Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jiminez, Hawaiian musicians Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs, Hindustani classical musician V.M. Bhatt, a virtuoso of the Mohan Veena, a modified 20-string guitar of Bhatt’s own invention, and Ali Farka Touré a Malian singer and multi-instrumentalist and one of Africa’s most internationally renowned musicians. Cooder also played a significant role in the increased appreciation of traditional Cuban music, due to his collaboration as guitarist and producer of the Buena Vista Social Club recording, which became a worldwide hit and revived the careers of some of the greatest surviving exponents of

20th century Cuban music. In my estimation, Cooder also played a very significant part in the thaw in Cuban-American relations, so much in the news today.

I have chosen to play two pieces which exemplify Ry Cooder’s ability to find forgotten music and reanimate it. The first piece, “Great Dreams From Heaven”, comes from Bahamian singer-guitarist Joseph Spence (1910-1984), the son of a pastor who played gospel and Bahamian songs, mostly recorded on his porch with the sound of his

children playing in the background. Fritz Richmond, jug player in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, recorded one of Spence’s albums called “Happy All The Time”, an apt summary of the man and his music.


Great Dreams From Heaven



This second piece comes from Ry Cooder’s extensive work in film soundtracks. Entitled “I Always Knew You Were The One”, this piece is an unbelievably romantic waltz from the cowboy era, taken from the soundtrack of

Walter Hill’s western film, “The Long Riders.”


I Always Knew You Were The One

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“Maria Elena” – the song that changed everything

By the early 60s, the first wave of Rock and Roll was over – Chuck Berry was arrested in 1959 on Mann Act charges and spent four years in jail; Little Richard got religion and formed the Little Richard Evangelistic Team, traveling across the USA to preach; Elvis was drafted in the Army; Jerry Lee Lewis was ostracized for marrying his 13-year-old cousin; other greats like Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran had died in tragic accidents – Holly was 23, Cochran 21.
Popular music at that time was dominated by crooners like Pat Boone and the Bobbies (Vinton, Vee, Rydell, Darin, Curtola, Tillotson, Burnette, etc.). I couldn’t understand what had happened to that great music of the fifties and I felt lost without it. I was growing into adolescence and the world outside was changing – it was the time of the Cold War, racial riots, the Cuban missile crisis. Rockland tested a public alarm system in case of a nuclear attack and no sooner had I started high school that JFK was assassinated. I looked back at the happy years of my youth, remembering A.E. Housman’s words :
“ That is the land of lost content / I see it shining plain / The happy highways where I went / And cannot come again.”
As I started high school, I sensed a dread I could not name stretching out before me. I didn’t want to take part in this violent senseless world but everyone said I had to – you were expected to get a job, marry, raise a family. I had no faith in my abilities to go that route because I had no abilities – I was just a 13-year-old kid lost and drowning in this alien adult sea. And then I heard “Maria Elena” on the radio. And it was my salvation.
Maria Elena” was written in 1932 by Mexican composer Lorenzo Barcelata and the song was recorded by several musicians like Jimmy Dorsey and Lawrence Welk. It found its way into the repertoire of two native Indian brothers from the Tabajaras region of Brazil, Natalicio and Antenor Lima, who called themselves Los Indios Tabajaras (The Indians of Tabajaras). The Lima brothers were virtuoso guitarists and their magnificent recording of “Maria Elena” was a world-wide hit in 1963. I had previously developed a liking for instrumental guitar music, thanks to Link Wray and Duane Eddy who graced my brother Gabriel’s record collection, but the fluid and lyrical playing of Los Indios Tabajaras was way beyond anything I had ever heard before. Without realizing why, I immediately knew, the first time I heard the song, that I had to learn to play the guitar. Looking back, I must have thought that having that ability would give me shelter from the coming storm or that it would perhaps give me, an inconsequential kid from nowhere, some kind of an identity, the most essential thing for a young teenager.
There were only two problems: one, I had no guitar; two, I didn’t know anything about playing one! My parents certainly didn’t have the money to spend on guitars and music lessons so I was on my own. But fate stepped in – my older brother Bob returned home from a brief stint in the seminary with a new haircut and a new guitar, borrowed from a friend. I begged my brother to show me where to place my fingers on the guitar so that I might play the opening two bars of the melody of “Maria Elena.” He did, and that simple act of kindness changed my life. My brother and I have often reminisced about that seemingly insignificant gesture, my brother with great pride, me with eternal gratitude. From then on, I borrowed guitars, I looked at where other players placed their fingers on the fretboard, I listened, I practiced and I taught myself how to play. All I needed was that first push from my brother.
And now, more that 50 years later, it’s time to listen to “Maria Elena” and remember 1963.
Godin Artist Series

Godin Artist Series

This is my first recording using my new Godin Artist Series Seagull guitar.

Interesting fact: Buddy Holly’s widow’s name is Maria Elena.





Maria Elena

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