Ry Cooder: In the Laboratory of Song

On melody and the past, present and future of the American Popular Song

“So what the hell’s going on here? Where’s the tune? Where’s the melody? Where’s the poetry? Why is that so not in evidence?” – Ry Cooder

It started with a question about melody. Why do certain tunes endure? We had been discussing the entire arc of popular songs as we know it up to then, from blues and country through the Great American Songbook through blues, folk, country, rock, hip-hop and beyond. He was less than optimistic about where it was heading, especially compared to the great songs he loved. Songs of substance. And songs with melodies. Beautiful, compelling, powerful melodies.

Several times he worried that the lightning-fast speed of our distracted, digital lives has created a world in which artists never take the time to learn true artistry. He felt this was true for songwriters, but also for musicians. As a slide-guitar master and devotee, he said he was blown away by how often he heard people playing who were out of tune. “Can’t they hear they are flat?” he asked. “You have to listen to what the hell you’re doing. If you’re flat, you’re flat.”

Asked for his remedy, he said this:

“If I was to teach somebody I’d say, `Take all the strings off except the high E. Then just play me one note, and I’ll see you in a year. You know what I mean? But get that note. But make it a good rich note. Otherwise you sound like the emergency door at the veterinarian hospital.'”

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That’s the context in which the melody question was posed. We’d been talking for more than an hour, so I expected he’d give a short answer if any, and we’d wrap it up. Instead he offered this darkly epic response which encompasses his essential world-view, and more than a century of American popular music.

AMERICAN SONGWRITER: What makes a melody great? 

RY COODER: Yes, Well, that’s the question of the age. Well, I can’t say. And I’m not smart enough to know the study of that. But when you hear a good one, you know. 

Ry Cooder. Photo by Joachim Cooder. “`Well,’ says Ralph Peer, `I like when you go to the chorus.’” 

Take Jimmy Van Heusen. Or one of those guys. Listen to some of these Johnny Hartman records, I mean, it’s incredible.

Or one of the greatest of all time, of course, “Over The Rainbow.” [Sings first four bars of melody] You’re there. You’re instantly taken or transported to wherever that song is going to take you.

We have a fantastic thing, of course. The American song is unique in the world. And it’s incredible. Due partly to the English language, and partly because of the invention of verse-chorus, which came from here.

I don’t think you find chorus, as we know it in pop music, [sings] “I want to hold your hand..” That did not exist until it was codified here. 

Take a look at the writing from Stephen Foster on up. They had refrains, such as in Stephen Foster songs such as “Old Kentucky Home.” [Sings: “In my old Kentucky home, far away…”] That’s not really a chorus. That’s a refrain. But when you get that hook chorus, when did that happen? Did it happen with the three-minute record? I think so.

It seems to me the recording studio is the laboratory of songwriting. Because people would say, “Your whole statement’s got to happen in three minutes, guy.” You know? Prior to that, dance music could go on indefinitely. A song could last fifteen minutes.

But what did Ralph Peer say to Jimmy Rodgers? Jimmy Rodgers walks through the door. Ralph Peer is sitting there in Bristol, Tennessee or wherever and says, “So Mister, what’s your name? Rodgers? What have you got?”

[Sings melody]. Well, he got right to it. He got right to the hook. And he had choruses.

Well,” says Ralph Peer, “I like when you go to the chorus.”  Peer was smart. He knew what to say to these guys. He helped them.

A.P. Carter didn’t know how to write a fucking song until Ralph Peer told him how to write a song. He said, “Now go out and do it,” he said. “A.P. said okay. And he goes marching through the hills of Appalachia writing down the poems off tombstones. Can you imagine? “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” is supposed to have come off of a tombstone. That’s songwriting.

And he comes back, and says, “Okay I got this here.”

Peer says, “But you don’t have a chorus. And you have to get to the chorus soon. Don’t delay. In other words, get to the hook as fast as you can.”

It’s very fascinating, don’t you think? It’s all because of records. If it hadn’t been for Ralph Peer and his recording machine, and other guys who did that too, then none of this would have happened, I don’t think. It wouldn’t have happened to the extent that it did, the fine art of it. You might have taken another hundred years or so.

But I always have thought that if you can grow yourself a Jimmy Van Heusen or a Yip Harburg, you have a society. Then you can say that it is a real society now. This is a real group of people who have evolved in this talented way.

Now, of course, now it’s all being thrown out like trash. Because of hip-hop and everything. Which I can’t even contemplate. But, man, by 1960? It had all been said. Incredible!. I mean, look at all the Nat King Cole records and the beautiful songs. Johnny Hartman. I mean, those tunes. “My Funny Valentine”? Unbelievable!

But also, on the other side of the scale, Lester Flatts & Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley and Carter Stanley, and people like that. And Harland Howard is a favorite of mine. Buddy the Red Cat says, [in fast, funny, Southern drawl] “Harlan Howard, personal friend of mine.”

And then we have to say Willie Nelson. Took a ride in a car in Houston, it’s said, and by the end of the night he’d written, “Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” and my personal favorite, “Funny How Time Slips Away.” There’s nothing that can compare with that. And then he went on and did other things. [Laughs] That’s one night in a car! Or so the story goes. I hope it’s true. I hope it’s true.

What can you say? I mean, how about that guy Leon Paine? Do you know his writing? He was a blind country writer and singer. He wrote “No One Will Ever Know.” Check that out. “No One Will Ever Know.” That is country music, an awesome, deep song. We did it on the tour with Skaggs. His wife Sharon would sing it. And I mean, I would go into a trance when she would sing that song. It was enough to make me go so far down into the tune that it was like going into some kind of meditation where you suspend your breathing. And I would have to get back [laughs] at the end of the song. You know? You have to go and do another one.

It’s said that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs wrote “Reunion In Heaven.” Which has to be my favorite American song of all time. From the vernacular music. I don’t mean the Jimmy Van Heusen stuff. I mean non-professional. The music of people. As recorded by them, not by others. They achieved something. We did that on the Skaggs tour. Couldn’t quite get the harmony right for some reason. It’s one of those tunes. It was an encore song. People would come by the merch table in tears. Folks were so taken by this. It was very gripping. And nobody was immune. All different types came to those shows, and they’d all step over to the merch table just to say, “That tune did it for me.” Young and old alike.

Do you think songs will always matter in human lives?

Well, yes I do. If that’s true biologically, perhaps so. Maybe it’s part of being human.

But I’ve got to tell you. We won’t name names, but there are these modern songwriters. And the trend is to minimize the idea of what a song is. To knock it down to two notes. [Laughs]   This kind of weird banality. 

It’s like you say, “Well, today I do the following…” And you call that a song? Or just this reduction kind of thing, where there’s nothing in the pot anymore. Well, you just boiled it all out. What is this then?

Is it just me cause I’m grumpy? Joachim says he feels the same way. He’s 40 years old. 

So what the hell’s going on here? Where’s the tune? Where’s the melody? Where’s the poetry? Why is that so not in evidence? You can’t blame hip-hop for everything.

Is it the fault of the digital world? I think, maybe, because everything happens too fast, that you don’t build a craft, you don’t build artistry in yourself. And you don’t listen. If you don’t listen to music, all music, I don’t see how you know. 

It’s like a child learning to talk without having heard people speaking. What are you gonna do, start talking in abbreviations, like texting? And that’s exactly what’s happening.

It would be like never reading a book. If you don’t read books and you don’t understand experience, how the hell can you write about it and sing about it? Or you’re just going to end up writing about yourself. Then it’s like everybody’s in a closet with themselves, and it’s very limited and it’s very unappealing and I don’t like it.

So you say what’s happening with songs. Music is fundamental and it is human. That’s exactly what it is.

So the question is will there come a time when the Beethoven string quartet will cease to have meaning? Because people can’t relate to them anymore. They won’t understand their role or their lives vis a vis those notes. Is it irrelevant?  Can Bach become irrelevant? Can Jimmy Van Heusen [laughs] become irrelevant? I think so. Picasso. Is he going to speak to people? Or are they just going to think it’s weird? We’ll see about that. Time will tell.

All those songwriters from the Van Heusen era, they felt rock and roll destroyed songwriting first, even before hip-hop. Do you agree?

Well, sure. That’s right. It knocked a lot of the underpinning out. I like “Summertime Blues” as much as the next guy. Cause it’s such a great tune. The story’s amazing. It’s a really funny song. And it’s a great little record. But it isn’t Jimmy Van Heusen. [Laughs] And it isn’t Yip Harburg. Or none of those guys.

Nowadays, you know, I can’t relate. I’m 71 today. More and more I feel like just sitting in my chair and not going out. And Joachim, he comes to me and he says, “No, don’t do that.”

So I’m getting that you’re not optimistic about the future of the popular song?

No, I’m not. My favorite statement is Pete Seeger’s last public remark before he died. He said, “I have no hope. I could be wrong.”

I’ll leave it at that.      


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  1. My God! I thought I was the only one who felt this way. Of course I live on another planet (The Bahamas), and am completely out of touch. Guess I’m a dinosaur, still longing for the Jurassic Period. Those were the good old days . . . .

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