Some of the first records Ry Cooder heard and loved as a child were Woody Guthrie's songs about working-class people in the Great Depression. He never quite got them out of his system. There has been a strain of social commentary in his albums, going back to his solo debut, when he covered Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" and Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?"
These days, however, he's taking his protest music and social-commentary blues to a new level. Last year Cooder, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and supporter of unions, put out an album called "Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down," which took aim at Wall Street bankers, war profiteers and anti-immigrant vigilantes.
He recently released a follow-up, "Election Special," in which he pokes fun at Mitt Romney, the Republican Party and the Koch brothers, the Kansas industrialists who back the tea party movement and other conservative causes.
In a telephone interview from his home in Santa Monica, Calif., Cooder, 65, talked about writing protest music:
Q: What possessed you to write "Mutt Romney," a song that imagines life as Romney's dog?
A: It just seemed we should hear from the dog, you know. Quite a useful character, a dog is, when you view it in the light of the blues. Like a servant, a yardman, someone very low in the social order.
Q: Another song describes two businessmen who make a deal with the devil. Are you talking about the Koch brothers?
A: Yeah, I thought how could you in a song phrase explain them? Then I thought the crossroads. Everybody understands that. I thought, That's how I'll start: "We made the deal, and Satan's deal was good, 'cause he said we could have all that horrible power and do anything we want."
But Satan's price is he'll come for one of the Koch brothers and take him back down. He won't say which one. He won't say when.
Q: A couple of songs refer to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Do you think that movement has any steam left?
A: The only way we are going to save the country from these bastards is unity and solidarity, and the conservatives went after unity and solidarity when they started to dismantle the labor force under Reagan.
The Occupy movement seems to be a force for unity. People who get together, regardless of other structures, will find something in common. They are bound to. That was the Pete Seeger let's-all-sing theory.
Q: This album's pretty pessimistic. Do you really think the country has reached such a critical crossroads?
A: Is there anybody who would doubt it if you look at the facts in the case? All you have to do is open up your ears to anything you are hearing, reading, watching on these blogs.
Q: Are these songs that Woody Guthrie would sing if he were alive?
A: Possibly. The same stories are being told. Woody Guthries' songs, or Uncle Dave Macon to a certain extent, or some of the stuff the New Lost City Ramblers used to do, you could be doing right now. Because they talked about the banks, about the bigness of money, about the failure to create jobs. I don't see any difference.