Election Special and Hidden Treasures

Ry Cooder’s Election Special
Taj Mahal: Hidden Treasures 1969-1973


Reviews by John Zavesky

Ry Cooder is mad as hell and is not going to take it any more. Cooder has picked up Howard Beal’s angry mantra and come back with a political vengeance on his latest release, Election Special. This is Cooder’s most musically successful album since Buena Vista.


To begin with the album’s strengths, Cooder has produced probably the best pure protest album of American music since the 1960s, full of anger and fight. Cooder goes after Romney, the GOP, bankers, Tea Party folk, and Sarah Palin. Considering the talking points over women’s reproductive rights and immigration alone, the GOP has made it easy for just about anyone to take a shot at them. That is where a certain frustration comes in. Cooder has a golden opportunity to nail conservatives to the wall and he frequently ends up hurling wide broad-shots, as in “Going to Tampa”:  


                              I’m goin’ to Tampa in the morning

                              Got my credentials in my overalls

                              I can’t take you with me little darlin’

                              I’m goin’ down to get my ashes hauled 


Progressives are smart enough to know that the Republican Party is run by people in $3,000 suits, not hayseeds wearing overalls. But this is a minor gripe.


Cooder is known more for his musicianship than his lyrics and this is where he has chosen to stake his ground. Election Special rocks, it rolls, it moans with the blues and it kicks back with country. Cooder has given us one of the most musically topical albums of American roots music since Woody Guthrie was singing on the radio. Over the album’s nine songs Cooder has musically encapsulated nearly every political issue—from the GOP’s attempt to disenfranchise Americans through voter ID legislation, immigration, the economy and women’s reproductive rights.


“Mutt Romney Blues” is a quasi-country blues song dealing with the GOP candidate’s mistreated canine. A decent lead-off number to get the listener primed for what is about to come. In “Brother is Gone” one of those musically deceiving songs. Cooder has crafted a beautiful mandolin-driven melody laid over lyrics that paint a dark political landscape:


                              Oil spills and cancer towns was our stepping stones

                              Immigration bills and foreclosure homes

                              States’ rights we proclaimed

                              Like in the old Jim Crow days

                              Our highest aim was to take your vote away


“Wall Street Part of Town” and “Guantanamo” rock like anything from Cooder’s heyday of “Bop Till You Drop.” “Cold Cold Feeling” is a slow, moody number that recognizes even the president has the blues. The song is so greasy you can almost hear the drops of chicken fat falling off Cooder’s guitar strings. “Kool-Aid” is another fine blues number that deals with a poor soul who has found, after years of buying into conservative rhetoric (drinking the Kool-Aid), that he and his family are out in the cold just like the rest of the 99%. Some might question how topical a song can be when it references Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, but it works for me.


Cooder has taken a bold risk in producing an album consisting entirely of protest songs directly centered on this year’s presidential election. The album is basically a do it yourself project with Cooder and his son, Joachim, handling most studio duties. While none of Cooder’s songs are as catchy as Country Joe’s, “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” all fall well within Guthrie’s perimeter of a protest song. That’s not bad company to keep. Cooder recorded Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” on his first album in 1970. Cooder has answered that question loudly with Election Special.



In celebration of Taj Mahal’s 70th birthday, Columbia Records has released. The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal 1969- 1973. The two disc set covers Taj’s material from when he was a fire-breathing blues player at a time that B.B. King, Muddy Waters and the Stones were all practicing their craft to stadium crowds. Disc One has its high points. The disc is aimed at Taj Mahal fans who want to dig deeper into the career of an artist when he was just beginning to hit his stride. All of the tracks include Jesse Ed Davis on guitar—an added bonus.


There are two versions of “Sweet Mama Janisse.” The first version offers a rare glimpse of an artist crafting their material. The mix of “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie” puts Taj’s whistle at the forefront of his excellent backing band. 


In the opening of “You Ain’t No Streetwalker, Honey But I Do Love the Way You Strut Your Stuff,” Taj is explaining to the musicians, a capella, how he envisions the song should sound before the band kicks it off. It is “fly on the wall” moments like that and the opening of “Good Morning Little School” that give this collection an interesting insight into Mahal’s recording techniques. The multi-instrumental musician cutting loose with a rousing banjo solo on “Shady Grove” is another gem. The CD closes with a tasty instrumental, “Butter.” The song is harp-driven and laid back, but the title completely eludes me as this is clearly “People Get Ready.”


Disc Two contains the entire set Taj performed at the Royal Albert Hall on April 18, 1970 when he opened for Carlos Santana and Johnny Winter. The show encapsulates the blues from its most basic to its most raucous. Taj starts off with an a capella version of “Runnin’ by the Riverside.” You can practically hear the long lost voices of slaves singing over a dim campfire with the feeling Taj puts into this performance. Next Taj pulls up his acoustic guitar and gives a reading of “John Ain’t It Hard.” 


The rest of the material is performed with the band, including Jesse Ed Davis. They ease their way into “Sweet Mama Janisse” and the room begins to rumble like a Mississippi juke joint on a Saturday night. “Big Fat” is a great up-tempo shuffle blues that has Taj standing on the shoulders of Little Walter. Sleepy John Estes’s “Driving Duck Blues” gets a solid workout as does Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Checking Up On My Baby,” highlighting the fact that in 1970 Mahal was already one of America’s greatest blues archivist players. The band cuts loose on “Oh Susanna,” with Taj, Jesse, and the rest of the band jamming on this American folksong for over 10 minutes. The band follows up by bringing things down a bit with “Bacon Fat,” a slow blues number that was originally recorded by Levon and the Night Hawks (who later went on to become The Band). The set closes out with a rousing version of “Tomorrow May Not Be Your Day.”


The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal may be over 40 years old, but the material is a killer.The concert disc alone is worth the price of admission to hear Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis play some of the meanest, sweetest, rollicking down home blues ever laid to record.   


John Zavesky’s work has appeared in Z Magazine, Counterpunch, Palestine-Chronicle, Dissident Voice, Los Angeles Times, and other publications