I’ve been listening to Ry Cooder’s album Chavez Ravine for about half a year now. It’s an amazing album — an impressionistic, lively, even danceable historical tour through the Chavez Ravine neighborhood of Los Angeles — a predominantly Mexican neighborhood that was bulldozed in the 1950s to make room for Dodger Stadium. If you only know Cooder through his work producing The Buena Vista Social Club, this album is a revalation — it spans everything from UFOs to hepcats to the McCarthy hearings, and Cooder does a great job bringing the various characters and issues to life through his music.
Listening to it this morning, I just made a connection: on one track, there’s the voice of a man speaking about how he got taken down by the anticommunists in the 1950s. Turns out this man is Frank Wilkinson, an early advocate for affordable housing, who died earlier this month. There’s a nice Wikinson obituary on NPR. After Wilkinson refused to state whether he’d been a member of the communist party, he was suspended from his job. Wilkinson took his fight to the Supreme Court and spent the rest of his life being an ardent champion of free speech. Amazing to realize that it’s actually his voice there in the tune “Don’t Call Me Red.”
More Cooder trivia: Ry Cooder once played banjo for Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys.
Here’s a good review of Chavez Ravine:
Real Roots Music / ‘The Buena Vista guy’ Ry Cooder goes home to re-create a lost moment in time
[Cooder’s] answer is this complex series of mood pieces, story songs and magical-realist vignettes — cool cats on the make, a Chinese laundryman doing business in a Mexican neighborhood, young Latino boxers aspiring to greatness at the Olympic auditorium, sailors hired to beat up pachucos, maniacal developers planning to seize desirable real estate, anticommunist politicians persecuting utopian civil servants, troubadours waxing nostalgic about the old barrios, a “space vato” in a UFO observing it all and the land itself offering a final prayer in the form of a Central American “Cloud Forest Poem.