'San Patricio' reminds listeners of the awesome power of music

My father, may he rest in peace, was an industrial-strength Irishman. I don't know if he ever kissed the Blarney Stone, but he definitely had the gift of gab. He was a smooth talker, a teller of tales, and passionate about many things, including his strong union ties and his homeland. (How he spawned such a shrinking violet as I is beyond me.)

Unfortunately, for much of my formative years, he was in and out of the Veterans Administration Hospital with an assortment of World War II-related injuries. But when he was home, he would regale us with stories of honor and bravery from the Old Country. (Also beyond me is how he stayed married to an industrial-strength Italian woman for 41 years until his death.)

Much of what he told me was sketchy. He swore he could tell the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant just by the way they walked down the street. And he wasn't talking about Martin Luther King Jr. and Sophia Loren; he meant two citizens of Belfast, Northern Ireland. He swore that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were cooperating with Britain's MI6 to identify and surveil Irish Republican Army sympathizers (such as himself) in the United States. OK, maybe that's not so sketchy. And he believed that the Catholic Church (which does not condone suicide) had given secret dispensation to the IRA guys who starved themselves to death in hunger strikes in British prisons.

(I was writing for the Arizona Daily Wildcat at the time, and I suggested that the UA cafeteria be renamed "The Bobby Sands Memorial Cafeteria—All You Can Eat." My dad didn't see the humor.)

However, when my dad would talk about history, he was dead-on. When I went to Cochise College in Douglas on a basketball scholarship, he said I should go into Bisbee and visit the place where the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) were rounded up by mining-company goons and shipped out of town on railroad cars. He knew the story of Michael Collins and the treacherous Éamon de Valera long before the movie came out. And he always spoke glowingly about the Saint Patrick's Battalion, a group of mostly Irish (and some German and French) immigrants who had been conscripted into the U.S. Army (in which they were horribly mistreated, mostly for being Catholic) and were then immediately sent to fight in the Mexican War.

Realizing that they were fighting for Protestants against other Catholics in a land-grab war that eerily echoed the British oppression they had fled in Ireland, the members of the Saint Patrick's Battalion deserted the U.S. Army, many swimming the "wrong way" across the Rio Grande into Mexico. (Margaret Regan wrote a great cover story about this group in the March 17, 2005 issue. Check it out.)

Anyway, guitarist Ry Cooder has teamed up with Irish folk legends The Chieftains to pay a musical tribute to the Saint Patrick's Battalion in the stunning San Patricio. It is a heady mix of Mexican and Irish music, and so much more.

Nine times out of 10, when I get in the car, I put in Marvin Gaye, Prince or Earth, Wind and Fire. But maybe three or four times a year, I'll put in Cooder's Chávez Ravine and listen to it all the way through. Chavez Ravine tells the true story of how unscrupulous Los Angeles powerbrokers, in a story right out of Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, had an entire barrio condemned and razed to make room for a Major League Baseball stadium. There's an achingly poignant song with the guest singer pointing out where his grandma used to live, but now it's "third base, Dodger Stadium."

Chavez Ravine is a work of art, and San Patricio is right on its heels. The Chieftains are great musicians, and Paddy Moloney's tin whistle adds a haunting authenticity to the album. Guest artists include Linda Ronstadt, singing "A la Orilla de un Palmar." Ninety-year-old (yes, 90!) ranchera legend Chavela Vargas sings "Luz de Luna," and Los Tigres del Norte appear on "Canción Mixteca." There is even a spoken cut, delivered by Liam Neeson, on which he details some of the history of the battalion.

This is an eclectic work, but one that reminds us of the power of music—and that there are people who want to make music for reasons other than smoking dope or getting chicks.

Now, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Three Los Angeles school teachers were suspended and may be fired after elementary-school kids held posters of three black men during a parade honoring Black History Month. Some parents were outraged, and charges of racism flew.

The posters were of O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul. Now, I certainly understand the O.J. outrage, but what's wrong with the other two? Dennis Rodman played basketball hard! Former UA star Steve Kerr calls Rodman one of his favorite teammates ever. And what did RuPaul ever do but show up in pink hot pants in the "Love Shack" video?

It's probably never a good idea to tell black people to lighten up, lest they become Sammy Sosa. But, gee whiz, people. RuPaul?!