Tuesday, July 11, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 020: Taj Mahal: Taj Mahal and The Natch'l Blues

Born in Springfield Massachusetts to a Jamaican jazz musician father and a Soluth Carolinian gospel-singing mother, Taj Mahal (born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks: what a great name!) has always understood the interplay between roots music and the land, between one roots music and another, and between roots music and a sane and healthy life. He got a degree at UMass Amherst (Dharmonia's alma mater!) but he cut his teeth in the same Topanga Canyon/LA folk/roots scene that birthed Ry Cooder and David Lindley. All three of these have appeared on each other’s albums and played in each other’s early bands, and they share an ethos: a way of digging into roots music that’s grounded, funky as hell, and authoritative, but without the self-consciousness, persnicketyness, or fussiness of too many revivalists.

Taj and Ry did a band record with The Rising Sons in 1964, an early shout at the blues revival that gave us the Butterfield Blues Band and Canned Heat (the latter a terribly underrated band), but the band broke up before they could reap the benefits. Taj went on to make an eponymous solo disc which was released in 1968 and it’s absolutely fantastic, with a smokin’ band: both Ry and the late great Native American guitarist Jesse Ed Davis lay down fantastic slide licks, the sound is not Chicago-style but rather the “electrified boogie” of Memphis musicians like Sonny Boy Williamson, and the repertoire is both impeccable and enormously influential: Taj’s version of Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues went to the Allman Brothers, his version of Junior Wells’s Checkin’ Up on My Baby was stolen years later by the Blues Brothers, and his The Celebrated Walking Blues is the best version of Robert Johnson’s classic ever recorded by a revivalist.

Couple this disc as an amazon.com “two-fer” with the same year’s The Natch’l Blues and you’ve got the music which has been a cornerstone of Taj’s repertoire ever since. He continued to explore later on (he was the first American artist to cover Bob Marley, he did a whole reggae disc before anyone else, and he’s collaborated with Hawaiian, Malian, and East Indian musicians), but Natch’l Blues is still one of my favorites—and the tunes are obviously favorites of his: She Caught the Katy and Things are Gonna Work Out Fine show up regularly in concerts, Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue has been a vehicle for many extended live workouts, The Cuckoo pulls in the spooky Appalachian drones of Clarence “Tom” Ashley, and, in Corrina, Taj creates a piece of music as deep, said, and profound as anything Blind Willie Johnson ever recorded, leaving every other revivalist in the dust (this version of Corrina is also featured in a heartbreaking scene in Laurence Gonzales’s great ‘70s rock/Vietnam novel Jambeaux).

These records are mistakenly described simply as “electrified country blues,” but they are much deeper, broader, and more complex than that. Taj Mahal, like Ry Cooder (with his fantastic Into the Purple Valley and Boomer’s Story) and David Lindley (with his omni-genre band Kaleidoscope and, later and more successfully, with El Rayo-X), understood that roots music has values: that it serves purposes, builds community, rewards effort, and creates human value. For 40 years, these men have all been building bridges with music.

We owe them.

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