TAJ MAHAL: A BLUESMAN
Shaun J. Nigro
English 12 H Period 5
20 May 2008
In the liner notes for Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Taj Mahal, David Ritz calls Taj Mahal “a bluesman.” Only blues extremists could disagree with this statement considering the impact Taj Mahal has had on the blues genre and the musical world in general is too wide not to acknowledge. According to his official website, Taj Mahal’s presence in the blues genre has been felt consistently since 1968, when he released his first solo album. Since then, he has remained prominent in the blues world and to this day he continues to record and perform on a regular basis, playing as many as 200 dates a year. He has released more than forty albums and worked with countless musicians including Dr. John, Bob Marley, B.B. King, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, John Oates, Carly Simon, The Rolling Stones, Jack Johnson, James Brown, Sheryl Crow, and Eric Clapton. (tajblues.com)
Though he is labeled a “bluesman,” much of his music traverses wider territory including Caribbean, Hawaiian, reggae, jazz, gospel, Zydeco, Latin, and much more. He asserts that, on his part, the expansion of knowledge into these diverse styles and genres is a key in helping him to discover more about his own ethnicity which, as most of these styles are derived, is of African descent. (All Music Guide)
Taj Mahal, born May 17, 1942 and named Henry St. Clair Fredericks, was born in New York City, though he moved with his parents roughly six months later to Springfield, MA where he spent most of his childhood. (Henderson 39: 147) As one might expect, music ran in the family. His father, whom he looked up to very much, was a Jazz pianist/composer/arranger, and was often called “the Genius” by friends. He wrote compositions for musicians like Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald. Mahal’s mother sang gospel, and his youngest sister, Carole Fredericks, became a successful session singer and background vocalist in France, singing back up for such names as Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Duran Duran. She was also a part of the Fredericks Goldman Jones trio, which recorded five albums and toured extensively in their 10-year lifespan, from 1990 to 2000.
Around the age of eleven, Mahal lost his father in a farming accident. “My father’s death has been a painful thing, and still is to an extent. I may have resolved it, but I still have trouble... [his death] made me realize that I had to be doing the work that I needed to be doing. It made me more serious about doing my stuff, not being frivolous.” (Taj Mahal) After his mother remarried, Mahal stumbled upon an old guitar of his stepfather’s and began teaching himself to play, also taking lessons from a new neighbor, of the Mississippi Delta Blues scene. His influences ranged from Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley to jazz players like Illinois Jacquet and Ben Webster. Before his father’s death, he had also listened to many other musicians on his father’s short-wave radio, including Howlin’ Wolf, Leadbelly, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, and Big Mama Thornton.
Mahal attended college in the early 60’s at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and studied animal husbandry and agriculture. While at Amherst, he formed a band called Taj Mahal & the Elektras, taking his new name as an inspiration from a dream. They played many gigs at local clubs, gaining some level of notoriety in the college music scene. Upon graduating in 1964, he made his way to Los Angeles, CA, where he formed the Rising Sons, a group that recorded one album with one single, called "Candy Man"/"The Devil's Got My Woman." (Thompson)
In 1968 Mahal embarked on a solo career with the release of his self-titled debut. The album, as listed in the 2001 Current Biography Yearbook, “is regarded by many music historians as an essential work of modern blues.” Throughout the rest of 1968 and into 1969, Mahal released two more albums, Natch’l Blues and a two-record set called Giant Step/De Ole Folks At Home. Put together, according to Steve Huey in the All Music Guide, “those three records built Mahal’s reputation as an authentic yet unique modern-day bluesman.” (allmusic.com)
Of course, Taj Mahal was and is and will never be the first “bluesman.” A bluesman as such represents someone so unique and diverse that the term, when applied to he who embodies it, is a reference to someone who is a bluesman all his own. None can be replicated. A bluesman is one in a million.
The blues genre is a world within itself. No other musical force has grasped the heart of what it means to be human and to feel the joy and suffering of everyday life quite like the blues. It blends hardship with serenity, happiness with grief, and oppression with freedom. Though the term “blues” itself implies a depressed state of mind, the music evokes emotion of a color quite the contrary. An excerpt from Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues puts it best, stating “The blues as such are synonymous with low spirits. Blues music is not. With all its so-called blue notes and overtones of sadness, blues music of its very nature and function is nothing if not a form of diversion.” (45)
“The basic aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings of any artistic action as a response to the human condition are never more profound than when a musician is swinging the blues.’” (Murray I) This is evident in the raw sounds of any of all blues musicians. It is evident in the raspy and low moans of Howlin’ Wolf, in the gut-wrenched notes of Muddy Waters. It is especially evident even within the instruments played. An alien (extra-terrestrial) would mistake the vocals for another instrument and, I would bet, find much difficulty in deciphering what noise emulated from another life. That is not to say that the blues voice is lacking in any human emotion...far from it, actually. In fact, the strings plucked and keys hit in songs like “Spoonful” by Howlin’ Wolf or “Corinna” by Taj Mahal could even be mistaken for other voices, as they themselves are manipulated in ways the meditated mind cannot fathom. Everything goes together and comes apart all in the same song.
Many things led to the birth of the blues but actually, the genre is a constantly evolving presence. A “blues timeline,” as shown in Francis Davis’s The History of the Blues: The Roots, The Music, The People, does justice in drawing an outline to narrow a broad history of the genre. It may have begun in 1619 when the first shipload of African slaves sold to the colonies docked in Virginia. It may have begun officially in 1920 when Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds recorded “Crazy Blues,” a song that, according to most experts, is the first blues record. A part of it may even have begun somewhere between 1862 and 1864 after a series of congressional acts facilitated the building of America’s first transcontinental railroad; the term “ride the blinds” was coined in the song “Walking Blues” by Robert Johnson, “about musicians that would secretly ride the freight cars from gig to gig throughout the night. The freight cars were referred to as Blinds.” (http://www.indie911.com/directory/rock/ride-the-blinds) The one consensus that remains true is that the blues arose as an African American style that borrowed traditional African musical qualities and American popular culture and mixed it all with a tinge of revulsion on an oppressed human condition.
Blues songs themselves do not always, and more typically do not usually depict the idea of oppression in every lyric. A lot of the music deals simply with themes present in and around the average person’s day-to-day life, if not every single person. The idea is to “confront it with our determination and dogged persistence, our sense of humor and our dignity, and do it all with elegance.” (Murray I) In fact, these basic elements of the genre, along with certain instrumental technicalities that will be discussed shortly, are so gripping to the core of what it means to be human that they have been borrowed and influenced many musicians outside of the genre, and other genres as well, not the least of which: rock n’ roll.
A perfect example of a blues-tinged rock band is the J. Geils Band. Songs like “Love-Itis” and “Must’ve Got Lost” display flawlessly the idea of what it means to be heartbroken and to long for something virtually unobtainable, while playing and singing songs that at the same time give the body a sense of completeness. A lyric like,
baby, baby, baby don’t leave me/oh don’t leave me/all by myself/I got no security, feelin inside me, deep inside me/oh and it hurts so bad/baby, baby where did our love go?/you don’t want me, want me no more (“Where Did Our Love Go” J. Geils Band)
is reminiscent of traditional blues numbers like,
blues with a feeling, oh baby that’s what I had today/I have got to find my baby, honey if it take me all night and day/ain’t it hard to love somebody/when they don’t love you/leave you sad and lonely/broken heart and blue (“Blues With a Feeling” Little Walter, later covered by Taj Mahal)
Since the blues began within the African American community, though the audience today has grown to include a significant number of white listeners, it is only natural that the musical customs of the genre have been borrowed in some part from African music as well. Shown in William Barlow’s “Looking Up At Down”: The Emergence of Blues Culture, one such custom “with roots in African music was the melodic tendency to express rising emotions with falling pitch; it was accomplished by bending or flattening certain notes of the diatonic scale, using one’s voice or a musical instrument.” (Barlow 4) These “flattened” notes are known as “blue notes.”
Another borrowed custom was a variety of vocal techniques. Such techniques included course gutteral tones and slurs, falsetto and melisma. This was all done to “color the melodic line and give it identity and expressiveness.” (Barlow 4)
Along with heartbreak and loss, blues lyrics also sometimes were “cautionary folktalkes designed to uphold traditional values and foster group cohesion; they were commonsense lessons on how to survive in America as have-nots.” (Barlow 4)
Though, as was said, most experts believe the first blues record to have been “Crazy Blues,” in a technical sense “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” published in 1911, reflects in its opening verse the standard twelve-bar rhythm and thus can be considered the first time the blues was actually present in recording. However, like punk, and like many other genres, it is nearly impossible to tell the exact date the blues began since it is, again like other genres, an evolution of something before it.
As a blues musician, Taj Mahal has managed to break outside of the genre while remaining true to his blues roots. Because of this, he has shown time and time again the connection between genres all over the world and the bond between, specifically, Caribbean and blues music.
Of course, Caribbean music is still another genre altogether. The styles that have come about in the Caribbean musical world are vast and, like the blues, a huge part of the culture where they originated. There are many cultures, most of which have been brought in originally as slaves. One part of Caribbean culture began in Africa.
Perhaps it is most important to talk about African musical culture specifically, veering slightly from anything that has come about as a result. In Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae, Peter Manuel writes that the first thing that is immediately noticeable in African music is an “emphasis on rhythm,” called polyrhythm. This is the layering of multiple rhythms into one beat, creating a strong flowing rhythm. For one person to do this, it is extremely difficult once more and more rhythms have been added. An example would be a person tapping their foot to a simple pattern, similar to a metronome. Then, the other foot chimes in with a completely different rhythmical pattern, but to the same tempo. Gradually, more and more patterns are added. This “polyrhythm” is almost an innate skill in the African culture since music is a tradition that is bred into a baby and carries on throughout their lives. (Manuel 6)
Other African musical tendencies range from call and response methods to cellular structure. The biggest quality is collective participation. This is the constant involvement of an entire community so that music is practically second nature to the people, as opposed to singling out members of the society to play or perform certain aspects. (Manuel 6)
“Some of the vitality of Caribbean music seems to derive from its importance within Caribbean society and the sheer amount of attention and creative energy it commands...Music, in a word, is the most visible, popular, and dynamic aspect of Caribbean expressive culture.” (Manuel 7) This statement proves the most important and immediate connection between Caribbean music and part of where it evolved from in Africa. Music is life in the Caribbean, and so too is blues music for the many lives it has touched and has yet to touch.
Taj Mahal’s rendition of “Queen Bee” is a soft reminder of the connections between traditional blues and Caribbean sounds. It shines with gentle instrumentals and a soulful voice that, while not completely blues and certainly not entirely Caribbean, reminds a listener of the peaceful words of reggae king Bob Marley or simply of a good-natured bluesman like Taj Mahal himself. “Corinna” is another simple song that gathers a down-to-earth feel while maintaining the heart and soul of the blues.
At the same time as Mahal’s many musical endeavors outside of the blues genre, he has consistently put out traditional blues albums. Perhaps his most well known original can be considered “She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride).” This song, which was featured in the original Blues Brothers movie, is as blues as blues can get. The title of the track alone brings a reminder of another common trait in blues songs: colorful metaphors. Songs like “Dust My Broom,” “Leaving Trunk,” and “Smokestack Lightnin’” are clear examples of this. The metaphors are also often sexual puns. This is another common trait that, regardless of where it came from, has crossed into many other genres, like rock n’ roll. The term “rock n’ roll” itself is a reference to sex. But these metaphors are often overlooked by the white crowd that took the music in as its own, such was the case with Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” which when observed closer, is obviously a song about the loss of virginity: “I found my thrill/ on Blueberry Hill/on Blueberry Hill/when I found you/the moon stood still/on Blueberry Hill/and lingered until/my dream came true...” Looking on it now, it is hilarious to find that such descriptive pieces passed by the heads of a conservative white America, but thank God or else music would not affect so many lives as it does today.
There are too many songs to list completely in regards to the impact Taj Mahal has had on the world of music, and blues in particular. One could talk at length of his many albums grounded in traditional blues, and further most certainly of his leap into the realm of Caribbean music and culture. Even his children’s albums, most notably Shake Sugaree, which was his first in the line of countless others, have served as an important mark in the timeline of a true bluesman. Which decade or style proved best for Taj Mahal is also up for debate. Some could argue it was very early on, when he began solely as a blues artist. Some could argue it was in a good part of the seventies when he released roughly 11 albums including two soundtracks for the movies Sounder and The Brothers in which he had his first acting role. Taj Mahal has won two Grammy’s, done countless blues albums and blended many other genres, worked with too many musicians to list entirely, produced soundtracks including the composition for the Broadway Mule’s Bone, and since 1968 he has not stopped doing what he can do best. Perhaps that is because what he does best is what he is naturally. He is a bluesman. Taj Mahal is a bluesman.
Barlow, William. “Looking Up At Down”: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
Another book on the history of the blues.
Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues: The Roots, The Music, The People. 1995. United States: Da Capo Press, 2003.
…exactly what the title implies.
Henderson, Ashyia N. Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 39.
Lists detailed biographies of influential African American figures.
Huey, Steve. http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:3ifrxq95ldae~T1
Manuel, Peter. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
A comprehensive detailing in the history of the Caribbean culture and music.
Merrill, Hugh. The Blues Route. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1990.
From the perspective of a writer on the road “searching for the blues.”
Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. 1976. United States: Da Capo Press, 2000.
Maybe the most influential book on the blues. Widely acclaimed.
Santelli, Robert. “Mahal, Taj.” The Big Book of Blues. 2001 ed.
A biographical encyclopedia of blues artists.
Thompson, Clifford. Current Biography Yearbook. 2001. New York and Dublin: The H.W. Wilson Company.
Basically a biographical encyclopedia.
http://tajblues.com/ Cheraw S.C., Inc. 2007-2008
Charters, Samuel. The Blues Makers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991.
A history of the blues and the artists who served as catalysts in the genres of growth.
Hebdige, Dick. Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music.
Another detailing in the history of the Caribbeans.
King, Stephen A. Reggae, Rastafari, And the Rhetoric of Social Control. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
About the history of and influence of the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica and reggae music.
Selvin, Joel. “Taj Mahal cools his heels in Berkeley again, blending thirst for world’s music and its link to the land.” San Francisco Chronicle Monday, November 27, 2006: C-1.
An article about Taj Mahal and his concert in Berkeley.
Unterberger, Richie. Turn! Turn! Turn!. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2002.
A history of the folk/rock explosion in the ‘60s. Mentions Taj Mahal and his early group, the Rising Sons.