In a way it's not surprising, though categorically unfair, that Taj Mahal often gets snubbed by blues purists. As far back as his self-titled first album, Mahal's records were an amalgam of musical styles only partially rooted in the blues -- modal and roots music were his clearest influence -- and in any case, Mahal was never interested in being a purist of any kind. Columbia/Legacy's new CD releases of three late-'60s/early-'70s Mahal LPs -- Taj Mahal, The Natch'l Blues and The Real Thing -- along with a revamped best-of collection, give a provocative if incomplete picture of a composer whose records begged, borrowed and stole (in the best sense) from the entire history of African-American music.
Born Henry St. Clair Fredericks in 1942 to a gospel-singing school teacher and a West Indian jazz musician, Mahal's upbringing in the Northeastern U.S. wouldn't seem to have suited a life collecting and preserving such a vast musical tradition. It was during his schooling at the University of Massachusetts in the early 1960s, however, that he first found contemporary blues, in the form of T-Bone Walker. Mahal heard Walker's sound not just as an African-American form, but as a direct lineal descendant of African musical traditions; after undertaking a Herculean self-education on instruments ranging from piano to tin flute and all manner of strings, he began playing the college folk circuit, performing both contemporary and comparatively ancient songs he'd dug up in his research.
Upon graduating from UMass with a B.A. in Agriculture, Mahal went west to L.A., where he met up with a young Ry Cooder and formed a short-lived outfit called the Rising Sons. The Sons, which also included Kevin Kelley (later of the Byrds), released only one single before dissolving; but by they time they did, they'd recorded enough material for an entire album (these recordings were eventually released on Columbia in 1992 as The Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder).
In mid-1968, the Rising Sons having disbanded, Mahal released his self-titled debut, the first of two essential recordings in Columbia's new four-disc release. Despite his erudite knowledge of African-American music -- or perhaps because of it -- Mahal's first album seemed the work of a performer who was a better student of the blues than its interpreter. His repertoire, that is, was far more diverse than his own electric arrangements of standards like Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom" and Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues." Though it was generally well-received, the album was regarded by many aficionados as slick and commercial, a derrière-garde pandering to white rock audiences who had already bypassed blues and roots-folk for psychedelia.
At the time, Mahal's harp playing and occasional slide guitar work recalled the Stones' "Parachute Woman" more directly than Robert Johnson's "Little Queen of Spades" (three decades on, to give an idea of how far we've come, Taj Mahal sounds no more commercial than, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan's Couldn't Stand the Weather). Cooder, credited here as "Ryland," provided solid, reliable rhythm guitar, while Jesse Ed Davis played manic lead.
In December of that same year, however, Mahal released The Natch'l Blues (the second and perhaps most essential disc here), which featured a greater number of his own compositions -- four to the previous album's one -- and the song which redeemed him in the eyes of many blues fans, "Corinna," later to become the number he was most associated with, and a staple in his performances.
The Natch'l Blues was the fulfillment of a promise that the first album had hinted at. Mahal drew from country blues and rural musical traditions more deeply than before, delivering assured renditions of "The Cuckoo" and "You Don't Miss Your Water," which had been released scarcely four months earlier on the Byrds' country-rock masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
But he also displayed a solid familiarity with Chicago electric blues on "She Caught the Katy" and "Good Morning Miss Brown," the kickoff number that served as a segue from his first album to this one. In short, his second effort was an expansion of the first; The Natch'l Blues was a statement of an artistic agenda. Not content to mime or reproduce the blues note for note, Taj Mahal announced his intention to leave the path entirely, and then to return, bringing what he'd found.
By the time he released the live double LP The Real Thing, Taj Mahal had been there and back several times over. As he said in the liner notes for his first album, "I could play this tune just exactly like Robert Johnson, but what would be the point of that? This is 1968, not 1926."
Presenting a February 13, 1971, concert at New York's Fillmore East, The Real Thing showcases the erstwhile "bluesman" playing with a nine-piece band, moving deftly through a set that demonstrated his familiarity with the talking blues, slide guitar, lengthy jazzworthy jams, African drumming, post-Civil War gospel and even arrangements for a four-piece tuba combo.
From solo acoustic performances to full-band instrumentals and a dizzying 18-minute closing number called "You Ain't No Street Walker Mama, Honey But I Do Love the Way You Strut Your Stuff," The Real Thing was no mere blues album; it carried the entire history of African-American music spilling out of both hands, in a joyful mess. If that mess was sometimes diffuse, as many critics complained of the longer jams, his sheer happiness at being able to build a solid evening's set out of 300 years of musical history was (and remains) an infectious thing to hear. Mahal, clad in a bright dashiki and sounding every bit the renaissance man as he moved from banjo to National steel guitar to six-hole fife, was clearly a one-man musical storehouse.
It's a flat crime that these albums have been unavailable on CD in the States for so long, and this set of reissues is long overdue. Heavy on fulsome essays by Keb' Mo' and Stanley Crouch (the new and old generations of black roots music -- the critical context Columbia's shooting for is impossible to miss here), but light on unreleased tracks (none at all on Taj Mahal, and a scant five songs spread thinly over the remaining three discs), these releases are more a preservation initiative than a rarities-laden repackaging, which is no complaint -- the records themselves have been hard enough to come by for more than three decades.
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Even so, the label's rolling the dice with these releases. Mahal's curious blend of musical styles is no less challenging to purists today than it was in 1968, which is probably why the fourth entry in the series is a rather misleading blues-heavy collection that ends at 1974 (with the exception of the sole bonus track, recorded this year). Though it's pricier, the three-disc anthology In Progress & In Motion 1968-1998, also on Columbia, is a fuller overview of Mahal's entire body of work. Or, if you want a concise mid-price introduction to Mahal's preservation project, pick up 1969's Giant Step/De Ole Folks At Home, an album in dire need of reissue (though, to be fair, already available on CD) which should have been a higher priority than the best-of collection.
Giant Step, a double album set with one disc devoted to electric Delta blues and the other to its backwoods acoustic progenitors, explains better than a thousand-word essay or a single-disc compilation why Taj Mahal is such a valuable figure in contemporary African-American music.
Mahal is not only a musician but a musicologist, a lifelong student whose steadfast research and preservation of an entire people's history in song makes him more than a bluesman; he should have been elevated to the status of griot long before now.