Rock & Roll

Blues, In Progress and Motion

Although Taj Mahal is not an artist who shows up on anybody's honor roll of '60s originators, maybe he oughta. That sure was how it looked when he visited Tramps with his young heirs Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart August 28. For decades he'd toiled and frolicked alone in a subgenre he invented himself, one that extended the idea of "blues-based music" to where no one else--with the significant exception of early bandmate Ry Cooder (Rising Sons, mid '60s, album never finished)--could see it belonged. The African diaspora is a commonplace now, but it was a visionary glimmer in pre-reggae 1971, when the former Henry Saint Claire Fredericks started playing up the Caribbean shadings on his putative blues. A few years later, Cooder would commence his career in world trade by hiring Gabby Pahinui and Flaco Jimenez. But Mahal got there first, and with a difference. Where the white guy turned supertourist, thinking locally and acting globally from Hawaii to Havana, his agenda was narrower, and deeper.

First, Mahal took on the mission of making acoustic blues a locus of black pride at a time when they seemed corny, country, backwards, and even Tom to the vast majority of young black musicians and almost all young black listeners. But just as important, he conceived them as a way of comprehending his personal heritage. Part southern, part West Indian, the Fredericks family included several musicians, including a father who did some jazz arranging, and although Taj grew up in the northern city of Springfield and attended U. Mass., he also worked on a farm and got his degree in animal husbandry. So he approached blues as a race man, but also as a West Indian with strong ties to rural life. Although he helped spark the thumb piano fad that culminated in Earth, Wind & Fire's "Kalimba Story," Africa per se was deep background for him--note that beyond "Kalimba," the only non-Caribbean tracks on the 1993 anthology Columbia/Legacy designated World Music have a Louisianan provenance.

With Mahal's Columbia and Warner Bros. catalogues in disrepair, In Progress & Motion (1965-1998),the cross-label three-disc box Sony will release next month is overdue--and the prev. unreleased live tracks I've heard aren't bait or filler, either. But as an argument for Mahal's achievement, it won't supercede the '92 anthology Taj's Blues. Mahal has written him some songs--the high-stepping "Cakewalk Into Town" could be a century old, the ancestor-worshipping "Clara (St. Kitts Woman)" looks back at least that far. But it's as an interpreter-arranger that he shines. Finding a city beat for Sleepy John Estes's "Leaving Trunk," laughing through Henry Thomas's "Fishin' Blues," forever weaving a second-line skank into the good-time music of other black places, Mahal rescues songs he loves from an art-music preserve--from a subtlety that signified sharply in its time but now demands an aesthete's ear and a scholar's attention span. Kneading beauty from his National steel-bodied as he shouted, moaned, drawled, crooned, croaked, growled, and squeegeed classic word-modules through his big voracious voice, his blues were a history lesson--not the kind that enables specialists to ID Kokomo Arnold bottleneck and Bukka White slide, but the kind that demonstrates to anyone the absolute compatibility of bottomland guitar and the water-borne rhythms of a Latin-tinged "schwarze music," as he's called it, that embraces Trinidad pans as congenially as the tuba bass of New Orleans.

Which would be plenty enough to be proud of, you'd think. Yet Mahal's audience has remained as white as Newport '64, and for decades no black musician of consequence followed the trail he'd cut. Maybe Mahal didn't seem angry enough for a race man. Maybe the financial returns were too risky. Hell, maybe the music was still too corny. But in the '90s, Guy Davis, Keb' Mo', Corey Harris, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, all flowing out of the surge in cultural consciousness that ensued as the offspring of the Civil Rights generation came into their own, prove Taj Mahal a prophet. Keb' Mo' is way too eager to please, Davis a mite too eager to protest. Harris and Hart, however, are adepts as natural as Taj Mahal himself. Mahal guests on Hart's first record, and Harris owes the older man's shtick, from his Wolfman buzz to his Howard Johnson-style tuba. Neither will ever command so much talent or appetite, but like Mahal, both expand the music beyond the range of anybody's guitar. At the same time, both work a substantial change on Mahal's concept. After debut CDs presented their country blues bona fides (those Kokomo Arnold-Bukka White details are from the Blues & Rhythmreview of Hart's Big Mama's Door), their sophomore albums explored the dark, politically charged substratum outsiders assume is the essence of blues, a notion Mahal has never cottoned to--his most painful song by far is a reggae, Bob Marley's "Slave Driver."

On Harris's 1997 Fish Ain't Bitin', his songwriting jostled timeworn themes like illness and drifted toward present-day content (Mumia Abu Jamal, catfish farms), invoking a continuum of oppression by its immersion in musical form--always he's on his way somewhere, because always his skin color links him to a racist past that's supposedly as dead as country blues. And featuring two trombones plus that tuba added a jauntiness fatally absent from his Between Midnight and Day. At the time of Fish Ain't Bitin' 's release, this was still art music live--an adept of dynamics and cross-rhythms counterposing fluent guitar figures against sung melody. But at Tramps Harris was wont to lay his National in his lap like a pedal steel and leave most of the fancy stuff to the even more fleet-fingered Jamal Milner. And after Milner retired, he romped out on Blind Blake's "Ditty Wa Ditty," first unearthed by none other than Ry Cooder. Word is his next album will blend in Caribbean flavors. I bet it's decisively playful as well.

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