February 2, 2018
As the house lights go down in the McGlohon Theatre, Taj Mahal ambles his way from the back of the stage and sits in the center of a circle of stringed instruments, as the crowd rises to their feet. “My momma’s from South Cacky-lacky!” he hollers into the microphone, throwing gas on the fire. Then he picks up his ukulele and plays the slap-happy “San Francisco Bay Blues.”
I’d imagined Taj with a big band of hand-picked session musicians. When I interviewed him the day before and asked him what we could expect to hear at the show, he wouldn’t reveal a thing. “I never really have a list. I just see how it feels.”
Tonight will be a solo set built around his many facets as a multi-instrumentalist and storyteller. On the phone, he tells me how the ukulele is the most recent instrument he’s learned how to play. He tells me about the renaissance happening around it, how it came from to this hemisphere from Portugal. You could call him a lifelong ethnomusicologist, but he simply refers to it as “a study, a personal interest, a passion of mine that I’ve invested a lot of energy in.” For him, the study of folk music and songwriting are part of the same process. “I’m always listening. My whole thing comes from listening and then I get an idea.”
As I knew would be the case, the audience is overwhelmingly older and white. It’s a fact that Taj notes publicly and ironically. What’s more, the venues he often finds himself in are places like the McGlohon, where everyone is seated. When you’re playing music from the African diaspora and no one’s dancing, it “kind of sucks the air out of the room,” as he has lamented to other interviewers.
But it’s a lively night nonetheless. Drunk old white guys are shouting out requests. There’s a woman next to me insinuating that she’s Taj’s long-lost paramour. She’s turnt all the way up and she’s ready to go to church. Whatever’s lost in the absence of a band is made up for by incredible rapport with the crowd; they adore him and he feeds off their energy. Between songs he’s an incorrigible raconteur, telling stories from his life that blend seamlessly into lessons on American music. He’s wearing his signature hat and Hawaiian shirt, with a trim white beard that frames a big, mischievous smile. He’s stockier than he used to be and remains seated for the length of the show. “He’s gotten older,” the woman observes with a note of surprise. Sitting down, he’s still the effervescent performer, face miming out every lyric, fingers never playing the riff the same way twice, his gravelly voice crooning.
When I asked Taj what was the greatest challenge in his career, he harkens back to his arrival on the blues scene in the 1960s. Post-Great Migration, an urbanized Black America was not nostalgic for the rural past, and the market gravitated toward soul and R&B. Mass white audiences heard the blues through the lens of British Invasion bands and didn’t step too far outside. Early on, Taj formed a band in L.A. with Ry Cooder and several others, called the Rising Sons. America wasn’t deemed ready for a multi-racial band, and they were dropped by Columbia shortly after being signed.
In a kind of compensation, Taj has had a long, rich solo career and that’s allowed him to collaborate with everyone under the sun. I asked him what was the secret to being a good collaborator. Long pause. “Keep your mouth shut and play what you know.” Then he says, “And play with people that are better than you.”
Mississippi John Hurt
After the opening number, Taj puts down the ukulele, picks up his metal guitar and plays “My Creole Bell” by Mississippi John Hurt. A farm laborer for most of his life, Hurt privately cultivated his craft for a half-century before stumbling upon fame during the folk revival of the ‘60s. He was an anomaly in many ways. His melodic Piedmont Blues resembled more ragtime in structure than the hard-driving Delta blues. His soft-spoken, worn vocals were full of irony, humor, pathos. Taj has described him as “a Buddha or a Yoda.” I asked him about Hurt’s influence. “I wanted to learn to play that old finger-picking style,” he tells me; up until that point, it was mostly “Jimmy Reed-type stuff.” The window of their brief overlap wasn’t long enough to ever collaborate. “Most of the time when I was around and he was around, I wasn’t quite up to par to be able to sit down and play with him.” As Taj picks the last notes of “My Creole Bell,” the woman next to me is crying.
He picks the tempo back up with some of his distinctively feel-good originals like “Fishin’ Blues” and “Cakewalk Into Town.” His set features beloved ballads like “Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes” and “Queen Bee.” On the phone with me, he describes how blues became overly associated despair by individuals trying to monetize it. “There’s more to it than just the sad emotions,” he says. “I think perhaps because half my family’s from the Caribbean, that might have more to do with it than anything else. You hardly hear mournful Caribbean songs.”
Fans of North Carolina regional music weren’t disappointed. With his banjo in hand Taj launches into something rapturous from Appalachia. After it builds and swells for a while, he shouts: “Y’all can let loose if you want!” and the room erupts into yells, stomps, claps.
The day before, he had told me: “I like the pickers from over here because they’re influenced by West African,—kora and n’goni music,” At the show he vividly recalls the first person to ever teach him to play guitar: a neighborhood kid who’d relocated from outside Durham. He pays tribute to Piedmont guitar-pickers Etta Baker, from Morganton, and Elizabeth Cotton, from Carrboro. Like the archetype of John Hurt, as if it’s a prerequisite for the style of music they all play, both women played privately for most of their life before finding an audience in old age. Taj plays Cotton’s haunting “Freight Train” and, in a nod to Baker, the rousing outlaw ballad “Railroad Bill.” In a feat of narration, he recounts the violent demise of Bill complete with an impression of the dead folk hero’s face. He plays the intro to the song three different ways: “how most people play it, how it’s supposed to be played, and how we all start off playing it” before playing the song in it’s devastating entirety.
Just when you’re convinced that Taj doesn’t miss a thing, the night starts to catch up to him. After precariously making his way through the “spaghetti” of cables to the keyboard, he has to fiddle with it for several minutes, trying to find “this nice syruppy sound I had this afternoon.” He never finds it, but in the end he keeps us laughing with self-deprecating grandpa jokes. He sighs, says Okay, begins, the crowd laughs and it’s totally fine.
Taj Mahal is playing a Caribbean song when his voice starts to go hoarse. He moves to wrap up the set with the crowd favorite “Gonna Move Up to the Country (Paint My Mailbox Blue).” There’s a long applause but no one pushes for an encore. I think most of us would run out of gas after an hour-long set, and he’s 75. It reminds me of something he said: “We earn our money the old fashioned way. We work for it.”
Learn more about the legendary musician Taj Mahal from his official site.