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Stars Reunite for Tribute Album to Legends

Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder reunite to pay tribute to Blues legends Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

One of the most distinctive pair in roots music has reunited after more than half a century, to produce a new album featuring the work of another great blues twosome they first heard as teenagers.

Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal have released Get On Board: The songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. As per the title, it features 11 songs drawn from recordings by southern blues legends Terry and McGhee.

Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal go way back, both as friends and musical collaborators. They first teamed up in 1965 in a band called The Rising Sons when Cooder was just 17. Even though the band lasted only a year, it did record an album for Columbia records which was not released officially until 1992. The pair reunited briefly in 1968 when Ry played on Taj’s self-titled debut album.

Now after 54 years – and each having established astonishing solo careers – they are back together for the first time to honour harmonica player Sonny Terry and guitarist Brownie McGhee, who were famous for playing what became known as Piedmont blues music in a partnership which lasted 45 years.

As part of a concentrated album-launch by Nonesuch records, there is a 12-minute video – The Making of ‘Get on Board’ – featuring Ry and Taj recalling to journalist Lynell George when they were first introduced to Terry and McGhee.

Cooder remembers how, as a Californian teenager, their music transported him away from Santa Monica. “I have got to get out of here, was all I could think. What do you do fourteen, eighteen years old? I was trapped. But that first record, Get On Board, on Folkways, was so wonderful, I could understand the guitar playing.”

Mahal first heard the south-eastern bluesmen when he was 19. “I wanted to go to these coffee houses, ‘cause I heard that these old guys were playing. I knew that there was a river out there somewhere that I could get into, and once I got in it, I’d be all right. They brought the whole package for me.”

Mahal added that Terry and McGhee’s music reflected both the music and the culture of the south. He was especially in awe of McGhee as a solid rhythm player. “To really play behind the harp like that. He would set stuff up. He wasn’t making many notes. Sonny had all the notes, running around. But Brownie, he laid it down.”

Cooder added: “This thing of squeezing the thumb and first finger and a little bit of the second finger, which I still do. I’d forgotten where it came from. That’s what Brownie did. I saw him do that and said, ‘ I think I can do that.’ ”

Mahal summarised the project nicely when he told No Depression: “This is the sound of two grown men, impacted by two grown men who inspired us when we were young men.”

He added: “It’s raw, it’s ragged, it’s right, it’s front-porchy, it’s back-porchy. It’s us, playing music and having a great time. Sometimes I was out front, sometimes he was, sometimes we did harmony together. We just enjoyed each other.”

The tribute album features Cooder on vocals, guitar, mandolin and banjo, while Mahal shares vocals and is on harmonica, guitar and piano. Joachim Cooder joins the pair on drums and bass.

While the album is somewhat of a one-take improvisation, the pair do little to deviate from the Southern blues tradition established by Terry and McGhee. “You got the south on steroids, when you got the music of the south, the culture of the south, the beauty of the south, through Brownie and Sonny,” Mahal told George.

“Hooray Hooray” was released as a lead single a month before the album. On this foot-stomping track, Ry takes lead vocal and plays mandolin, while Taj gives his all on harmonica and Joachim, Ry’s son, provides percussion. This raw, distinctive rendition is nicely captured on video - as are most of the tracks - with the trio performing in the homey, fireside setting of Joachim’s living room.

There is also a foot-tapping, mesmerizing version of the traditional folkie “Pick a Bail of Cotton.” The tempo is just like the boys in their day and Taj and Ry stick to the now-somewhat contentious line - Ah me and my wife going to pick a bail of cotton/Me and my wife going to pick a bail a day.

“Who’s going to do “Pick a Bail of Cotton” if we don’t do it. That’s a really good song, “ said Cooder. “Some people might say it’s politically incorrect. I don’t know.”

Mahal quipped: “If it was I wouldn’t have done it with you.” Both laugh.

Cooder and Mahal were in awe of Sonny’s ability as a harmonica player, or “Mississippi saxophone” as Ry dubbed it.

“Sonny is a wizard harmonica player,” said Cooder. “There are some incredible harmonica players who have taken this little-arse thing and been able to do all things with it. Sonny had rhythm for one thing, incredible rhythm.”

He added. “He would be making sounds with his voice, mixing it with the harmonica, so at times you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. He was good at that.”

And, not surprisingly, Taj Mahal is good at that too – beautifully illustrated on the gospel/Delta Blues classic “I Shall Not Be Moved,” where he innovatively stitches the refrain together with blasts from his harmonica. The same applies on “Cornbread, Peas, Black Molasses,” probably the standout track of the project.

In fact, each of the 11 songs bears witness to the creative genius of both Cooder, who is 75, and Mahal, who turns 80 next month. Each has spent a lifetime extending the boundaries of roots music, both as solo artists and in collaboration with a host of other like-minded musicians. This particular venture serves as the pinnacle to all those creative endeavors.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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