A Detour With Taj Mahal

OK, some of this was my fault. I'd been talking to Taj Mahal’s publicist about doing an interview before his Austin show for more than a week. We went back and forth a few times and after a while I didn’t think it was really going to happen. It’s not inside baseball to reveal sometimes you work on a story idea and it never sees the light of day. Then she calls me with a time to talk to him. The downside was that it only allowed me about an hour to prepare for it. So, to be honest, I wasn’t quite ready. Having whipped together some fairly generic questions, I reach Mahal (originally Henry Saint Clair Fredericks) on the phone from the West Coast and he doesn’t like the questions I’m asking. So he hijacks the interview, and the 65-year-old bluesman starts talking, in his gravelly, Wolfman Jack kind of voice, about what he’s interested in, and that's where this picks up.

The Taj Mahal Trio plays an early show at Antone’s – it was moved from the Glenn – tomorrow evening with opener Ruthie Foster.

Taj Mahal: Here’s my dilemma. I don’t hear what you guys talk about me at all. I continue to go down the road, doing the work that I’m doing. I work about 55 to 70 gigs a year in the United States and the rest are around the world with a significant amount in Europe. What I need to know is where you are in terms of where I’m at. Because often times you could hit me at the wrong time and, I’m a senior citizen, I’ll blow your head off. [laughs].

I think the conversation we really should have here is that first of all black music in the United States ... it wasn’t until the rappers came along that there were black men or women who owned their own record companies, pressed their own records, and competed with the bulk of the record companies. That did not happen and when it did you can site the examples: Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Charles Mingus. There were labels like Fire, Black Swan, this guy from New York Bobby Robinson. There were no black-owned companies making the equipment, manufacturing the actual equipment. So, in essence, what happened was you had a culture that was developing itself out of slavery, out its past. Every single development that has been recorded was not for the benefit of the masses that were doing the recording, the talent, but for some posterity somewhere, for who was listening, what was commercial. Then people started imitating that success.

Geezerville: I pulled out the Muddy Waters Folk Singer record the other day. The liner notes talk about why it has that title. In 1963, when it was recorded, Chess Records wanted to take advantage of the folk music craze with people like Peter, Paul & Mary and the Kingston Trio at the top of the charts.

TM: It’s interesting, how people don’t really understand how the music, what we have as the blues today, took 30 years to happen. People are saying that rap is starting to lose its edge. There’s a line drawn in the sand between white people and people of color in the United States. People need to wake up and say, 'We need to get over this.’ None of that is going to help anybody in the next change that’s going to happen. There are foolish little things that are holding it back. My point of view is not trying to get on the nine o’clock news or Good Morning America. I have an ancestral past that has been broken in to, destroyed, stomped into the dust. What I was able to do through the music is find some correct lines so my daily living comes from a deep human and positive relationship with people. That’s where my music has always stood. You’ve never heard me cry, whine, piss, or moan ever in my music.

G: To many you’re viewed as a musicologist, simply because of the range you cover. Yes, they consider you a blues artist, but if they sit down and actually listen to your music, you take a lot of different references and make it into your own sound.

TM: What I would love is to take the current crop of young black bluesmen, and certain non-blues players, like Ry Cooder or Levon Helm, someone you can get some real energy from like a David Bromberg, and sit down and a talk about these things. Because what is blues? Chicago blues is what is considered the blues these days because that’s the most commercial blues there ever was. Not because there isn’t anything else, not because there wasn’t a Skip James, but that’s what they know. But what I was saying is that the blues is only a part of the black experience. It’s not the only thing.

For me it comes down to the music; the music plays you. It’s OK if you put on a pair of horse blinders and say, ‘I only want to play like Albert King.’ I’m not mad at you. That’s your business. But for you to come out to the rest of the world and tell us that the only thing that’s worth being blues is guys who say [puts on an English accent], 'Well Taj Mahal is not a proper bluesman.' I say, ‘Not a proper bluesman my ass.’ You got a bunch of cricket-playing tea drinkers talking about I’m not a proper bluesman? You’re more proper than me? Why can’t people just get to the point that it’s music and we love it because it feels good?

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