Taj Mahal Brief Homage
Blues Great Taj Mahal
By Carl Weinschenk
What I Learned in College about Taj Mahal.
Many years ago, when I was a college student in upstate New York, I heard “Little Red Hen Blues,” which was written and recorded by Taj Mahal. It still is one of my favorite songs. The first two versus imprinted themselves on my brain:
“Well, li’l red hen said to the lil’l red rooster
You don’t come round here much as you used too
Now, honey you long gone
Just like a turkey through the corn
Old grey mule said to that old grey hen
Honey, now tell me where that rooster of yours has been
She said, he’s long gone
Baby, like a turkey through the corn“
In those days – and those days were quite some time ago – the way to hear music you didn’t own was to go to the library, borrow the record and play it on little record players in a room separated from the kids who actually were studying and now are lawyers and doctors. I stopped by the library several times just to hear that song. I hope in retrospect that I did some studying as long as I was there. But the odds are against it.
It was like the song already was in my mind and Mahal was just reminding me. I knew then that I would be a fan for the rest of my life. I was right.
The song is on the 1973 album Oooh So Good ‘n Blues with backup singing by The Pointer Sisters. A live version, again with The Pointer Sisters, is on the 1998 compilation In Progress & In Motion: 1965-1998.
Getting Back to Basics
Taj Mahal’s real name is Henry Saint Claire Fredericks Jr. I understand the commercial reasons for using a shorter pseudonym and like the fact that the one he chose paid homage to Mahatma Gandhi. Despite all that, Mahal’s real name is regal and fits him better. The Taj Mahal is beautiful but it is, after all, just a building.
But Taj Mahal it is. My favorite music of his can be described, albeit a bit awkwardly, as naturalistic. Besides the innuendo, “Little Red Hen” is a conversation between farmyard animals. The best known Mahal song, “Fishing Blues,” is a simple tale completely appropriate for kids. Much of his music is.
In 1969, Mahal released what in my opinion is one of the great albums of the modern era. It’s a double album with two names (which I have not seen since): De Ole Folks at Home is acoustic and Giant Steps is electric. Many folks reading this appreciation no doubt own it.
The electric record is great. A highlight is “Six Days on the Road” (written by Carl Montgomery and Earl Green), the tale of the pill-popping trucker in a rush to get home to his girl. The title song is a cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin‘s “Giant Steps.” I just found out that it initially was released as the B-side of The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” which is fascinating.
There is a lot of music on the two discs. One of the minor songs on the acoustic side is perhaps the most telling of them all. “A Soulful Tune” is nothing more than Mahal slapping a rhythm (probably on his thigh) while alternately singing and humming the melody. At the end, he briefly describes that this was a game he and other kids played around the kitchen table when his mom wasn’t looking. It really doesn’t get any more basic than that.
Humanity and Humor
Mahal, of course, is not alone in breaking music down to its essentials. What is special (though also not unique) is that over his long career he fit his music into the great mosaic of world music. While others have done that, Mahal’s Wikipedia profile (which is well worth reading) suggests that he is the earliest musician who worked methodically to meld what we call roots music with that of different cultures. The starting point of his parents’ kitchen table makes his path special.
A related element of Mahal’s music is the palpable sense of humanity. His voice, intonations, choices of songs to cover and lyrics he writes all speak of a guy who “gets it,” a mensch who sees himself as a channel linking the listener to the lifetimes from which that music came. It’s an odd a thing that is so obvious when you hear it is so difficult to describe.
And, finally, there is the good humor. Mahal is a funny man. There is a video on YouTube of Mahal introducing “Fishing Blues.” He mimics Bob Dylan complaining that he could never remember the name of the man who originally recorded the song, Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas. He does it in a good natured but nasal and whiney voice, making the deity sound for a moment like a “Seinfeld” character. The whole thing takes about five seconds and is very funny.
The bottom line is that Henry Saint Claire Fredericks Jr. is a national treasure. It’s one thing that I learned in college.
Carl Weinschenk is a freelancer in the New York City area who writes about telecommunications, information technology and music. He publishes The Daily Music Break, HiFi & Vinyl Now and runs The Internet Music Mapping Project, a constantly growing listing of music-related websites.
Taj Mahal Brief Homage
Taj Mahal Brief Homage