“The past is intangible”: Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, reunited after 56 years | Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder was only 14 when he first saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee perform live. “Just their walk to the stage was incredibly dramatic,” he recalled. The folk-blues duo playing harmonica and guitar were performing at a small club in West Hollywood called Ash Grove. “They came through the audience,” Cooder says, “and Brownie was walking with difficulty, with a built-up shoe, having had polio. And Sonny was clinging to him, because he was blind. When you’re that age , everything you encounter – at least for me, in music – is a tremendous revelation, especially if you come from Santa Monica – a wasteland of nothingness!
Three years later, Cooder would be on the same stage, playing guitar in a blues band, the Rising Sons, which included Taj Mahal, a young singer and multi-instrumentalist who shared his tastes. They recorded an album which was rejected by the record company, but finally appeared in 1992, by which time Cooder and Mahal were big stars. Ry had become a session musician for Neil Young, Captain Beefheart and more, then a versatile guitar hero under his own name, exploring a wide range of American and global styles (he would later travel to Havana to play a crucial role in the success of the Buena Vista Social Club), while Mahal had his own successful solo career. Both became cult heroes for reworking the blues, both worked with the Rolling Stones, both recorded exquisite albums with Malian stars and won eight Grammys between them.
Now, with Cooder aged 75 and Mahal nearly 80, they have recorded their first album together in 56 years – a tribute to Cooder’s early heroes which has the same title, similar cover, but not quite the same track listing, such as an album that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee released in 1952 on which they were joined by Coyal McMahan on maracas and billed as the Folkmasters. Its first heroes formed an unusual duo. Celebrities of the New York folk scene in the 1940s, when they worked with Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, they continued to appear in Broadway productions and films, and for decades were regulars blues festivals in the US and UK. They enjoyed a deserved but never fashionable success, deemed too commercial by blues fans who preferred the “authentic” styles of Skip James or Bukka White, who had been rediscovered and encouraged to come back on stage. “You can’t say Sonny and Brownie were ever popular in black communities,” Cooder says, “but they got it: ‘What do white people like? Anything they want, we’ll To do.
Cooder and Mahal’s album demonstrates the range of Sonny and Brownie. There are folk standards originally learned from Lead Belly and Guthrie – The Midnight Special, Pick a Bale of Cotton, and I Shall Not Be Moved – and then there are blues, ranging from the upbeat Drinkin’ Wine Spo- Dee-O-Dee (written by McGhee’s brother, Stick McGhee) over Pawn Shop Blues backed by slide guitar. Cooder sang and played guitar, mandolin and banjo, Mahal sang and played harmonica, guitar and piano, while Cooder’s son Joachim (in whose house the recordings were made), added percussion and bass. Aside from a few overdubs, each song was done in “one take, with live vocals,” says Cooder.
The album is a celebration: of Sonny and Brownie, of Cooder’s long-awaited reunion with Mahal, and of the era of the 1950s and early 1960s when young, mostly white Americans were enthusiastically discovering the blues. . During my telephone conversation with Cooder in California, he underlines how much this music has changed his life. “I couldn’t concentrate because I kept thinking about the songs,” he says. “I got in trouble with the teachers and all that bullshit.” Mahal was also captivated by this music: “I was never about what everyone liked – I was lucky as a young black man to realize the value of these people, these elders.”
Cooder’s fascination with folk and blues began when he was “five or six years old, just a little kid, not even in first grade.” Her mother had been in the Communist Party and one of her friends was a violinist who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. “He had these Lead Belly records – the original 78s. I was going – they were neighbors – and I was listening on their record player. And, as you say, the door opened! It was so fascinating and seductive. And the same man gave me a little guitar and said ‘you can learn to do that’… and that’s how I started”.
His parents were less understanding. His mother had met Woody Guthrie and complained “that he was very dirty, he hadn’t even bathed”, to which the young Cooder replied: “Of course – because he hobbled on trains . What are you waiting for?” His family was “broke” and his father, who loved classical music, “used to say ‘those players you like are just bad players. They don’t have a pot. to pee in or a window to throw it in. But I never considered these people to be poor, quite the contrary.
He learned music at the record store where he bought Sonny and Brownie’s Get On Board. It was “far from downtown LA, where you could buy those Folkways LPs. Anything I saw I would get, if it was New Orleans jazz, blues, hillbilly music – as long as it had that look, with black and white photographs and text on the cover, I was fascinated by that. It was like a whole education, right in front of you for $5.98. And I said: I’m going to memorize everything on this record, I’m going to learn the tunes and the lyrics and try to play the guitar.
Then he would watch his heroes play at the Ash Grove, “where I always sat at the counter, maybe eight feet from the stage…for someone like me trying to learn the guitar, you really have to pay attention”. When Brownie McGhee was playing, he would ask, “How was that bass run, how did you do that?” And he was like, ‘Well, look here, kid’ and he was playing it. When you meet these people in person, that’s when you learn something.
On the other side of the country, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Henry Saint Claire Fredericks, who would become internationally known as the Taj Mahal, had first been fascinated by the country blues after hearing “my neighbor d ‘next door who was from Mississippi and was one of my first guitar teachers. Mahal’s Jamaican father was a musician, but it wasn’t until he went to Amherst, where he earned a degree in agriculture and ranching, that he got involved in the ‘coffee, folk music’ scene. and got to hear more. country blues. He was aware of Sonny and Brownie’s Get On Board, “but it didn’t come to me the way it came to Ry – it was special to him”, and the first version of The Midnight Special he heard was by Lonnie Donegan. As for Lead Belly, he never heard from him until he worked on a dairy farm “and some guy called Pete who was testing the milk said he got his records back.”
Mahal played in different bands and worked with a guitarist, Jesse Lee Kincaid, who knew Cooder. In 1965, the couple traveled to Los Angeles “specifically to meet Ry Cooder – and with the hope of forming a band with him”. They got along well, says Cooder. “He and I seemed to like the exact same things and have the same kind of interest in early music.” They formed the Rising Sons, a guitar, bass and drums group reworking songs like Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues or Jimmy Reed’s Baby What You Want Me To Do. Mahal recalls, “We were hired by the Martin guitar company to play at a fair for teenagers, demonstrating electric guitars. Ry played bottleneck and I played harmonica and second guitar. We saw it as good music. They played at the Ash Grove, gained a local following, and were signed to Colombia Records. So why was the album not released? “We have to convince these [record label] people, and it’s like convincing a stone obelisk to talk! Mahal said. Cooder recalled, “The Byrds went out with Mr Tambourine Man, and all of a sudden everyone was showing up in their Spandex pants and little sunglasses like Jim McGuinn was wearing.” Singer-songwriters were all the rage, and “me and Taj liked old songs. But I’m not looking back. The past is immaterial”.
Prior to their new album, they’d only played together once since the Rising Sons — at a show in Nashville in 2014 when Mahal won an Americana Music Award — and they’re clearly enjoying their reunion. When asked if Cooder had changed, Mahal said, “Everything about him when I came to California in 1965 was just amplified by time and accomplishments. There just aren’t people like that. It’s like talking about the Dalai Lama. Cooder is more down to earth. “Me and Taj are alumni now. We are just old cats who want to have a good time together.