Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder, Get on Board

Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s Get on Board, Nonesuch Records

An album by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee was one of the very first blues albums I encountered. I’d heard some electric blues by the likes of Eric Clapton and John Mayall, but this was the first I’d heard acoustic blues. So it was formative. And I greatly enjoyed catching up with Sonny and Brownie a couple of years back when Guy Davis and Fabrizio Poggi released their Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train, which was nominated for a Grammy (sadly didn’t win – should have!)

Sonny Terry, a master craftsman in the Piedmont style of blues harmonica, was born in Georgia, grew up in the vicinity of Raleigh, N.C., and went blind as a teenager. He rose to prominence in 1938 when he was invited by John Hammond to participate in the legendary From Spirituals To Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, the two-day event that introduced the blues – along with Big Joe Turner, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmy Rushing, Big Bill Broonzy and others – to white society for the first time. He was a Broadway star, too, appearing in 1947 in the long-running play, Finnian’s Rainbow.

Brownie McGhee was a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, who was stricken with polio at age four, and a powerful vocalist who rose to prominence with a picking style that was quite different from his contemporaries. He worked alongside his hero, Blind Boy Fuller, in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. He and Terry met in 1939 and started working together after Fuller’s death two years later. They were an essential part of the folk revival of the ‘60s and worked together until 1975 – even though they hadn’t spoken to one another in decades over a dispute, the origin of which neither could remember.

Now we have another tribute to the blues giants, this time from the legendary Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. Taj Mahal, still going strong at 80, first heard Sonny and Brownie in the early ‘60s. He recalls Sonny’s harmonica playing as “this fascinating sound, straight out of the country.” He felt the duo’s music was “a whole world unto itself.” They were “two musicians who really knew how to play along. I mean, Brownie gave the great rhythm to whatever Sonny was playing on the harmonica, and they both grew to command of the idiom.” Simply, according to Taj Mahal, Sonny and Brownie became “the titans of the folk-blues.”

Ry Cooder first heard Sonny and Brownie, along with Coyal McMahan, on their 1952 Get on Board album. It made a big impression on him – “When you’re young and you hear something like that for the first time and if you’re a kid in Santa Monica, well, it was just unbelievable.”

The album was recorded in Joachim Altadena’s living room the late summer of 2021, stripped down and simple: Taj on guitar, harmonicas, and piano; Ry on guitar, mandolin, banjo; and Altadena on percussion and bass.

Get on Board, more than fifty years after the album of the same name has eleven songs, two of which appear on the 1952 album – Midnight Special and Pick a Bale of Cotton. The rest are all standards from the Terry and McGhee repertoire.

The album kicks off with the rocking My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door, with Taj Mahal growling his way through accompanied by some tasty fuzzy slide guitar from Ry Cooder. Vocals are shared on loose-sounding The Midnight Special, as they are on most of the rest of the songs.

Loose describes most of the arrangements, Mahal and Cooder swapping vocals and chiming in here and there, each song sounding like an enjoyable jam between friends. Most of the tracks feature guitar and harmonica, but Deep Sea Diver is a piano blues, full of honky-tonk swagger.

The set finishes, fittingly, with I Shall Not Be Moved, a jaunty, smiley version of a song that would take centre stage in the Civil Rights movement.

Mahal and Cooder’s Get on Board tries to recreate something of the rawness of the blues recordings of yesteryear, and it has the feeling of two old friends thoroughly enjoying themselves. Taj Mahal said, “There are basic things in our culture that connect us, that allow us to be able to reach back and connect to a history of people, the things that nourish us as a people, and music, this music is one of those things.”

In Get on Board, Mahal and Cooder reach back and connect to a part of blues history, helping to make sure it is not forgotten.