Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder Celebrate Their Folk Blues Heroes Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee

Soulful musical polymath Taj Mahal and guitar god Ry Cooder go way back. In the mid-1960s, they played in the Los Angeles band The Rising Sons, one of the country’s first integrated bands to fuse rock and R&B (along with Arthur Lee’s Love). The group also featured jazz drummer Ed Cassidy (later of Spirit) and bassist Gary “Magic” Marker (already of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band), and for a hot minute they seemed poised for success – but then Columbia Records shelved their LP, and they broke up in 1966. Taj Mahal then went solo, and although Cooder had joined the Magic Band, he supported Taj Mahal on his classic, self-titled 1968 debut LP. The two soon parted ways musically, but they led wildly divergent careers that strangely resembled each other. A singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and film composer, Taj Mahal developed a distinctive and evolving vision, incorporating elements of American folk, blues and jazz, as well as Caribbean, African, Indian and South Pacific sounds. Acting primarily as a guitarist and producer, Cooder has also worked on film soundtracks as a solo artist and session man, as well as touring the world – he has used many traditional styles and collaborated with African musicians and artists who made Tex-Mex , gospel and Cajun music.

With their shared interests and histories, it makes sense that Cooder and Mahal would reunite to celebrate their musical roots—in this case, the primal southern blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. The duo began playing together in 1939, and their Piedmontese style helped define folk blues, which flourished on the New York City club scene in the 1940s and 50s. Taj Mahal (vocals, harmonica, guitar and piano), Cooder (vocals, guitar, mandolin and banjo) and Cooder’s son, Joachim (drums and bass), teamed up to create their own versions of 11 songs recorded by McGhee and Terry (a ” wizard harmonica player,” according to Taj Mahal). The tunes I’ve heard so far from Step Aboard: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee (I couldn’t get an advance in time) honor these musical ancestors. The album’s raw version on the mandolin-fueled “Hooray Hooray” features Taj Mahal wailing on harp in a style reminiscent of Terry’s. Cooder was never famous for his singing, but on the gospel standard “I Shall Not Be Moved” his mundane delivery works (with great help from Taj Mahal’s vocal harmonies). In 2022, it’s shocking to hear “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” a traditional anthem criticized for glorifying slavery (the extremely racist lyrics were changed in recordings by Leadbelly, Johnny Cash, Terry and McGhee, among others). But a seasoned bluesman like Taj Mahal, with Cooder beside him enthusiastically plucking and echoing the chorus, can pay tribute without perpetuating negative stereotypes. There’s other material that wouldn’t fly if it were written today: McGhee and Terry adapted “Cornbread, Peas, Black Molasses” from a field song about Confederate prisoners subjected to medical experimentation. But again, the former Rising Sons do it with class and reverence. Come on board is both a history lesson and a celebration of their musical ancestors.

Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder’s Step Aboard: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee is available through Bandcamp.

Leave a Comment