Taj Mahal Shares His Deep Passion For Music: “I’ve Never Known Life and Breathing Without Music”

The great American musician, Taj Mahal (born Henry Saint Clair Fredericks), is, at heart, an essentialist. The music he loves is often the distilled essence of a genre or style, rather than the pomp and circumstance that can be fashioned out of it.

Sometimes that means putting a subtle but modern spin on an old folk or blues classic. Sometimes that can mean just playing the root, third and fifth the way the first blues men and women did it hundreds of years ago. In that same way, Mahal, who was born in Harlem, New York, and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, has labored many of his adult years as a farmer, working the earth, growing crops and looking after livestock. This is important stuff, he reminds. And he’s right. It builds soul and character from the earth up. 

American Songwriter caught up with the 78-year-old Mahal to ask him about how he first came to music, what it was like for him to toil on farms, why he’s intrigued by Hawaiian culture and what he loves most about music. 

American Songwriter: When did you first find music as a young person? 
Taj Mahal: Music has always been there. I’ve never known life and breathing without music. Both my parents were musical. I came up when the culture was musical, before the real big money was being made on records and entertainment. So, most of the music was at home, within the culture. Even though there were records—records in those days were basically advertisements for you to come and see us play live. Not play it live. But play live. You know, come and dance. I grew up in a different era in music. I’ve always known it. It’s never been like, ‘I heard Elvis Presley and I started moving my hips!’ [Laughs]

AS: How did you decide to invest in music, to want to do it professionally?
TM: Well, my father was a professional musician who actually quit his professional playing days and traveling when he and my mom got together and started a family. He kept a baby grand piano and really good record player and records. That was kind of his way to be able to stay connected to the music and hear what was going on. So, I just heard music around all the time and I had a piano [at home] that I could play a little bit. I liked music but I wasn’t really thinking about, ‘It would be wonderful to find an instrument that you fell in love with.’ I tried this one, I tried that. I tried trombone, clarinet. I messed with the piano a little bit. I liked all these instruments when they were in the hands of somebody who knew how to use them.

I came into the world listening to Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Jimmy Cleveland, Jimmy Rushing, Louis Jordan, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine. On and on. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Helen Humes, Marian Henderson. It was marvelous, music everywhere.

And then the 50s came along and we’re still listening to all the hot music that eventually turned into the inspiration for rock ‘n’ roll, which was kind of confusing. It was like, ‘Okay. Why is it rock ‘n’ roll over there and it’s something discarded over here?’ But nonetheless, what was discarded always felt better than what was rock ‘n’ roll.

Somewhere around [when I was] 14 or 15, after the loss of my dad, my mother remarried a couple years later and my stepfather came with a guitar—he was from Jamaica. My mother was American, from the south, South Carolina. Anyway, the first guitars that I can really remember distinctively knowing the sound of, probably came from the Nat “King” Cole Trio. Maybe some old Gene Autry or some old Hank Williams stuff, but mostly I can remember hearing those guitars. Then in the early ’50s, I started hearing some of those Chicago blues players. Not a lot. There just seemed like there was a lot of music that was just not being attended to. And I got busy paying attention to it.

Then a neighbor of mine moved from North Carolina, a boy about my same age. One thing led to another and I told him I had a guitar and he said he played guitar and I brought the guitar out. He certainly could play it. So, I hung out with him. And then up the street from me, a family came in from Clarksdale, Mississippi. So, they were playing the Mississippi blues right up the street five doors away. I would just go hang around with them. I realized around that time that this was the roots of what everybody was playing—the roots of Elvis Presley and all those guys that were playing. So, I hung out with them and listened to them play and just got really inside it. I had little groups, little doo-wop groups and by that time I was picking and messing with the guitar and listening to—I was a big Jimmy Reed fan. He and Chuck Berry. 

I recognized that a lot of younger guys were not paying attention to the older music and that was, I thought, a shame that they just let the music go. So, I got involved. I think one of the things that was really great was that I went to college at the University of Massachusetts. I was studying agriculture. That coincided with all that big folk music and folk explosion and all that kind of stuff. Those folk festivals started including a lot of older blues people. So, that was real good. I got a chance to really get a close-up of people like Mississippi John Hurt, Sleepy John Estes, Skip James and Yank Rachell, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Reverend Gary Davis, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, all those guys.  

AS: What do you like about the distilled roots and origins of music? Why was that a particular focus?
TM: Oh, why wouldn’t it be? Because I looked around. If you were Scottish, you had Scottish folk dancing. If you were Greek, you had Greek folk dancing. If you were Irish, you had Irish folk dancing. Well, okay, here we are. It’s the product, the transference of the ancestral information from one generation to the next. So, now we’re creating it here in this country. And because somebody else is controlling the narrative, we’re letting go of what is ours. I said, ‘okay, I can understand that if people think that it’s old and maybe they don’t see it in terms of what’s happening now, but how about taking some of that stuff and maybe dressing it up in modern times.’ And that’s exactly what I did.

You start out listening to records that I made, “Leaving Trunk” is an old, acoustic, folk blues song from Sleepy John Estes. But you hear me play it and it’s got another thing. It’s got the modern swing to it, modern sounds to it. But the lyrics are the same. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing. Quite frankly, I wanted to be in the good graces of my ancestors. I didn’t really care about—I mean, I am very, very humbled that I have an audience that loves me. But I also know that my ancestors are happy that I went in the direction. I just didn’t go like, ‘I’m modern now, I’m going to drop this right here.’ No. And fortunately because of that there are a bunch of youngsters who are coming up now who picked up that same thing—Stevie J Blues, Marcus Cartwright, Kingfish Ingram, Shawn McDonald, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, Keb’ Mo’! Guy Davis, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Valerie Turner, Rhiannon Giddens, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, all those people. 

It’s just that this music speaks to me. It’s channels and roots go in and [there] are branches of the tree that make music here. For the people who aren’t interested in where it comes from, they can like whatever and do whatever they want. But there is a significant group of us that are human beings on this planet, we’d like to know where things come from. 

AS: As a teenager you worked on a farm, milking cows, growing corn, alfalfa. What did this lifestyle teach you and why did you choose it?
TM: I lost my father when I was twelve-and-a-half years old. This was a guy who was a brilliant musician, brilliant composer, who couldn’t make his living as a musician when his family came along. So, he got a job. He first worked in a brass foundry and then he worked the rest of his work life as a tire molder for U.S. Rubber in factories, making big truck tires. This guy, the light of all our lives, got taken away from us in a tragic accident that happened when a piece of equipment that he was trying to load [crushed him]. My father always said, ‘One of the things you need to always know is that when you walk in the door with your job, you want to walk out the door with that job. That job leaves with you.’ And so, I took a look at it. I saw all these dads and moms and uncles and aunts, cousins and grandparents, working these jobs that to me were great to be able to raise a family, but they didn’t do anything for that person.

So, for me, it was important to know how to work and I don’t mean work. I mean work. Get up in the morning at quarter-past four and have seventy-five cows to milk, and clean and feed calves, horses and sheep, chickens and rabbits, dogs and all that kind of stuff and work the land. Because that’s an important thing—It’s a very important thing.

Of course, that led me to be concerned about ecology and alternative energy, solar, wind, thermal, geo-thermal. All kinds of stuff like that. It kept me really busy because a lot of stuff was developing in all those years. But it was really important for me to be able to pick up an instrument and sit there and whatever it is that I thought I wanted to play on it, I could. 

AS: You also spent some time in Hawaii. Does that connect to this appreciation of music and working the land?
TM: Yes, Hawaii connected before. My dad had a big radio—Firestone radio. A radio-record player and the radio station had shortwave and longwave radio on it. It also had pre-sets for Havana, Cuba; London, England; Buenos Aires; Honolulu. And one day, I punched it in on Honolulu as a kid about eight-years-old, and the most amazing music came out that completely played down to the core. Some music plays inside my head, other music comes in and floods my whole spirit. Some stuff is directly made to dance, some stuff you’re moving as soon as you hear it. But this was some great Hawaiian music. To me, that was the real sound. 

That was from the early ’50s—maybe ’50 or ’51. There was a guy named Arthur Godfrey and he had a radio program and then he had a television program. He was a ukulele player, he always had one sitting around. He played baritone and concert. He also had a Hawaiian woman on the show, named Haleloke, and my two brothers and I we were all very much in love with Haleloke, because she could dance and do the Hula and we were excited by it. And little bit by little bit, you hear this and that from Hawaii and you go, ‘Wow, what is it that makes them play that real beautiful sustained, slow notes?’ Eventually, over the years, going back and forth trying to figure out what the heck is happening. 

When I moved to Hawaii [in the 1980s] I found musicians to work with. They wanted to learn the blues turnarounds and I wanted to learn the Hawaiian turnarounds, which were really different. They play them and they don’t even think about me. We play them and we don’t even think about them. But you try to learn each other’s music. The Hawaiians borrowed a lot from blues and jazz and R&B and all kinds of stuff to make their music. So, you know, here we were. 

AS: Let me ask, just simply, how do you feel today, how are your spirits?
TM: Personally, I feel energized by having sixty years on the road and all of a sudden having to sit down. I really appreciated it. And I am appreciating it. Getting a chance to rest, and think about things and how I’m going to come out of this, and where I’m going to land when I come out of this pandemic or global lockdown or whatever you want to call it—global reset. Somebody said it’s ‘Nonfiction science fiction.’ So, yeah, I’m in good shape. I’m very positive, just working on the next moves. 

AS: I heard there might be some music in the works?
TM: Listen, if I release all the music I had today, the people would be scared. I’ve been working on music, there’s all kinds of ideas. People are finding all these different shows I’ve done on radio programs and they’re showing up on the internet. But yeah, we’ve got music. We’ve always got music, man. We’ve got plenty of music. It’s just figuring out how to make sure it gets out and gets out maximally to as many people as possible. 

Keb’ Mo’ and I just recently were on the road in 2017, we did a record. People are still saying, ‘Oh my god, I just got the record! It’s really great.’ We came and we did. I don’t wait around for people to tell me what to do. I get busy. I’ll tell you, one of the things I really appreciated about Prince. Prince was always at least three albums ahead of whatever music was on the street. Because that way, whatever they do, you’re playing the music that you’re feeling. Every time it came for me to make another album, I did the music that I felt at that moment. Now people say, ‘You opened my eyes and ears to so much more music.’ That part’s really good. You get some people to do that, then it’s really great.

AS: What do you love most about music?
TM: What do I love most about music? The fact that every person on this earth has the ability to really connect to it. Most do, but some don’t. I think most of it is that it’s the universal language of our whole cosmos here. It’s just fantastic. I’m real proud that my ancestors gave me the wherewithal to be inside of it and be a part of it and to breathe it and play it and share it. For that, I am eternally grateful to them. 

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