Monday, September 13, 2004:

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal -- Crossing (live)
Taj Mahal has a long history as a bluesman. Born Henry St. Clair Fredericks in 1942, in the mid 1960s he cut an album with Ry Cooder that was shelved for decades, then they split up and he went on to start a solo career. His debut in 1968 turned heads, and he had three more solid albums after that, also gritty electric blues, then his career got spotty. He's put out jazz albums, dabbled in gospel, in zydeco, in folk, in reggae, and in Hawaiian crossed with blues. That was not one I liked. The man's not afraid to experiment; I'll credit him for that--it takes courage--but as with anyone who experiments a lot, some of the experiments just don't work.

This is one that, as far as I'm concerned, works like a Swiss watch. The lyrics are by Langston Hughes; at the end of the previous track Mahal calls him a "fine American poet," and Hughes is in good form here. Soft-spoken and confident, the song talks about loneliness and race with an indirect simplicity: "I went out on the prairie and as far as I could see / was nobody on that prairie that looked like me." Most reviewers want to talk about Mahal's voice, and that's fine; it's gruff, as capable of a croon as it is a growl, yet it and the instrumentation complement the lyrics perfectly: the guitar snaps, urgent and enraged; it calms and becomes soothing; it becomes agitated again, dissonant and sharp.

This song is from Mahal's An Evening of Acoustic Music, but it's also part of his soundtrack for the long-unproduced Langston Hughes/Zora Neale Hurston collaboration Mule Bone, which precipitated the end of their friendship.
free Taj Mahal download. He covers Woody Guthrie. Hey, it's fun.


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