Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder Reunite After Half-Century on ‘Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Photo: Abby Ross / Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

What goes around comes around. Stricken as teenagers in California with the folk blues of the premiere Piedmont folk-blues stylists, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, living legends Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder decided to record for the first time in over fifty years in tribute to the duo that has inspired them throughout their careers.  Get on Board: The Music of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee has all eleven songs drawn from the Terry-McGhee catalog with three that originally appeared on the 1952 Folkways recording Get on Board from the guitar-harmonica duo. Even the black & white cover art essentially replicates the original. That album, a landmark recording in terms of inspiration for especially Cooder, featured three musicians with Coyal McMahan joining the duo on maracas for a collection of traditional blues songs, spirituals, and originals by the three singer-instrumentalists.  Similarly, here we have the same thing sans originals plus two more tracks played by three musicians – Taj Mahal on vocals, harmonica, guitar, and piano; Ry Cooder on vocals, guitar, mandolin, and banjo, joined by Cooder’s frequent collaborator, his son, Joachim Cooder, on drums and bass.

A few words of background are in order. Interestingly, one of the songs on the original 1952 album, not covered here was “Rising Sun.” One can’t help but think that it may have played into the original collaboration of Cooder and Mahal when they formed The Rising Sons in 1965 when Cooder was just 17. The band was signed to Columbia Records, but an album was not released, and the group disbanded a year later. The 1960s recording sessions, widely bootlegged, were finally issued officially in 1992. Cooder then played on Taj Mahal’s 1968 self-titled solo debut album. This is Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s first recording together since then. Terry and McGhee on the other hand had a partnership that endured for 45 years, beginning in 1939 and peaking during the folk and blues revival in the ‘60s, with a coterie of artists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Josh White.

Rather obviously, given the instruments played, Taj takes on the role of Sonny Terry, the harmonicist while Cooder takes on the role of Brownie McGhee, the guitarist. Respectively each points to the other, describing Terry has having incredible rhythm and making sounds with his voice and harmonica so it was difficult to determine which was which. Cooder was inspired by McGhee’s guitar technique from the very beginning, saying, “This thing of squeezing the thumb and first finger and a little bit of the second finger, which I still do. I’d forgotten where it came from. That’s what Brownie did. I saw him do that and said, ‘I think I can do that.'”  As Cooder says, Terry and McGhee were the old-timers then, but he and Taj are the old-timers now, having paid enough dues, they’ve earned the right to bring this music back.

The three culled from the original 1952 album are “The Midnight Special,” perhaps most notably associated with Josh White, “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” a less covered tune, and the gospel chestnut and civil rights anthem “I Shall Not be Moved.” Others that are familiar to most include the boogie “My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door,” “Deep Sea Diver,” “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” and “What a Beautiful Day” which is a version of Rev. Gary Davis’ “12 Gates to the City.” For this writer, more interest lies in the others which are rarer – the single “Hooray, Hooray,” “Pawn Shop Blues,” ‘Cornbread, Peas, Black Molasses,” and “Packing Up Getting Ready to Go.” There are YouTube videos about the making of the album and for “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” “Hooray, Hooray,” and “I Shall Not Be Moved.”

Joachim’s drums, Cooder’s use of several stringed instruments, and a few departures such as Taj playing piano on the salacious “Deep Sea Diver” (pulling it in a whole direction than the Terry-McGhee style) differentiate the sound from the simple harmonica-guitar that Terry & McGhee employed but in general, these versions remain more faithful than creatively interpretive, but not necessarily reverent either. As seen in the videos, theirs is a very relaxed approach, two longtime friends totally immersed in joyous music. The feel is far more important than precision.  These were likely recorded on the first or second take. At times, it seems like they having too much fun, such as “Pick a Bale of Cotton” or “Drinkin’ Wine…” but who are we to fault them for that?  They’ve earned that right too. The gritty, gravel-toned voice of Taj is always a treat and Cooder’s masterful picking and slide skills are always impressive. Not only has this collaboration been a long time coming, but these artists are no longer prolific these days. Get aboard (sorry) now while you can.

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