Black and white photo of Tajmahal and Ry Cooder jamming
Credit: Abby Ross

Soulful musical polymath Taj Mahal and guitar god Ry Cooder go way back. In the mid-60s, they played in Los Angeles band the Rising Sons, one of the country’s first integrated bands fusing 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 split in 1966. Subsequently Taj Mahal went solo, and though Cooder had joined the Magic Band himself, he backed Taj Mahal on his classic self-titled 1968 debut LP. The two soon parted ways musically, but they led wildly diverse careers that turned out oddly similar to each other. As 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. Cooder, operating mainly as a guitarist and producer, has likewise worked on film soundtracks as a solo artist and session man, and he’s also traversed the globe—he’s drawn on many traditional styles and collaborated with African musicians as well as artists making Tex-Mex, gospel, and Cajun music. 

With their shared interests and history, it makes sense that Cooder and Mahal would rejoin to celebrate their musical roots—in this case, the primordial southern blues of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. The duo began playing together in 1939, and their Piedmont style helped define folk blues, which flourished in New York City’s club scene throughout the 40s and 50s. Taj Mahal (vocals, harmonica, guitar, and piano), Cooder (vocals, guitar, mandolin, and banjo), and Cooder’s son, Joachim (drums and bass), worked together to cut 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 Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee (I couldn’t get an advance copy in time) honor these musical forefathers. The album’s raw take on the mandolin-fueled “Hooray Hooray” features Taj Mahal wailing on harp in a style that recalls Terry’s. Cooder has never been famed for his singing, but on the gospel standard “I Shall Not Be Moved,” his everyman delivery works (with a big assist from Taj Mahal’s vocal harmonies). In 2022, it’s jarring to hear “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” a traditional folk song that’s been criticized for glorifying slavery (its extremely racist lyrics were amended in recordings by Leadbelly, Johnny Cash, Terry and McGhee, and others). But a seasoned bluesman like Taj Mahal, with Cooder alongside him enthusiastically picking 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 southern prisoners subject to medical experiments. But again, the former Rising Sons pull it off with class and reverence. Get on Board is a history lesson as much a celebration of their musical forbears.

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