Songs Of Hope
The point of departure for Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s latest album, Get on Board (22 April 2022; Nonesuch), came over 60 years ago when the pair were in their youth. Specifically, they were separately listening to a record of the same name by harmonica wizard Sonny Terry and his great pal, guitarist Brownie McGhee, and were blown away by their take on the blues, the guitar work, and the laid-back vibe they created.
“That first record, Get on Board […] was so wonderful, I could understand the guitar playing,” says Cooder about the first moment he heard it. Mahal concurs: “I started hearing them when I was about 19, and I wanted to go to these coffee houses, ‘cause I heard that these old guys were playing. I knew that there was a river out there somewhere that I could get into, and once I got in it, I’d be all right. They brought the whole package for me.”
That ‘river’ took them both to play together on Taj Mahal’s 1968 eponymous debut album, and in the cult band the Rising Sons. There is therefore something special about them uniting again (with Cooder’s drummer son Joachim) after so many years of independent success because, as Cooder points out, it is now them who are the ‘old timers’.
Mahal and Cooder’s songs on Get on Board are not all from the original album but rather collect 11 cuts from records and live performances by Terry and McGhee. Mahal contributes guitar, vocals, harmonica, and piano, while Cooder sings and plays guitar – seemingly on one of his acoustic Martins - but also adds mandolin, and banjo into the mix. “You can’t copy it, not really,” says Cooder, “you just have to do the best you can, make it sound good and have a happy time.”
Clearly they achieved that because the album exudes charm and positivity. The relaxed feel of the record was aided by being predominantly recorded in the younger Cooder’s living room, with a minimum of post-production studio work. “Yes, I added bottleneck [guitar] here and there, and maybe another harmony sometimes because it’s nice to hear three voices just for fun. Nothing fancy, but just to get the feel,” Cooder says of the few overdubs.
The album kicks off with the wonderful blues number My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door, which most listeners will immediately warm to. It is worth recalling here that Terry and McGhee were both born into poverty in the South and had serious disabilities – the former went blind when he was 16, while the latter had polio, which left him with one stunted leg. It was perhaps their shared experiences of hard times that led them to form a strong bond that endured for 45 years.
The next track, the classic Midnight Special, is turned into a kind of bash by the artists’ employment of harp, while on Hooray Hooray Mahal makes great use of his harmonica. A refreshing change of tack is taken on the song Deep Sea Diver, on which Mahal showcases his piano-playing chops.
The pace picks up with Pick a Bale of Cotton, while Mahal’s Tom Waits-like vocals take centre stage on Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee. Cooder sings a cappella on What a Beautiful City; and in the process transforms it into a fragile and touching gospel-type ode. Packing Up and Getting Ready to Go is one of the few songs on the album that Mahal and Cooder take in a more mournful direction; in contrast to the closer, I Shall Not Be Moved, which inspires fortitude and joy.
It could be said that Mahal and Cooder’s use of mandolin, banjo and piano, in particular, ensure that their take on Terry and McGhee’s original is not merely a copy, but often lifts the songs. With a lifetime of recording and live performances behind them, and an enduring friendship, Mahal and Cooder have turned their reunion into both a homage and a celebration. As one social media commentator appropriately observed: “Hearing this gives me hope for the future. Everything is going to be alright!”