Cool John Ferguson – Come All Ye Faithful
inTheir Musicon December 29, 2016
The blues live on because the blues give people life, not the other way around. Talk about the blues with Taj Mahal or Tim Duffy founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation – and you will quickly understand how deeply they grasp this. Both men are devoted to tradition, but not a museum kind of tradition. They’re devoted to living tradition; devoted to living tradition” – as Taj puts it – but tradition that is life-giving and life-sustaining.
When Tim recounts his first experiences hearing Taj play live in the early 1980s, he describes a performer who rumbled with the echoes of ancestors and forefathers as he created a sound that was completely relevant in the present moment. Taj was not a revivalist. He was a medium for the blues’ reviving power.
Tim and Taj first connected in the mid-1990s. Tim, just getting the Music Maker Relief Foundation off the ground, had released A Living Past, a book and CD set featuring artists he was working with. When this collection found its way to Taj, it stopped him dead in his tracks. For a long time, he had nurtured a belief that there were musicians out there playing traditional blues with life and vigor; musicians who didn’t simply remember the music, but who got life from it. And here they were. Taj describes hearing their music as “deeply personal,” something that illuminated things about his own musical roots he had intuited before but now came to understand more fully. Taj was also was fascinated by Tim. Unlike so many folklorists of the past, Tim seemed to understand that preserving tradition did not simply mean sticking photographs and recordings into an archive. Preserving tradition was “all about taking loving care of these older artists.”
Taj brought Tim out to L.A. and introduced him and his new foundation to folks like B.B. King, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. Tim invited Taj to his place in rural Pinnacle, North Carolina where the celebrated musician slept on a palette on the floor and hung out with several Music Maker artists. He loved how they played and sang, but he especially loved “getting to know their lives and how they made things work.”
Taj says he wanted to “give whatever [he] had” to Tim’s foundation, and he figured maybe his name had “some kind of cachet.” Things fell into place, including a sponsorship from Winston cigarettes, and in 1998 a group of Music Maker artists set off on a mammoth 42-city tour with Taj as the headliner. Talk to anyone who was involved and it’s immediately clear that this was a special time. Artists who had spent the previous decades playing in drink houses and juke joints were lighting up audiences on high-profile stages across the country, rising to ever higher heights. The bigger the show, the better they played.
Taj was tearing it up too, of course. But he was also soaking it in. He was hanging out with artists like Cootie Stark, Neal Pattman, and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. He was listening to them and learning from them. And he was reconnecting to music he had been hearing and playing since he was a kid. But now he was grasping it in a new way, going “deeper.” Nothing was drastically different, he says, it just felt like he was getting “closer to the source.”
Tim – sensing the incredibly rich musical possibilities in the air – hoped to catch something on tape. In addition to shepherding a motley assemblage of senior citizen bluesmen and women through a never-ending series of unfamiliar cities and settings, Tim was lugging around high-end recording equipment that he had recently acquired from the legendary audio wizard Mark Levinson. He set it up in hotel rooms in Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas-wherever-hoping he could get Taj to do an impromptu session. But it never seemed to work out.
Then one night in Houston, the daughter of Katie Mae was hanging around – the Katie Mae, the woman immortalized in the Lightnin’s Hopkins classic “Katie Mae Blues.” Hopkins, with his highly-original cut-to-the bone poetry and raw elegance, is an Olympian figure of the blues, and Taj, being steeped in the blues’s American mythology, couldn’t miss the chance to meet this woman face-to-face. So, a few bluesmen and Tim and Taj and Katie Mae’s daughter hung out together in this Houston hotel room. After a while, Taj picked up an acoustic and started whipping out classic tunes – “Stack-O-Lee,” “Walking Blues,” “Fishing Blues” -merging his reinvigorated feeling for tradition with his inimitable personal style. The tape was rolling.
Around the time of the Winston tour, Taj often visited North Carolina, first coming to Pinnacle and later to Music Maker’s new headquarters in Hillsborough. Tim had “tapped into a full-on living scene,” Taj says, and he was reeling with a sense of incredible good fortune that he was getting to be a part of it. He regularly sat in on recording sessions (usually long hang-out-and barbecue sessions with some recording thrown in). When the music got going, Taj would play some piano, bass, harp, banjo, mandolin, whatever was needed. “It was fun. Really fun to get to use all my chops like that,” Taj says, “but I never got in just because I could. If I didn’t have something to say, I shut up.” He overflows with feeling when he talks about playing with these folks; singular artists like John Dee Holeman, Cool John Ferguson, Cootie Stark, and Algia Mae Hinton.
Tim loved the sounds that were getting recorded. The players were letting loose, digging in, coming alive as the music came through them. This was it, that place where tradition becomes “viable and vital” in the present. He wanted to put this stuff out – these North Carolina sessions and the Houston hotel recordings. But the time wasn’t right. Taj had just released a string of great studio albums with a throwback R&B flavor, and there was a new 3-disc retrospective of his work on the market. There really wasn’t any commercial space for Taj Mahal versions of “Hambone” and “Shortin’ Bread.” So the recordings just sat around.
For about two decades now, Taj and Tim have nurtured their friendship and partnership. They have incredibly nice things to say about each other. Both men credit the other with enriching their respective life, career, and musical journey. Tim says that, “having Taj Mahal be a champion for Music Maker has been one of the greatest joys of my life.” He goes on, “Without Taj, Music Maker would not be what it is, it would be something else; something different.” Taj’s spirit, it seems, infuses the whole enterprise.
In 2015, Tim’s foundation turned 21 years old, and Taj, born in 1942, was settling into his eighth decade of life. Both men were looking back and reflecting. They returned to these recordings made during that magical time in the late 1990s. In them they heard what Albert Murray, the great African American cultural critic, claimed to be the essence of blues style, “a unique blend of warmth, sensitivity, nonsense, vitality, and elegance.” These tracks needed to be heard. Taj wanted to do a vinyl-only release and Tim thought that “was really groovy.”
So here they are, on a piece of solid wax. Comb through all the dozens of Taj Mahal albums released in the last few decades and you won’t find a more intimate portrayal of his stripped-down traditional blues style, nor a better representation of Taj as a freewheeling, fun-loving, always in-the-pocket sideman. “When I listen to this,” Tim says, “it just shows how good the music really is. His version of ‘Shortin’Bread’ with Neal Pattman is, you know, it’s just amazing. It’s a as good as anything that was on wax in the 20s and 30s.” And it is, precisely because you don’t get any sense that Taj was trying to recreate some old record. He just sounds like he’s having fun. The album might be a Labor of Love (and the labor is there, no doubt), but when the needle hits the grooves, what really comes across is the love: the love of the budding friendship between Taj and Tim; the love of the blues; the loving care that is the essence of real preservation; and, especially, the love of being in the moment, playing, creating a sound that gives you life. I asked Taj what he wanted the record to say to people. “Hrmmh,” he grunted, diverting attention from my too-serious question, “just enjoy it.”