Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder
Tickets on sale Friday, 3/4 @ 10am!
*This is a FULLY SEATED event*
GOLD SEATING – $150
SILVER SEATING – $125
STANDARD SEATING – $85 [a small amount of seats may a have partially obstructed view of the stage]
Doors 7pm / Show 8:30pm
The city & county of San Francisco has mandated that we must require all guests to provide proof of full vaccination, OR a negative Covid test. Please read our full FAQ for details on mask & vaccination requirements before you purchase tickets: https://gamh.com/faqs/
Taj Mahal – vocals, harmonica and guitar
Ry Cooder – vocals, guitar, mandolin, and banjo
Joachim Cooder – percussion, mbira
Riding with Sonny and Brownie
Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s Get on Board
Needle to the groove, before you know it, you’re somewhere: “That whole chugga-chugga-chugga rhythm,” says Taj Mahal, “it carried you.” There was a seductive kind of locomotion, harmonizing and scene-setting that blues musicians Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee set forth,”could get together.” It worked a spell. Gave you a hint of what was rounding the corner, heading your way.
While a young musician, still tinkering with his sound, Taj Mahal had heard the names “Sonny and Brownie,” in passing conversation, but it wasn’t until he got to the University of Massachusetts in 1961 that a new world cracked open. “It’s when I encountered a whole different level of record recording and collecting that didn’t have anything to do with popular music on the radio. You know labels like Folkways, Prestige, Bluesville, Stinson, Vanguard, all these different companies that were putting out all these records—Pete Seeger, Reverend Gary Davis, Doc Watson. There was this whole movement.” But, in time Taj Mahal saw first-hand, “Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry were in the middle of this whole thing.”
Later, when he pulled Sonny Terry’s 1963 album Sonny is King out of its sleeve and gave it a spin, his curiosity only deepened. “I mean this fascinating sound, straight out of the country”—his harmonica’s earthy whoops and hollers, his sustained curving simulation of a train’s echoing whistle. “About that same time both Sonny and Brownie were coming around doing concerts at colleges, small clubs and coffeehouses so I was able to get into that whole thing.” What struck Taj Mahal was the richness, the specificity—of time and place and sentiments that the music, live and on record, preserved. “I was like, look over here. This is a whole world unto itself. The music isn’t disappearing. There are folks who think that it is important enough for it to be here.” Born in Harlem and living in Massachusetts, reflects Taj Mahal, “I might have been ‘up north,’ but I was ‘up south.’”
On the other edge of the country, as had become his custom, a twelve-year-old Ry Cooder had boarded two buses, to make his way to a favorite record store, housed in an old California Bungalow at the center of Los Angeles. “It was run by the Fox sisters and they had all of these records. They had a Webcor record player where you could listen. And I saw this ten-inch record with these black and white pictures, and how they laid out the photos.” He was drawn to the story the cover suggested: the musicians’ faces, the liner notes, the title itself, Get on Board, was an invitation. “There was something about the information. It was not processed. It was just something you should know about. And it cost $4.98. I bought it, took it home and it really rocked,” Cooder recalls, “just really swinging and strong. When you’re young and you hear something like that for the first time and if you’re a kid in Santa Monica, well, it was just unbelievable.”
For both musicians, Sonny and Brownie were a glimpse onto something vanishing fast—a pathway, both back to the past and, for them creatively, a step forward into their futures.
Back on Board
Nearly sixty years later, Taj Mahal and Cooder’s twenty-first century re-exploration of Sonny and Brownie’s Get on Board is, in a singular way, a sonic map of all the territory Taj Mahal and Cooder have traveled and of a legacy that they’ve absorbed and now honor.
Sonny Terry, born in Greensboro, Georgia in 1911, learned the basics of the blues harp from his farmer father. After two devastating injuries to his eyes left him blind, he turned to music to scrape together a living, traveling to North Carolina to play the blues. In the mid-1930s he partnered with Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen), a master of the Piedmont blues-style guitar. “Fuller had the rhythm and the guitar and a good voice,” says Cooder, “and Sonny had his incredible harmonica ability. The Piedmont rhythm was distinct. That area, the Carolinas, with players like Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, they all have this finger-picking style, and this kind of dance rhythm that was popular.”
Together, they were powerful, says Cooder, “With Sonny, the other side of the duet is like a jazz band almost, it’s like an orchestra. So you had a real performance.” But Fuller died in 1941, leaving Sonny to find another accompanist, and that he found in McGhee, Tennessee-born, but steeped in the music of the region, and particularly fluid in Fuller’s style.
“The format was the same. the same idea, rhythm guitar, lead harmonica trading voice singing and harmony,” says Cooder, “same fingerpicking sound. “Brownie just stepped into his shoes and went on with it. Same basic style.”
As Taj Mahal reflects, “It was a matched pair. Two musicians who really knew how to play along. I mean, Brownie gave the great rhythm to whatever Sonny was playing on the harmonica, and they both grew to command of the idiom. And the tunes I mean, they’re coming in from the ‘20s and the ‘30s. They’re carrying that forward. That history. They were the young boys back then. They were learning from the older people. All the different kinds of songs.” This was critical. Even though some of those songs were beginning to be recorded by some players, says Taj Mahal, “They weren’t really popularly known by everybody. Sonny and Brownie changed that. They’d become the titans of the folk- blues.”
When Get on Board was released in 1953 by Folkways, it was one of the label’s earlier offerings. “But by that time the duo had made a huge leap to New York. I mean huge,” says Cooder, “It’s one thing for someone like an Earl Hines to go in and do what he wants, but these guys are country guys. And it worked! Once Folkways’ producer Moe Asch got a hold of them, they became part of the scene, along with the Almanac Singers and Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. They found themselves in front of white nightclub audiences in New York. That’s what launched them into this early folk revival and this idea, as Pete Seeger put forward, was to bring people together, shoulder to shoulder.”
In a sense, says Taj Mahal, looking back, that music, even more, his circuitous path to learning and understanding the breadth and depth of it, is what brought him together with Cooder all those years ago. It was all part of an essential soundscape.
“You know, it was the fountain that both of us drank from deeply,” says Taj Mahal. “Ry is the central reason I came to California. I came here to find him. I’d heard from other musicians who’d taken lessons from him, saying ‘he’s hearing the music.’” How Taj Mahal interpreted this was that Cooder shared both a curiosity and adroitness. “Ry had gotten this same message too, from the older musicians. It’s not just knowing the notes. You just had to hear it for what it really is. And deliver that. Deliver it correctly and with respect.”
After their brief collaboration in the short-lived band Rising Sons ended in 1966, Cooder and Taj Mahal kept moving—charting separate courses, traveling the country and the world.
It wouldn’t be until 2014 that the two would play together on the same stage once more. Taj Mahal was to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association. “I was going down to Nashville to accept the award. A communique came through the office from Ry that he was part of the band and wanted to know what I was going to do. Well, maybe I’ll play a tune like ‘Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes,” or something like that, more fitting for the Ryman Auditorium. But Ry shot back: ‘Oh, well, why don’t we just stomp ‘em down?’ And from Ry I knew that that meant ‘Statesboro Blues.’ A tune from the Rising Son days. So that’s what we ended up playing.”
That opened a line of conversation. They would interact sporadically, hear tell of a sighting, “And a little bit after that we started sending music back and forth that we like, not irregularly,” says Taj Mahal “And at some point, you know, I think both of us talked about, ‘Well, hey, man, what do you think about doing something?’”
About a year before the pandemic, Cooder says, “Taj had come to the house, and we played. It didn’t seem to be about anything specific, but it got me thinking. Then my son, Joachim said, ‘You really should do something with him’. And I usually try to do what Joachim says.”
Finally, it came to him, while working in the garden, hands in the earth. In certain respects, the answer was hiding in plain sight: “It’s Brownie and Sonny for sure.” It’s territory they knew, musicians they revered and tunes that were foundational, rooted deep. “We can pull that off. I figured Taj can play into that role. He understands it and can make the combination of the guitar and the harmonica operate,” Ideas started to take real shape, even a feeling. “My thought was, if we can’t do this now, we have no business in the business.”
“Stomping it down”
Late summer 2021, tunes sorted, a plan in play, Taj Mahal arrived in Southern California where he and Cooder set up for recording in Joachim’s Altadena living room. Stripped down and simple: Taj on guitar, harmonicas, and piano; Ry on guitar, mandolin, banjo; and Joachim on percussion and bass. Three days, eleven songs, and more than fifty years between the last recording session and this one.
For the occasion, Taj Mahal brought along a custom-made guitar, “A Keb’ Mo’ special” as well as “a couple of low harps. It almost sounds like an accordion. Just to bring something bigger.”
Cooder pulled out Mike Seeger’s finger picks and an old guitar, much like the one Brownie McGhee once played, “Very similar, probably a similar year. I’d had it for about five years because I thought someday, I might need to be Brownie.”
Once they leaped in, says Taj Mahal, it was like no time had passed. “Here we were, putting things together again. It’s what we acquired, you know, where we’ve been and what got imprinted. All that information that came to those guys, Sonny and Brownie? Now we’ve got it and we have to take it forward.”
This opportunity was a glimpse onto something, says Cooder. “You look at someone like Sonny Terry and know, nobody can ever be that good again. It’s impossible.”
And yet, reflects Taj Mahal, sinking back into this rich repertoire—one that acknowledges struggle and sorrow, revelry and resistance—underscored something essential: “There are basic things in our culture that connect us, that allow us to be able to reach back and connect to a history of people, the things that nourish us as a people, and music, this music is one of those things.”
It’s all landscape, soundscape, and memory speeding by at a clip, “And this becomes a little window onto something,” says Cooder. “Something that’s long gone, never to be re-created. You can’t have a lot of things again. But with music—that music—it can happen again, when you put the needle down.”