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Really The Blues

An American Original, This Music Born of Heartbreak But Full of Joy Is Ultimately Simple Yet Hard to Define
T. Brooks Shepard
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 3)

"I like lots of things that have traditional backgrounds," Mahal says. "That's one of the reasons I'm enjoying cigars these days. Because, man, I mean I used to pick tobacco in the Connecticut Valley. When I was a little boy, I used to sit on the curbside and watch the big boys and big girls going off to work on tobacco, talking and laughing. I couldn't wait to go pick tobacco because back then, you could make $900, $1,300 ina summer. I would walk in the house with my chest stuck out and throw two, three hundred dollars on the table for Momma. Back in the '50s that was some serious money. I was a man."

Mahal, who smokes Matacan maduros, started on La Unica 100s and enjoys Dominican and Honduran tobaccos. "I dig Hoyo de Monterrey, Montecruz, Joya de Nicaragua. Robustos. And, if I have time, I smoke big gauges: 52 ring, 8 to 8 1/2 inches," he notes.

His own man, the 56-year-old Taj bridles at the notion that a bluesman must be limited to traditional notions and 12-bar formats. "I'm sorry that I don't meet your criteria of a blues man: that [I don't have] an IQ of minus 1,000, that I've seen [more than just] the butt end of a mule and that I don't look down at my feet every time I stand in front of a white man. Some people think that that's the real blues."

The debate over the meaning of the blues can become comical. "I remember a bunch of Englishmen saying that Taj Mahal is not a proper bluesman. I said, 'What do you do?' One said, 'Well, I happen to be an ethnomusicologist.' I said, 'Excuse me, what the hell is that?'"

Taj Mahal was hardly immune to the allure of Chicago blues. "I was influenced by Chicago blues in many ways. I've been influenced by Muddy Waters," he says. "Muddy Waters was one of the first to put together an electric band with two guitars, bass drums and/or harmonica, saxophone and horns. He is primarily the stamp for rhythm and blues and then the standard for white musicians to play the rock and roll thing. A lot of people picked up from there. I play both electric and acoustic harp, both electric and acoustic guitar with different styles: the Howlin' Wolf style, the Muddy Waters style--those musicians are the ones that excited me in the Chicago style."

Joe Louis Walker, a Verve recording artist and guitarist of the highest order, remains positive about the future of the blues. "The blues is expanding big-time. There's a million blues bands and half a million little blues labels," Walker enthuses. "To me a blues song is just like Shakespeare, and more than the songs, it's the people that play it. You see, the blues is synonymous with credibility. That's why so many rock stars want to be associated with the blues; they want the credibility."

That is not to say the blues is the exclusive domain of blacks. This music exults in the unification of human spirit and would be diminished, indeed, if a white cat like Kim Wilson, harmonica player and vocalist leader of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, were excluded.

Wilson, who records on Windham Hill, was inspired by a bluesman he calls his second father: Muddy Waters. "I picked up the harmonica one day," Kim recalls. "And after a year, I was playing with all my heroes. People like Eddie Taylor, John Lee Hooker and Albert Collins."

Plain-spoken, Wilson says, "I chose the blues because it had everything for me. It had the balls, it had the emotion, it had the musical expertise, the great lyrics. I felt that I was born to play it." A dead-up fan of Buddy Guy's Legends, he says, "I've always regretted that I didn't catch Chicago in its heyday. That was in the '60s and I was too young."

When you raise the subject of what's happening in the blues today, you discover in Wilson the fierce traditionalist who is among the keepers of the flame. "I see a lot of people attempting to capitalize on a bygone era and a commercialization of blues, using 'B' players in museum-like and pseudo-Disneyland kind of settings where people think they are hearing the real shit and they're not," the 47-year-old declares. "I put myself in a spot where I could play with all my heroes and, consequently, I'm deep on their side," Kim stresses. "All these kids want to do is play rock music and ride a tour bus. Now, I sound like an old fart, but I can see Muddy Waters saying the same thing 25 years ago. The problem is there's this pseudo-blues thing going on that has nothing to do with the blues. They think they're playing the blues, but they're not. You got to live it!"

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