More than a half-century has passed since Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder recorded together. The occasion was Mahal’s 1968 debut album, which featured Cooder—credited as Ryland P Cooder—on guitar. Three years earlier, they were bandmates in the Rising Sons, a short-lived group that made one unreleased album for Columbia Records. Mahal and Cooder remained friends and collaborated in the decades since their band broke up. But they didn’t record together until 2021, when their mutual love for the music of blues masters Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee reunited them. On Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Mahal and Cooder perform 11 songs they adapted from records and live performances of Terry, a harmonica player and singer, and McGhee, a guitarist and singer.
Get on Board features Mahal on vocals, harmonica, guitar, and piano, and Cooder on vocals, guitar, mandolin, and banjo. Cooder’s son Joachim, who has been recording with his father since A Meeting by the River in 1993, provides percussion and bass. The multiple instruments are one indicator that Mahal and Cooder didn’t aim to recreate the recordings of Terry and McGhee, who, although they sometimes worked with other musicians, mostly recorded and performed as a duo. The new album is a homage and a celebration, not a purist attempt to replicate the music that both men loved in their youth.
“You can’t copy it, not really; you just have to do it the best you can and make it sound good and have a happy time,” says Cooder.
A happy time is what Mahal and Cooder deliver. On every track on Get on Board, what comes through is their pleasure in playing these songs they learned from and still love. Recorded (mostly) live in Joachim Cooder’s living room, the album has a warm and inviting homespun sound that couldn’t be farther from contemporary recording production. It sounds untouched by studio hands, but that’s a well-crafted illusion. Cooder acknowledged some overdubbing in a Guitarist interview. “I overdubbed stuff here and there, but the basic tracks with the live singing is what you’re hearing. Yes, I added bottleneck [guitar] here and there and whatnot, and maybe another harmony sometimes because it’s nice to hear three voices just for fun. Nothing fancy, but just to get the feel.” Whatever tinkering Cooder may have done, the results are pleasing but unobtrusive and don’t detract from the record’s off-the-cuff and relaxed ambiance.
Cooder, who came up with the idea for the album, began listening to Terry and McGhee when he was a 12-year-old “sort of” playing along on the guitar. The first record by the duo that Cooder heard was Get on Board, a nine-track album that Folkways Records released in 1952, “at the height of the McCarthy era”, as he observes. He and Mahal recorded three of the selections (“The Midnight Special”, “Pick a Bale of Cotton”, and “I Shall Not Be Moved”) for their album, whose cover design is modeled on the original, right down to the black and white photos and the typeface.
Like so many young folk and blues fans in the 1960s, Mahal and Cooder were thrilled and inspired by Terry and McGhee’s records and live performances. For Cooder, their music offered an escape from the boredom of life in Santa Monica, where he was born and raised. “‘I have got to get out of here,’ was all I could think. What do you do, 14, 18 years old? I was trapped. But that first record, Get on Board, the 10-inch on Folkways, was so wonderful. I could understand the guitar playing.” Mahal, born Henry St. Clair Fredericks in Harlem, says he began listening to Terry and McGhee when he was in his late teens and “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.”
Sonny Terry, says Cooder, was “the George Frederick Handel of the blues harmonica”, a virtuoso whose unique “whoopin’” style influenced countless players of that small, cheap, but in the right hands and mouth, expressive and soulful instrument. Terry, born Saunders Terrell in 1911, combined rhythm and melody in his playing, vocalizing through the harmonica and punctuating his solos and comping with falsetto whoops. Mahal praises guitarist McGhee, born Walter Brown McGhee in 1915, as a “solid rhythm player”. “To really play behind the harp like that, he would set stuff up. He wasn’t making many notes. Sonny had all the notes, running around. But Brownie, he laid it down.”
Terry and McGhee, born Black and poor in the South, had significant disabilities—Terry lost his sight when he was 16. McGhee contracted polio as a child, leaving him with one leg shorter than the other. They became musical partners in 1939, a relationship that lasted more than 45 years until it dissolved in acrimony in the 1970s. They specialized in Piedmont blues, an acoustic style named after the Piedmont region on the East Coast that extends from Virginia to Georgia. Folklorist Nick Spitzer describes Piedmont blues as a “rolling, exuberant sound” that meshes “traces of gospel, fiddle tunes, blues, country, and ragtime”. Terry and McGhee were the foremost exponents of the style, introducing it to domestic and international audiences, and they were stars of the folk music circuit, along with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Josh White
The young Cooder preferred their “folk blues” to the blues of other artists. He found Blind Lemon Jefferson “too sad”, Howlin’ Wolf “out of control”, and Wynonie Harris “dirty-minded and possibly mean”. The Folkways recordings featuring Terry and McGhee showcased music that “straight-life folks could feel good about: acoustic instruments, easy rhythm, family-man lyrics”. On those records, he adds, “there was no secret race subtext to worry about.” The young Cooder’s impressions, however jejune, had a germ of insight. For all their skill and crowd-pleasing appeal, Terry and McGhee rarely reached the emotional intensity, the goosebump-raising depth of feeling, that Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters regularly achieved. Their work was mainly genial rather than intense or disturbing (“no secret race subtext”).
That’s the mood of Cooder and Mahal’s Get on Board, which is not to detract from their achievement. Geniality needn’t be mild or bland, and this reunion of two comrades and colleagues is neither. The former dutiful students of Terry and McGhee are “old-timers now”, as Cooder wryly observes, 75 (Cooder) and 80 (Mahal). Mahal marvels that the two “have played long and hard enough to become the modern-day exponents of those very musicians and styles of music we fell so deeply in love with and worked to emulate as young, enthusiastic turks”.
On Get on Board, Mahal’s in fine vocal form, often raspy, but he could sound weathered when he was decades younger. He’s always been more of a vocal actor than a straight blues singer, using character voices tailored to his material. He could become a Mississippi Delta bluesman, a Trinidadian calypsonian, or a Jamaican on his covers of Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver” and the Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad”. He is a past master of the blues harp, but Terry was a one-of-a-kind virtuoso. Mahal doesn’t copy Terry’s style—no whoops or the kind of showcase breakdowns like “Fox Hunt” for which Terry was famous. He does evoke Terry, playing acoustically and not directly into the mic, like modern blues harp players have done since Little Walter invented the amplified style. If Mahal’s not the harp genius Terry was, so what—the feel is right.
Cooder sings with feeling, flexibility, and humor, and his guitar, mandolin, and banjo playing are at his customary excellence. If you love his bottleneck playing like me, you’ll be happy that he overdubbed it on several selections.
With more varied instrumentation than guitar, harmonica, and voice, and with new arrangements, Mahal and Cooder’s approach to the Terry-McGhee songbook doesn’t aim to reproduce their versions. “Pawn Shop Blues” is slower in tempo and more mournful than Terry and McGhee’s. “Deep Sea Diver”, a bawdy, double-entendre 12-bar blues, has Mahal on piano and vocal (but no harp) backed by Cooder’s guitar. “Packing Up Getting Ready to Go”, recorded in 1969 by Terry and McGhee with a small band, is the most “studio”-sounding track on Get on Board, with echo effects and backup vocals by The Ton3S, a North Carolina-based soul trio. It’s the most radical departure from the original recordings and a highlight of the album.
On “Cornbread, Peas, and Molasses”, “The Midnight Special”, “What a Beautiful City”, and a few others, Mahal and Cooder stay closer to the originals but aren’t bound by them. Whether they’re being more or less faithful to the sound of Terry and McGhee or taking off from it, these two masters have made an album that honors the artists who inspired them so many years ago.