If you listen to the blues enough, you realize that some players’ genius isn’t so much in their complete originality; rather, someone’s greatness can be measured solely how they recontextualize and reimagine classics of the genre.
Arriving too late for the boom in Delta blues interest--thanks to being way younger than basically every hero he worshipped who got a second wave of fame in the ‘60s--Taj Mahal has made an entire career out of reconfiguring the blues, often pairing it with musical forms you wouldn’t expect, and scoring films.
But before he could do that, he had to drop his self-titled debut, a masterclass in taking old songs and making them sound new. Released during an era when Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were doing their psych-rock inflected LPs (see Electric Mud and The Howlin’ Wolf Album) it was shocking in its brutal efficiency, it’s back to basics stomp, and its Muscle Shoals uh, muscle. Taj Mahal had only one original song on the album, and the rest were rewrites and covers of blues classics he breathed new life into. To say we’re honored to present it to you guys on a limited red vinyl pressing would be an understatement.
To celebrate our exclusive, we’re providing you with some context to the album via a breakdown of the song on Taj Mahal, and the songs it reimagines.
The raucous, ripping “Leaving Trunk” announces Taj Mahal’s presence as a blues guitarist and singer with a boot-through-a-bar-door surprise. You know you’re off into something special literally 30 seconds into the album. That such a powerful song could be built on a blues as sparse and solemn as Sleepy John Estes’ “Milk Cow Blues” makes it even more incredible.
The major thing that sets Taj Mahal apart from the white blues revivalists who were popular in the ‘60s (sup, Rolling Stones?) is his ability to recast songs from the earliest days of recorded blues--ragtime standards--into modern sounding blues stompers. Here he recasts a Blind Willie McTell song into a horndog classic, mostly by upping the wattage of the guitars and growling all over the place.
The roaring electrified harmonica on Taj Mahal’s “Checkin’ Up On My Baby” is more than just a cool, of-its-time effect: It’s an homage to the guy who made the original: Sonny Boy Williamson II, the second Sonny Boy Williamson who could play the hell out of a harmonica and sing the hell out of the blues (he went by II to avoid confusion with I). All things considered, this is actually probably the closest to a straight cover on Taj Mahal.
Taj Mahal’s affinity for Sleepy John Estes continues with this second homage, a dramatic reworking of “Everybody Oughta Make A Change,” which is rendered into a wall of sound from Estes’ strummed blues.
The only original on Taj Mahal, “E Z Rider” laid the groundwork for The Natch’l Blues, the second Taj Mahal album, and one that featured more original compositions. This song also pointed towards that album’s direction in that it’s a little scaled back from the rave-ups of traditional songs.
One of the most covered blues songs ever, “Dust My Broom” is Taj Mahal’s clear message that he sees himself as part of the lineage of Robert Johnson, that specter who sold his soul at the Crossroads for the ability to play the most haunting blues ever laid to plastic. Taj Mahal’s version is more walking than the original, and he sort of just rips through it and gets out of the way.
If there’s one message Taj Mahal was laying down on Taj Mahal beyond “I’ve arrived,” it’s that everyone needs to listen to Sleepy John Estes. Sleepy John’s “Diving Duck Blues” is a deep cut in both he and Taj Mahal’s catalogs, namely for it’s metaphor comparing a duck diving in a river to drinking whiskey(?). Taj Mahal’s version is maybe the song that most screams 1968! on the album, since its backing riff and rhythm sound like they could have been in an Iron Butterfly song.
“Celebrated Walkin’ Blues” is the hardest song on Taj Mahal to trace the lineage of. Technically, Son House was the first one to get it on tape in 1930, but it didn’t come out till years later, and after a lot of bluesmen reinterpreted it after hearing Son House play it live. Muddy Waters recorded a version for Alan Lomax as his first recording ever, but Robert Johnson’s version is probably the most popular. However, basically every bluesman worth his salt recorded their own version. Plus, it seems that House probably invented the original as an amalgamation of a number of other songs.
At any rate, here’s Taj Mahal’s version, which stretches out to eight minutes, has some flourishes on the verses, harmonica solos, and more weathered “baby”s than you’ve ever heard on any song.
Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Classics and Country Director, and an editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.