Even as a young man in the 1960s, Taj Mahal sounded like a seasoned blues veteran. As he sang in a deep, soulful voice about moving to the country and painting a mailbox blue, listeners probably wouldn’t have guessed that he’d been reared in Western Massachusetts. On his self-titled debut album, Mahal sounded like a contemporary of the Southern blues icons he celebrated: Sleepy John Estes, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Robert Johnson.
“I’m sure there are some kids who think he was part of the first wave,” says Berklee College of Music professor Dan Bowden, who uses Mahal’s 1968 recording of “Statesboro Blues” to teach slide-guitar technique to his guitar students.
But Mahal, as Bowden points out, never really was a purist, pushing traditional blues into new turf, usually by tapping influences beyond the blues or creating interesting musical arrangements (who else in 1971 featured a tuba in a blues-rock setting?).
Mahal is now 70 and the subject of a stunning Columbia Records reissue. All the records he made for Columbia between 1965 — when Mahal and Ry Cooder formed the Rising Sons — and 1976 are packaged as 15 CDs, including one disc of previously unreleased sessions from the early 1970s and one of Mahal’s April 1970 concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, in which he shared the bill with Johnny Winter and Santana.
The Columbia collection is due out Tuesday, the day before Mahal performs with his trio at the Bull Run in Shirley.
Yet don’t take the resurrection of old records as twilight nostalgia. After all, Mahal never envisioned his albums as static snapshots.
“I don’t look at time in a linear sense. I view things in griot time, where a musician from five centuries ago can still sound fresh today,” says Mahal in a recent phone interview, referring to the African singers who maintained oral histories through songs and poems. “I’m a free man in a free country, so I create freely. ”
Indeed, being a college-educated guy who grew up in Springfield never prevented him from playing the blues.
“Look at Mick Jagger or any of the English guys who were playing the blues. People said he’s not American and it’s not pure blues if it isn’t from the middle Delta. Well who are they from the Delta? What are they professing in the Delta?,” Mahal asks, noting that the blues flow all over the world. Mahal is part folklorist and part musicologist in his fascination with the way African-Americans brought their musical and cultural traditions with them as they’d leave one place for another looking for work or because of military service.
Mahal’s own musical upbringing is a product of these migrations. His father came from the Caribbean and his mother grew up in South Carolina before they met in New York City. The family moved to Springfield in 1942, shortly after Henry St. Claire Fredericks was born and before he adopted the Taj Mahal moniker.
Mahal says his “western education” at the University of Massachusetts taught him that “people use less than 10 percent of their ability,” and he was determined to not be among that majority. So he immersed himself in the culture all around him, starting with the music his parents kept alive from their own backgrounds. He also appreciated other traditions in his melting-pot neighborhood.
“We were taught not to look down on people because of where they were from,” Mahal says.
After his father died, his mother remarried and his stepfather owned a guitar. “Guitar was at the center of the culture at that time. It didn’t matter if you were listening to Duane Eddy and Bo Diddley or to boogie-woogie, it was all about guitar,” Mahal says.
Two neighbors began teaching the teenager how to play the instrument. On the same block, another family came from Mississippi and was knowledgeable about music from Muddy Waters’s home turf.
“Now I had a direct connection to the stuff I was listening to on the crystal radio set I built,” Mahal says.
By the time Mahal arrived at UMass, he had already formed a musical identity. He ultimately favored a life in the arts instead of the agricultural studies of his major, and he moved to San Francisco in 1964.
Mahal’s early career, as the Columbia box set reveals, is marked by incredible growth and a wild sense of adventure. Not happy just covering vintage blues, Mahal began including original material by his sophomore album. With each successive record, he widened his sights, letting in gospel, R&B, and Caribbean influences.
Mahal and Columbia parted ways in the mid-’70s, and the artist kept on exploring with other record labels, embracing the sounds of his adopted Hawaiian home and collaborating with Indian and African musicians on various projects. But all along he never lost his identity as a blues musician, keeping an earthy earnestness to his sound no matter how exotic the particulars became. Two of his later works — “Senor” and “Shoutin’ in Key” — won Grammy Awards for best contemporary blues album. In 2006, Massachusetts proclaimed Mahal the state’s official blues musician.
“He’s a fascinating instrumentalist. It seems he can play anything with strings,” says Berklee’s Bowden. “And he’s willing to go down both the electric and the acoustic blues paths. Most musicians choose one or the other. He doesn’t limit himself at all but still keeps the blues sound incredibly rich.”
Up next, Mahal hopes to bring his work closer to home and collaborate with his own musically inclined children.
“They’re all grown up,” says Mahal. “I want to work with them before this window of opportunity goes by.”Scott McLennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.