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Volume 17, Issue 3: Counterpoint

Taj Mahal, bluesman

Interviewed by Ben Merkle

C/A: This is kind of an open-ended question. What do you think beauty is?

TM: What do I think beauty is? Okay. It's a sunrise. You know, a beautiful woman walking down the street. Life coming into the world. Catchin' a wonderful breeze in the morning when you wake up and you're standing in the trees or out on the water. I like to fish a lot, so I get up so that I can really catch the world coming up early in the morning. Flying over a tropical rain forest. On and on and on and on and on. A painting. Music. Mostly music though. Everytime I see something like that, what happens to me personally, is that I hear music. Whatever it is. If something's really beautiful, then all of the sudden the music starts coming.
C/A: Do you think you know why its music?
TM: Because I think it's the language of the people of planet Earth.
C/A: Do you think there is a difference, or what is the difference between pop and folk?
TM: Well, folk is the music that the grassroots people— you know—take their instruments and make. They're not looking for anything more than entertaining themselves or one another, or creative dancing. Pop music is usually crafted by people who are directly in there to connect with your youth, or your adulthood—to get the money out of you. It really doesn't have any value past once it's been played. Folk music will be around forever; as long as there are people.
C/A: Given what you just said, when you look at what this country is listening to today, what does that tell you about the state of America?
TM: Hmmm. It tells you that the bean-counters and the lawyers are running the record companies.
C/A: Great. And then. . .
TM: And, that we as a people, in a country where we pride ourselves on being independent in what we think, you know, have gotten kind of candy-assed.
C/A: Just a little bit. What do we have to do to bring back real music with soul?
TM: Well, think about it this way. The music will not come to you. When the music comes to you that easy, always be suspect. You know, it may not be in every case, but always be suspect. Usually, if its good music you're gonna have to go somewhere to get to it.
C/A: You distinguish between pop and folk. Do you think there's a distinction between folk and then what somebody might consider classical or high, artsy music? Symphony, opera?
TM: Well, you could have symphonies based on folk melodies. Like, I'm trying to think, what's this guy . . . a classical musician, composer, spent a lot of time picking the folk melodies up and bringing them into a classical, you know a structured musical context?
C/A: Ralph Vaughn Williams?
TM: Yeah, but older than that. I'm feeling like Hungary, Romania, in and around that area. You see a lot of the old European melodies from the peasantry put in his music. And there was a time when a lot of musicians did that. I think that has to happen again. But the difference between them is that with the folk music, there is a living tradition. So it's alive, it's moving down the road. With the classical tradition, because it's not passed by word of mouth, but it's written on a piece of paper, you don't know what the original person sounded like when they played that piece of music. Whereas with the folk music, it's a possibility that some of whatever the original song was, is in the next person that carries it on. It's not carried on by paper, it's carried on by experience from one to another. We have kind of fallen out of that cycle. But at the same time, I was very happy to find out that there are a lot of people out there who are using the internet to find the music that they want. And not only do they find the music that they want, they don't want to be told what to listen to. And I love that about them, because that's where I was at. You weren't going to tell me what to listen to. You know, and that's it. I've just watched so many different things where people have said, "Oh, this is the place to see it from Phyllis!" You know. Excuse me. I have my eyes, and this is what I'm liking. So, I think that particularly I'm not gonna try to figure out what generation they're gonna try to call. You know, because I think all that's a bunch of horse-puckey too. I'm out here playing. I've been out here forty years playing music, and I've seen every kind of body come by me and listen to the music. And come back around, and their kids come around too. I mean, you should have been here a little while ago. There was a kid, he must been nine or ten, maybe eleven or twelve years old. He played harmonica; whipped the harmonica out, played a little bit, then asked to play with me. And I took my guitar out, and the kid was blowin' harp right here. The youngster, he was really good, you know. He was really sharp; he was so excited. That's nice to see. You know, its nice to go out in this country and play and see people that really like the music. It's really exciting.
C/A: Do you see how the book of Psalms relates to the blues at all?
TM: Right at the moment I wouldn't … if you spoke more about gospel music, yes. But . . . the blues is in there in that way, because it has a lot of things to say like that. But I'll think about that, and the next time you see me, you can ask, you can ring my chime again and see if I got the answer yet.

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