Review

    Taj Mahal: Autobiography of a Bluesman
    by Taj Mahal with Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965–67)
    Sanctuary Publishers, Ltd.,
    2001
    287 pages

    Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

    NOT EVEN TWO PAGES INTO Stephen Foehr’s biography of Taj Mahal, I knew I had to buy one of the blues musician’s CDs to fully appreciate what the book would have to say about him. Foehr’s portrait of Taj Mahal as an influential pioneer in the fusion of blues, reggae, zydeco, gospel, calypso and ragtime simultaneously highlight a naturally developed spirituality to reveal a richly talented musician and a magnetic personality. Each chapter of the book devotes itself to interviews with family members, friends or other musicians from each period of Taj’s life so that the reader is carried through his life, growing more impressed with the range of his professional and personal gifts.
         Foehr explores at great length Taj Mahal’s upbringing in Springfield, Massachusetts. Born Henry St. Clair Fredericks, Jr. in a five-child household with roots extending back to a blended West Indian, Caribbean, and Africa ethnic heritage, Taj describes his successes as a function of his Caribbean-style upbringing, which prescribed hard work as essential to surviving island life. His father’s death in an accident when he was 14 also helped him develop a sense of responsibility to his family and he worked a series of farm jobs through his teenage and college years to help support his mother and siblings.
         A lover of the outdoors, a gardener and fisherman, Taj pursued a degree in animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. But he dropped out after only two years as his guitar playing in the Boston region began to draw large crowds. “I sought out people whose image and energy came across as positive,” he tells Foehr to explain his inspiration, and cites Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King as great influences. He took the name Taj Mahal to identify with the spirituality of his music. Taj joined his first national band — the Rising Sons — in a musical live-in community in Los Angeles and almost immediately encountered trouble with his recording label. While the Sons were successfully opening for Otis Redding and the Temptations, Columbia Records was pushing for commercial success with a hit single. Simultaneously, Taj sought marketing and promotion support, which he believed was insufficient. Amid the complications and difficulties moving forward, the Rising Sons disbanded.
         Taj’s fame grew through the mid- and late-1960s, largely through his touring and playing with a large number of roots blues musicians. By the late 1960s, he began to recognize the burnout of talented musicians such as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, whom he believed were exploited by record companies for their creative abilities while lacking the support to maintain their personal health. Faced with his own increasing drug use and exhaustion from constant touring, Taj fled to Spain for a brief period of recuperation and returned to the States with a renewed focus on his work.
         With Taj’s career launched, Foehr shifts the biography toward an examination of the personal elements of his life, including marriage to his first wife Anna de Leon. A fairly routine domestic lifestyle in Topanga Canyon, California ended in divorce several years later and though Taj would marry again, he ultimately fathered 15 children with his wives and other women as well. Through the 1970s, Taj would enlist his brothers and sisters to support his career, claiming to trust family members more than record executives whose motives were not always honest. His brother Samuel served a tense five-year period as his manager, during which time regular rifts existed between Taj’s creative perspective and Samuel’s practical one.
         Foehr interviews Taj’s family, children and friends, and though some criticize his lack of physical, financial and emotional support, few discount him as a failure. The reader carries from the experience of reading about Taj’s life a sense that he is a uniquely gifted, spiritually-inclined musician who simultaneously has retained enough personal attraction to draw many people into his life. His defiance of commercial standards in the 1960s likewise found a solid vehicle in the counterculture element that was thrusting talented people of this nature to the forefront of musical life.
         At 58 years old, Taj Mahal still actively records and tours. If he has not enjoyed the fame of other contemporary blues musicians such as the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton, it may be that the blend of his diverse musical roots has found expression in music that defies traditional market segments and access to large populations. Often hailed as a pioneer who helped introduce roots blues to the latter half of the 20th century, the remarkable quality of Taj Mahal’s career and life is evident within the 280 pages of this well-structured book.
         At times, I was a little disappointed by Foehr’s failure to pull together his research into one defining portrait of the musician. One would expect the biographer’s extensive research as sufficient to qualify his ability to make direct comments about the subject in question. But while Foehr admirably interviews all of Taj’s key friends, family members and other musicians, he does little to mediate their comments with his own thoughts, often letting them ramble to the point of excess. Is Foehr a biographer or merely a scribe? Still, his questions are probing ones and elicit comments that make one want to keep reading. And by the end of this satisfactory read, I had listened to the Taj Mahal CD so often that I no longer needed a biography to help me appreciate the man’s extraordinary talent.

    Joe Kovacs is coordinating the readings presented by PeaceCorpsWriters.org for the 40 + 1 NPCA Conference this June in Washington, DC. If you are an RPCV and would like to read for 10 minutes from your poems, fiction or non-fiction about a Peace Corps (or other international) experience, e-mail Joe at joewriter@earthlink.net.