Album Review: Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder, ‘Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee’

Maybe it’s been 54 years since Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder recorded together, when Cooder played on Taj Mahal’s 1968 self-titled solo debut album, but you’d never be able to tell that from the duo’s new record. Cooder and Taj Mahal join forces once again to pay tribute to two Piedmont blues musicians whose style has deeply influenced them—harmonica wizard Sonny Terry and solid rhythm player Brownie McGhee, masters of the acoustic blues.

Cooder recalls first hearing Terry and McGhee and the effect it had on him: “that first record, Get on Board, the 10” on Folkways, was so wonderful, I could understand the guitar playing.” Taj Mahal recalls a similar experience: “I started hearing them when I was about nineteen, and I 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.”

Ry Cooder’s and Taj Mahal’s Get on Board gathers eleven songs from recordings and live performances of Terry and McGhee. Taj Mahal contributes harmonica, guitar, piano, and vocals to the songs, while Cooder sings and plays  guitar, mandolin, and banjo on the tracks. Cooder’s son, Joachim, joins the duo on bass and drums.

The album kicks off with the wailing “My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door,” a propulsive country blues that features rousing call and response vocals in the final verses and choruses. Cooder and Taj Mahal are firing on all pistons on this down-to-the-bone roadhouse blues shaker.

There are hundreds of versions of the classic “Midnight Special,” but Cooder’s and Taj Mahal’s captures the pure joy of the song with its cascading harp, bright vocals, and steady, circling rhythm guitar.

Wailing harmonica swells open the shuffling “Hooray Hooray,” and the song follows spiraling harp lines all way down the blues highway, while the circling guitar strums and lead lines wrap around harp blows, and warm vocals propel the raucous jump blues “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” Taj Mahal’s gruff and gravely vocals on “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” evoke the grittiness and the pure joy of a night of drinking wine, as well as the roughness of the morning after. Cooder’s a cappella vocals open the gospel blues “What a Beautiful City;” the song’s spareness evokes the desire for a world in which ugliness fades away to reveal enduring beauty.

The album closes with a rousing version of “I Shall Not Be Moved,” which opens with a country gospel guitar strum that leads to a mostly a cappella first verse; Cooder’s and Taj Mahal’s gospel-inflected harmonies and syncopation capture the song’s anthemic quality and its musical call to action. It’s hard not to be moved by Taj Mahal’s and  Cooder’s inspiring version.

While Get on Board honors the indispensable heritage of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder give us an album that showcases their warm and intimate playing and their superb musicianship. We can only hope that we’ll now have more musical collaborations between the two.


Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee is available HERE.


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