On the road with blues singer Taj Mahal
I was driving along from Alabama to Mississippi the other day, with my iPod on shuffle, when these three duets came in succession:
Rodney Crowell and Kris Kristofferson–My Father’s Advice
Carl Perkins and Van Morrison--Sitting on Top of the World (Van’s intensity automatically takes over any duet he attempts)
Emmylou Harris and Beck–Sin City (from the Gram Parsons tribute album Emmylou helped to organize)
Now, I know there are those among you–rational people, mostly–who will dismiss this as coincidence. But three duets in a row? Is it possible that there’s a secret presiding intelligence here, an Apple core, a Steve Jobs frippery that can discern threads of music, or rhythm, or–this gets really weird–lyrics to produce tantalizing segues? It doesn’t always happen, but it does often enough. I mean, what are the odds that in the 3422 songs I’ve loaded on, I’ll get The Rolling Stones’ cover of Love in Vain followed by Robert Johnson’s original. Yesterday, I shuffled from Sufjan Stevens’ anarchically flutey cover of The Beatles What Goes On? to Nelson Riddle’s puckishly flutey arrangement of Witchcraft for Frank Sinatra. Very subtle, that.
This, I realize, can get pretty existential pretty quickly. Do I, as a human, somehow need a ghost within the machine to order the universe for me. Over time, I’ve developed a relationship with the thing, laughing and marveling at its choices, bemoaning my fate when it sinks into a slough of despond and offers a series of the worst songs ever recorded by my favorite artists. (I know I should cull those songs, but can you mess with the received Word?) Sometimes it will forsake me, amble into randomness, Vampire Weekend followed by Sarah Vaughn. On Friday, it started playing songs from Rodney Crowell’s great album, Sex and Gasoline, sensing, no doubt, that I was having dinner with Rodney in Nashville that night. Yesterday, it was in a funk (and not a funky funk, which would have been fine) as we entered Memphis and I prayed for some blues to welcome me into town. But no, the shuffler was in a quiet mood, playing quiet and tame stuff…until we reached Beale Street, when–a miracle!–Lonny Brooks started singing about tumbling dice.
Today, the music turns live: the great Delta blues historian, singer and player Taj Mahal has joined the road trip for a couple of days. We’re headed to down the Delta to Greenville, Ms, for a town meeting with Congressman Bennie Thompson’s supporters. But first, Taj insisted, we have to stop at Lansky’s–“Clothier to the King”–to buy some shirts.