Part of the fun with the AUK Chain Gang feature is you are never sure what you will be working with until the previous week’s feature is posted, and therefore you never know how much head-scratching will be required to find the next link in the chain. When last week’s feature on Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Summer Wine’ was posted I immediately saw an opportunity to celebrate the recent work of two of the bedrock artists of americana, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. In 2022 the pair released their homage to two of their own heroes, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, fifty-eight years since they first got together in The Rising Suns. ‘Get On Board’ includes Taj and Ry’s version of ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’,
The song was written in 1947 by Brownie McGhee’s brother Sticks McGhee and is a celebration of getting drunk, and not caring what others may think. Sticks McGhee re-recorded the song with his brother in 1949 for Atlantic Records and it proved to be the label’s first hit. The song was a major influence on Jerry Lee Lewis and was also covered by various artists including Lionel Hampton, Wynonie Harris, Johnny Burnette, Mike Bloomfield’s Electric Flag and Richard Thompson.
Taj and Ry’s ‘Get On Board’ echoes Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s original from 1952 in its packaging, and contains songs associated with the pair and was recorded in Joachim Cooder’s lounge, with the younger Cooder joining his dad and Taj on bass and percussion. The whole album was recorded largely live over three days and manages to bring the benefits of modern recording techniques to a sound that retains the grittiness of the original recordings. Taj and Ry play various instruments and share the vocals, with Taj singing lead on ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’.
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee though stars of the folk revival were not particularly popular with the black audiences of the time, were able to give an emerging white audience exactly what they wanted as they gave access to a music that was essentially old hat even in the ‘50s. This didn’t harm their popularity and influence with the emerging young audience of the folk revival, and it provided an example of how to explore roots music so effectively followed by Taj and Ry over their long careers. ‘Get On Board’ is proof positive of how successfully Taj Mashal and Ry Cooder have developed the knowledge to play the music of the past while ensuring that it is not a simple facsimile but includes sounds that are refreshed for a modern audience while retaining the essence of the past. ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’ is also a fun song and there isn’t a whiff of musical archaeology about it, showing what true masters Taj and Ry are.