Taj Mahal has spent more than 40 years exploring the roots and branches of the blues. Grounded in the acoustic pre-war blues sound but drawn to the eclectic sounds of world music, he revitalized a dying tradition and prepared the way for a new generation of blues men and women. While many African Americans shunned older musical styles during the 1960s, Mahal immersed himself in the roots of his past. "I was interested in the music because I felt something [got] lost in that transition of blacks trying to assimilate into society." He had no intention of repeating what had come before, however, and drew deeply from the wells of the ethnic music of Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.
Taj Mahal was born Henry Saint Claire Fredericks in New York City in 1942. His father, who had emigrated from the Caribbean, wrote arrangements for Benny Goodman and played piano. His mother, Mildred Shields, had taught school in South Carolina. "Even though I have Southern and Caribbean roots, my background also crossed with indigenous European and African influences," Mahal told Down Beat. "My parents introduced me to gospel, spiritual singing, to Ella, Sarah, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles." Mahal also listened to music from around the world on his father's short-wave radio, and developed a love for blues artists like Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins, and early rock-n-rollers like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Mahal's family moved when he was a young boy and he grew up in Massachusetts. Growing up in Springfield, Mass., Mahal was a rarity--"a young African American who immersed himself in the study of his cultural heritage. At age 11 he witnessed the death of his father in a farming accident, but he found solace in music. When his mother remarried, he discovered his stepfather's guitar in the basement and learned to play it with a broken comb. He also took lessons from Lynnwood Perry and absorbed the radio sounds of jazz players like Illinois Jacquet and Ben Webster. Although he is primarily known as a guitarist, Mahal mastered an arsenal of instruments including piano, banjo, mandolin, and harmonica.
Mahal studied agriculture and animal husbandry at the University of Massachusetts. A dream inspired him to change his name from Fredericks, and he formed Taj Mahal and the Elektras in the early 1960s. He was lucky enough to have his ideas coincide with the '60s and the resurgence of the blues. He attended the Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960s to witness the folk and blues revival first hand. The opportunity to watch traditional blues players perform and meet the artists in person reinforced his decision to play acoustic guitar.