Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I was in 10th grade at Barrington High School when I fell under the spell of a National guitar.  Commonly called a dobro, the body of a National guitar is usually made of brass, and it has a pie-plate shaped cone in its belly, which acts like a radio speaker, resonating with the strings, and projecting its sound with a beautifully guttural bark, a remembrance of its painful birth in the foundry, as opposed to a quiet origin in a Spruce forest like most guitars.

The music I heard was being played on WBRU, Brown University's FM station.  'BRU, as we called it, played a melting pot of American music, taking the listener from Blues to Country to Psychedelia within 20 minutes.  The music which stole my heart was played by a fellow named Taj Mahal, an educated, Northern-raised black bluesman who mixed country and blues with a taste of bluegrass.  What drew me in was the slippery sound of that National guitar, played with a bottleneck, sliding across the frets, never articulating a perfect note, but hovering around it with uncertainty.

The notes which fell out of Taj's mouth dripped with honey and salt, whisky and lemon.  His melodic phrases always ended with a sinking note, falling off, dropping low, and heading South.  He sang of his baby leaving him, or of his "Big Knead Gal", a heavy-hipped woman that he couldn't get enough of, although it sure sounded as if there was plenty of her to get.  He rolled gospel melodies into good-time rhythms that made me think surely God Almighty must love the blues, so much did this music speak to my soul.

It was that National guitar of his that resonated the loudest in my bluesman's heart.  Far away from my piano lessons, with their perfectionist demands and every nuance of the music defined by Italian words like "fortissimo" or "pianissimo", Taj played notes between the notes, grey and blue, not black and white, straining towards the finite, but remaining unsure, quite like my simple faith.

I have always believed, since a young age.  My father's humble outlook and his genuine love of people was a reflection of his inner life, a life which he had dedicated to God.  His life is encapsulated by the Prophet Micah's words "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God", words that were written in his Bible, a gift from his father.  Unlike many in his denomination, he didn't have strict and strident guidelines about what defined a Christian.  Christianity wasn't about all the things one shouldn't do, rather it was about embracing a loving and sacrificial Christ who loves all people without question. 

In my vocation of music, there are more preachers' kids  than in any other line of work.  And most of them have tales of treacherous fathers who demanded perfection, proclaimed damnation, and laid down the law on the posteriors of sons and daughters who are now more likely to trust in the bottle than the Bible.  They grew up fearing hell, afraid to fall asleep lest Christ return to find them in a nocturnal moment  of blissful shame. 

I never feared Hell, and if I thought about such a place or state, I didn't worry about finding myself there.  But that's another story.

I have never been able to escape Dad's way of faith, even when I've wanted to abandon Christendom and all of its crazy, hateful, blind Pharisees.  Sometimes it seems to me that many staunch and staid Christians aren't believers at all, but just a collection of fearful schoolmarms and security guards who want to keep God under lock and key.  When I want to reject that world, I remember Dad's unwillingness to box God in, or to proclaim "us" versus "them".  He wasn't perfect, but he sure tried to love everyone well.  That's how I want to live.

Listening to those uncertain notes that the bluesman plays with a bottleneck on his pinky finger, I am inclined to let God Almighty slide as He will, dipping low into His world, and sharing His cup with any who might partake, not worrying about changing or chastising his broken children, but singing in a low guttural hum, forged in the heat of His passion for humans,  a God Almighty love song.


  1. I do love the way you write...

  2. Okay, I have chills. This one resonates deeply with me, Phil. Keep it up.......


  3. Ralston, Tori, and Julie- much appreciated.

  4. I loves me some Taj, and I loves hearing your musings, amigo!

  5. Thanks Darrell, after reading your comment, I dug through some photos and found the above picture of Taj Mahal and myself from 2008, when he opened for us at a festival in the Tetons.



Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm