Listen to this track by blues and roots alchemist and multi-instrumentalist interpreter Taj Mahal. It’s “Take A Giant Step”, the title track as taken from one-half of his 1969 two-fer double album Giant Step/De Ol’ Folks Home, his third release. The album represented two different approaches on each disc, with one being a full band excursion into the American roots music spectrum. The other is a solo acoustic record.
On both discs, you can hear just how well integrated Mahal’s sound is with respect to country, blues, folk, and pop music. This track may be the prime example of this, written by pop writers supreme Carole King & Gerry Goffin written for The Monkees and recorded by them as a B-side for first hit single, “The Last Train To Clarksville”. This version by Mahal is a far cry from that one, slowing everything down, taking out the pop-psychedelic and far east edges, and replacing them with a languid and world-weary quality that the fresh-voiced Monkees couldn’t really have pulled off in their version, as much as I love it.
This is another sterling example of how an arrangement and vocal performance can add dimension to a song. So, what’s the angle on this tune? I think there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to be found here that may have been missed earlier, but that Taj Mahal is able to draw out as easily as a bucket of water from a sacred river.
Taj Mahal’s stature among his peers was high even at this early period in his career. By the end of the sixties, he’d worked with Ry Cooder in The Rising Sons, a band which he would revisit with other musicians later in his career. He’d also work with the Rolling Stones, among other things being one of those few artists who appeared on the unaired 1968 Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus TV special as the only American participant. You can hear where The Stones drew an affinity with his music even on “Take A Giant Step” though, as it’s not entirely unlike the country blues they would lay down during their celebrated purple patch that was happening around this same time. Taj Mahal’s work proves just how immensely permeable the divisions between country, the blues, and other folk music forms found around the world really are. So, what does he bring to this pure pop tune?
“Take A Giant Step” is perhaps one of those songs that couldn’t have been written in any other decade than the sixties, full of idealism and implicitly connected to the zeitgeist during that very narrow period as the mid-twentieth century was clicking over into the late-twentieth century. In the wrong hands, a song like this could come off as twee and naive, and trapped in the time in which it was created. That Taj Mahal was able to mix a pop song like this into the album and make it sound like a gospel-tinged hymn full of Biblical gravity is an indication of his deftness with interpretation. A good deal of this is down to his vocal delivery, which is a ragged and wind-burned instrument, full of the burdens of living. With that, Mahal’s voice activates the key ingredient in this version of the song; empathy.
In his hands, the material becomes something beyond what was arguably a standard love song when it was written. Here it is a story of coming to a place in one’s life when one is worn down by the trials of life, looking for something to grant a sense of restfulness. Mahal is able to make this about a spiritual sort of rest, not just a soothing entreaty as presented by a would-be lover to take a risk on a new romance after being burned. Here, because of his well-seasoned voice, the giant step spoken about becomes about clean slates, and getting a new start for oneself, like a call to make an honest to goodness leap of faith into a renewed state of being. He makes the song about all of humanity, caught up as we are in the struggle of living and looking for a sense of safety and relief as the world becomes more and more uncertain, and as our trials and struggles accumulate as we get older. When Taj Mahal sings it, it’s that empathetic quality in his voice that really makes this song so impactful, with acknowledgement of the existential struggle lies at the heart of every life to one degree or another, and that at heart we’re all seeking a place to rest and to find peace that seems like a giant step away.
Taj Mahal is an active musician and songwriter today. You can learn more about him and his long career at tajblues.com.