There are few uniquely American forms of music most devalued in its own country than the blues, though many musicians outside its genre have not hesitated to co-opt its forms, often without attribution. Otis Taylor was born in Chicago in 1948 but grew up in Denver. His father wanted him to be a jazz musician but his first instrument of choice was the banjo. When he learned that the banjo had been co-opted by white 19th century black-face minstrel shows playing bluegrass, he dropped the instrument in favor of guitar and harmonica, and later the mandolin. In Denver he was inspired through the Denver Folklore Center, where he was influenced by the music of Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi John Hurt. Hearing Etta James sing “All I Want to Do Is Make Love to You,” also was an inspiring moment in his life, drawing him closer to the blues. I can understand the inspiration.
As a teenager and young man he started a couple of bands based in the blues. He reached maturity in the ’60s, stayed in the U.K. for a period of time in order to close a deal for a stillborn record contract during the heyday of the British enthusiasm for American blues, and after a few more years of performing quit altogether to be an antique broker in 1976. Fortunately for all of us that wasn’t the last word from Otis Taylor on music. Prodded by bassist Kenny Passarelli, he returned to music in 1995, initially for a benefit concert, and continued to pursue his musical talent.
Taylor is not an artist to avoid hard topics, which elevates his music beyond its genre. His early life was marred by violence and racism, and his family history included lynching and other humiliations that attended being black in mid-20th century America. This experience is documented in his early music. Since 1995 his music has evolved as society has evolved, focused on concerns of social and economic injustice, the invisible ties between America and Africa, the day-to-day struggles, hopes, joys, passions, and humiliations of everyday people. As the core of his narrative has remained grounded in the blues folk form, his music has expanded to include jazz, rock, funk, and other instrumentation. In this way he successfully reflects and epitomizes the history of American music itself–from the blues, to jazz, to rhythm & blues, to rock and roll.
As a student of history I am often perplexed by historical amnesia in modern society, especially when one considers the life experience of someone like Otis Taylor. He rose out of a world in which white society was built on the neo-slave labor of Jim Crow in the American south and de facto segregation and redlining in the north; lived through the Civil Rights era as a member of that disenfranchised group, and witnessed the breaking down of de jure racism and segregation; experienced the backlash that attended “benign neglect” and the neo-Confederate Southern Strategy; and then lived through the slow process of acceptance through individual struggle. It is clear that, as William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As such, Otis Taylor’s music lives in the present but links us to the history that is an essential part of our collective memory on topics that are never comfortable. He entertains but the entertainment always comes with a question, a thought, a reflection, a perspective.
In the album, “My World is Gone,” Taylor turns his attention to the experience of American indigenous people in modern American society. Here he is with American Nakota Nation guitar wizard Mato Nanji of the band Indigenous on “Blue Rain in Africa.” The birth of a White Buffalo has significance to the storyteller in the song, since it is a hopeful sign in Native American folklore, but he experiences the event via the medium of television: the incongruity of the mystical and the modern, connections unseen, and pondered.
This year Saharan dust traveled the ocean and fell to the ground in Florida drifting on the trade winds, as it has done for tens of thousands of years, if not longer, but at least since the Sahara became a desert. It is all interconnected, though perhaps not in the metaphysical realm.