Birthdays are not something that bound different people together in any significant way if they aren’t born on the same day. It tends to be very much about the individual in most cases. If one is bound heavily to astrology,it can be an altogether different matter. I happen to be a Taurus and so are the people you see pictured above: Janet Jackson and Taj Mahal. They are both born a day apart-Janet on the 16th of this month in 1966 and Taj Mahal today on the 17th in 1942. So Janet will be turning 45 this year and Taj will be turning 71. On the surface,both of these musicians appear to have little to nothing in common outside month of birth and racial back round. To use the language of writer William Strauss in his historical text Generations, Taj Mahal was part of what that text refers to as the “silent” generation and of course Janet is part of what most people refer to as Generation X,a term coined by Strauss himself. These artists actually do have some interesting commonalities. The first in this case pertains to how each of them impacted on the musical end of my upbringing.
Primarily the stories of these two separate musical icons in my life is the story of my father and my mother. Taj Mahal was a favorite artist of my father during my school years. At around the age of 8-9,we had a summer camp by a fresh water lake. And he and I often went fishing together. On the way he would often sing this song called “Fishing Blues”. When I asked him who it was,he said it was an artist named Taj Mahal. What a coincidence Taj made a children’s recording around this time called Shake Sugaree,which included a version of this song with a monologue from Taj Mahal about his own fishing experiences and suggesting children sing the song to their parents to get them to go fishing with them. Janet Jackson’s history in my life is more representative of the beginning of my history record collection. Her songs “When I Think Of You” and “Nasty” were the first 45 vinyl records that I ever had of my own. What a good earlier education in funk through who I learned later were Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis of Minneapolis’s own The Time-who struck gold with Janet.
I always liked the way she used swelling vocal harmonies in her music,and how it evolved over time to accommodate funkier and jazzier elements into her dance/funk/pop context. Perhaps because of Janet’s heavy orientation towards dancing in her music videos and appearance in the TV series of Fame,my mother was very attracted to Janet’s music. Though gender had very little to do with it. Musically my mother is far more a lyrical and melody person,though by her own will nearly impossible to pin down in terms of taste. My father is extremely musically expansive. He responds heavily to instrumental ability,vocal skill and emotional intent-the latter perhaps because of his strong social instinct. And since they of course guided me more musically far more than any of my peers did at that time,it was them from whom I gathers most of my musical knowledge and interests. Again the differences are all too easy to spot. Janet is from a hugely popular musical family of course,and some might say her success was a function of genetics and reputation. Yet she has proved herself again and again a singular talent. Taj Mahal is essentially a blues man,who developed his music at an extraordinary time in history. Again,there are important similarities between the two artists.
Janet Jackson and Taj Mahal are both rather caring individuals,with a strong creative will and are strongly affected by humanistic concerns. Both liberated themselves from different kinds of pasts in different ways. Janet in a more sexual way due to the difficulties in her abusive family. And Taj Mahal perhaps by virtue of his chosen professional name-apparently taken from a dream about Gandhi and non violent civil rights actions. For those who’ve heard of him,I’ve never heard anyone with anything negative to say about the musical art of Taj Mahal. With Janet on the other hand I’ve heard the other side of the coin. People saying that musically she tends to be too fast to eschew creative vision in favor of being commercially popular. Yet it makes you wonder doesn’t it? If an ordinary person such as myself could be musically inspired by both of these people,and even find personal commonalities between them than how come the mere level of popular success is any type of guide post for judging them by so many people? In any regard,I want to wish a happy (belated) birthday to Miss Janet and a happy one right on time today to Taj Mahal.