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Taj Mahal's support of original blues and roots culture started around the time of his own career in the '60s. Since meeting Tim Duffy, founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation based in Hillsborough, he's been an artistic consultant for the group and serves on their board of directors. Music Maker's mission to provide real financial relief to poor Southern musicians and document their work likely would not have quite as high a public profile were it not for Taj Mahal lending his support and well-known name.

They call it "keepin' the bluest of the blues alive"; the phrase should also be taken literally, as in keeping food on the table and medical bills paid. The preservation of all but forgotten playing methods, like Etta Baker's Piedmont guitar picking, may be this organization's best gift to future generations.

This collection puts the microphone up close to Mahal's collaborations with some of Music Maker's roster, occasionally capturing the laughter and casual chat between these kindred spirits. The record oozes with warmth, as if recorded in living rooms and on porches. The lonesome sound of blues guitar queen Etta Baker's "Railroad Bill" and "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" are an introduction to this world, where petite ladies past their 90th birthday pick intricate notes and giggle. Neal Pattman's "Disco Twist" hums with his creaky harmonica work, while Algia Mae Hinton's soulful voice leads "I Ain't the One You Love," a song with spiritual resonance.

Music Maker keeps the blues alive, but sometimes the blues' eternal battle between god and devil and man wins out. Cootie Stark, an original Piedmont street player, passed just last month. He traveled the East Coast with rambling figures like Baby Tate, but remained unrecorded and barely known until working with Music Maker. Since then, Stark--blind since youth--toured Europe, played Lincoln Theatre and once opened for Aretha Franklin. "High Yellow" captures the distinct sound of another time and place, Stark's vibrato gospel-call hanging in the air like smoke.

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