September 23, 2010

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No ordinary woman
Maria Muldaur sings the femininist blues
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

In his sweeping new biography, Bob Dylan in America, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz discusses one of Dylan’s key influences, Blind Willie McTell. “He was a sponge … who soaked up every kind of music he heard and then expressed it in his own way,” writes Wilentz — much like Dylan.

It’s also true of Dylan contemporary Maria Muldaur. In junior high school, she led two doo-wop groups and was offered a record contract, which her mother nixed.

“She put an abrupt end to my hopeful little rock and roll career, which in retrospect is probably a good thing,” said Muldaur recently from a tour stop in Fredericton, New Brunswick. “The really cool, hip funky music [was] co-opted … Elvis got drafted and replaced with Pat Boone.”

At 17, the Greenwich Village native left home, moving “three blocks away to the epicenter of hip” where a musical revolution was being born. With her friend Annie Bird, she began performing in the same pass-the-hat cafés, called “basket houses,” where Dylan was developing his talent.

One day, after the pair helped bandage the singer’s cut finger, Dylan played them “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a song he’d just written.

“I just felt the top of my head open up,” says Muldaur. “I mean, it was an epiphanal moment I’ll never forget, because all the other folk singers and protest singers were saying, ‘People in the south are so narrow-minded, such bigots, they’re so wrong and we’re so right.’ It was all so very self righteous and polarizing, and here comes this 21-year-old chubby baby-faced kid that has such a deeper cosmic overview.”

But Muldaur mostly eschewed the activism of the times, focusing instead on old-time music, first with the Even Dozen Jug Band (which featured future stars John Sebastian and David Grisman), later with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and finally as a duo with her husband, Geoff Muldaur. When the couple divorced, she signed a solo deal with Reprise Records, home to Ry Cooder, Randy Newman and other eclectic perfomers.

“We weren’t expected to make commercial pop hits,” she says. “I was given the right to choose whatever material I wanted; they didn’t have a preconceived notion of what they wanted me to do.” She opened the record with a Jimmie Rogers song, covered Dolly Parton (“I believe I was first person to record one of her songs”) and recorded Lulu Barkley’s “Don’t You Feel My Leg” — a number that became a concert staple.

“The source of our music was very vintage material, which is where I kind of live in terms of my personal taste,” she says. But the record also yielded “Midnight at the Oasis,” written by guitarist David Nichtern and added at the last minute when the producer requested a mid-tempo song. Nichtern was a supportive friend during Muldaur’s sometimes rocky transition to solo performing. “As a gesture of gratitude toward him I said, ‘Well, David has this funny little song’ … and the rest is history.”

Muldaur didn’t attempt to clone the success of “Oasis” on her follow-up, Waitress in a Donut Shop. She opened with a Skip James tune, invited her friends Doc and Merle Watson to perform on the old-timey “Honey Babe Blues,” and did a rollicking remake of the Swallows’ “It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion.”

“I’ve always been very eclectic, so being a commercial pop success and whatever all that means meant nothing to me,” says Muldaur. “It meant that it was easier to pay the bills, and then it afforded me the opportunity to keep right on doing what I always had been doing and am doing to this day — which is exploring various forms of American roots music.”

As a solo artist, Muldaur has released 36 albums since her debut, including western swing jazz (with Dan Hicks), Dixieland with Dr. John (a session player during her Reprise years) and more recently, a return to her sixties jug band sound (Garden of Joy, released last year),

On the Grammy-nominated Richland Woman Blues, Muldaur paid tribute to what Reverend Gary Davis termed “our classical music,” with faithful renditions of songs by Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Memphis Minnie and other influential blues artists. “It was a labor of love,” she wrote in the liner notes.

“Pop music is pretty vapid stuff and doesn’t stand the test of time,” says Muldaur, “but the blues — and this also goes for Appalachian, old-timey music and bluegrass as well — all these forms of American roots music have been proliferating in a way, especially since the early ’90s, that you couldn’t have believed it even if somebody would have told you. Sometimes I call a musician to get him to do some gigs with me, and he says, ‘I can’t, I’m going to the Turkish Blues festival!’ I mean, it’s everywhere, and without a stitch of support from the above-ground media.”

Of the music’s resurgence, Muldaur says, “There’s a way that the blues express the issues of human life that is much more authentic, not whitewash, not candy-coated and therefore in the singing and playing and listening to it — whatever the problem [is] somehow gets transcended and there’s a healing by the end of the song. It’s like some magical thing — I don’t know how to describe it better than that. ”

Victoria Spivey signed Muldaur’s first band and mentored her as a young performer. Spivey made blues records in the 1920s and went on to run her own label. This was a rare feat for a woman, but Muldaur didn’t dwell on it.“I think of myself as a ‘femininist’ — in other words, I really celebrate the difference between the sexes and I relish and glory in all the feminine attributes and skills that I and my sisters possess.”

The first song she performed with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band was a naughty version of Leiber and Stoller’s “I’m a Woman.” It contained the memorable line, “I can make a dress out of a feedbag/and I can make a man out of you,” but Muldaur never felt that one came at the expense of the other. “I always thought, why not? It never occurred to me that there was a barrier in all this,” she says. “I’d seen women do this all my life and all their lives.”

“People have often asked this question very solicitously — ‘What was it like being a woman in the music business?’ As if I was going to tell them all these horrible tales of the casting couches,” she laughs. “I just say... I was there for the love of the music, and every male musician that I’ve had the amazing privilege to know and work with has just accepted me for that.”


Maria Muldaur and the Red Hot Bluesiana Band
When: Friday, Oct. 1, at 8 p.m.
Where: The Upper Room at The Town House, One Grove Street in Peterborough
Tickets: $36 at www.mktix.com/heptunes
Also appearing Friday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m. at Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry (sold out).