Bluesiana is the place
Interpretive singer Maria Muldaur continues a lifelong ramble through America’s musical byways
Listening to Classic Live!, a recent CD culled from two concert gigs in 1973 and 1975, by singer Maria Muldaur, one can hear almost all the elements of a musical aesthetic that, decades later, would become established as the signature sound of such media outlets as National Public Radio (NPR). There is the veneration of classic country-blues acts like Mississippi John Hurt, whose “Richland Woman Blues” Muldaur sang; decades later, she would use it as the title of a 2001 album tribute to Delta blues artists (a sequel will follow this year). There is the stylized jazz singing of “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be),” a song recorded by Billie Holiday and French gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, and “Searchin’,” a Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller song originally recorded by the Coasters.
And there is an acknowledgement by Muldaur, way back in the 1970s, that blond-wigged singer Dolly Parton was more than a cartoon. Muldaur sang Parton’s “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” prefacing the song by asking the audience if there were any country fans. After a few barroom whoops, Muldaur announced who wrote the song. No one yelled. Only in recent years has Parton gotten her due as a serious exponent of the Appalachian music tradition, but Muldaur knew her worth even back then.
“She is such a formidable talent,” said Muldaur, who may have been the first person to cover a Parton song. “Everybody thought she was just a big, busty bimbo, but she was writing these classic songs, as beautiful as a clear mountain stream.”
Perhaps Maria Muldaur is not a name that comes immediately to mind when people recall the movers and shakers who codified the genre now known as Americana, but she was definitely a key player. The 61-year-old interpretive singer, who lives in Marin County, emerged from the folk-music milieu of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, where she’d grown up. Muldaur was a contemporary of young Bob Dylan and was hanging out with such blues luminaries as Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Son House and her mentor, Victoria Spivey.
But Muldaur is best known for her 1970s hits “Midnight at the Oasis” and “Sweetheart (Waitress in a Donut Shop),” which launched her solo career after years in the Even Dozen Jug Band and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. There, she’d met husband and duet partner Geoff Muldaur, whom she divorced before going solo. And after having a couple of decent-sized hits, she had to choose between art and commerce.
“I didn’t do ‘Son of Midnight at the Oasis,’” she admitted. Instead, she hooked up with father-son guitar duo Doc and Merle Watson, jazz bandleader Benny Carter and others. She’s kept heading in that direction ever since. “All I’ve done in my life is make a long and rambling odyssey through the various forms of American roots music. And I never get tired of it,” she said.
If there’s one thread that ties both Muldaur’s oeuvre and the NPR-style Americana aesthetic together, it is a veneration of New Orleans music. For Muldaur, it’s the Crescent City’s piano tradition—Professor Longhair, Dr. John and, specifically, James Booker. “He’s God to me,” Muldaur enthused. She added, “It became mandatory that anyone who played piano in my band had to study the Dr. John instruction tapes, which I would provide for any keyboard player who was coming on board. All my keyboard players have a serious ‘bluesiana’ feel to their playing.”
At the Constable Jack’s gig on Thursday, Muldaur will be accompanied by John R. Burr, a pianist she’s worked with for 16 years. They’ll be featuring music from A Woman Alone With the Blues, a tribute to singer (and songwriter) Peggy Lee that came out early this year on Telarc Records, along with music from Classic Live! (which was released by local label Dig Music and was produced by SN&R contributor Mindy Giles) and from Shout, Sister, Shout!, a multi-artist tribute to gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Perhaps Muldaur will even do something off a forthcoming record she did with Eric Bibb and Rory Block, tentatively titled Sisters and Brothers.
Whatever they do, Maria Muldaur will never run out of songs to sing.