Maria Muldaur reminisces
Songwriter Maria Muldaur on the times that a-changed
Maria Muldaur was there back when the times and the music were a-changin’. She knew Bob Dylan when his name was mostly unknown, and has stories to tell of a life lived near the heart of music that shaped the baby boomers’ identity—and just about everyone since.
Today, Muldaur’s talking about the early ’60s, when Dylan was a scruffy folkie scuffling through Greenwich Village coffeehouses. The Village Muldaur remembers was a place where people knew one another, especially in the folk and blues singers’ subculture, when the world was on the brink of change following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Muldaur and her friend Annie Bird were singing folk songs from club to club, passing a basket after each set, their only means of getting paid.
“We all did it: me, Dylan, Ritchie Havens, John Hammond, all part of that scene,” she says.
One afternoon, a club owner gave Muldaur and Bird his club’s keys so they’d have a place to rehearse.
“We’re warbling away on our Carter Family stuff, and Dylan walks by and sees us inside,” she recalls. “‘I cut my finger,’ he says.” When Muldaur quotes Dylan, she slips into an impersonation of the Dylan rasp-and-wheeze that’s infectiously funny.
“‘I got a gig tonight,’ Dylan says. He’s worried the cut will keep him from playing, and so we let him in and dressed his wound. He felt a little sheepish about making a fuss over such a little cut, so he asked if he could try out a new song.”
She continues: “I knew Dylan a little, but I was not a big fan of the kind of protest songs he was mostly singing then. I was much more into Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, those guys.”
But that afternoon changed Muldaur’s attitude toward Dylan.
“He sat down on a milk crate in the kitchen and played ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game.’ It was a revelation. Most of the protest songs I’d heard seemed jingoistic and overly simplistic. They were all painted in black and white, with the protest singers always being on the side of the angels, and flattering their audiences with their own goodness. But the song Dylan sang that afternoon came from a deeper consciousness. He saw that the small-minded and bigoted people were only pawns, too, in a larger game in which corporate and political interests were manipulating them. That was an epiphany, and he’s been some sort of important messenger to me ever since.”
Muldaur and Dylan’s lives have intersected often in the past 40 years. “I was there the night he got booed at Newport. When he went electric, the technology could barely handle what Dylan was bringing to that festival. It was really primitive. The Dylan band that night was really the Butterfield Blues Band without Butterfield. That was a million miles from what the folk purists had come to hear. So they booed. Dylan just blew past all of that to where he had to go, the place where he was headed all along.”
Muldaur is in the place where she seems to have been headed all along, too. She’s kept faith with music—like Tracy Nelson, Holly Near and the others who will share the Crest Theatre stage with her this Friday night. They are people who spread the news about things that are mostly not new but must not be thrown away.
Those who remember Muldaur only because of “Midnight at the Oasis,” her megahit song from the ’70s, have been missing a great deal. She’s among the best interpreters of traditional blues working today, resurrecting Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace and other women who sang the blues well before that long-ago day when Dylan sang a new song just for her and Bird.