Maria Muldaur’s musical roots run deep. Born and raised in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Ms. Muldaur was surrounded by bluegrass, old-timey, jazz, blues and gospel music. But it was the voice of Bessie Smith that inspired her to become a performing artist.
Maria has earned a Grammy nomination (her third for Stony Plain) for her release ‘Maria Muldaur & Her Garden Of Joy‘ in the Best Traditional Folk Album category. This brings her career to a full circle as she began with the Even Dozen Jug Band and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band before becoming best known for her sultry vocals on such songs as ‘Midnight at the Oasis‘ and ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg‘.
Maria gets the band back together on this release, as she features former band mates and great friends, John Sebastian and David Grisman, along with Taj Mahal and Dan Hicks.
Maria was a sweet lovin’ ol’ soul and spoke with Blues411 early in 2011. It will be one that I will hold close for a long, long time.
B411: Your voice has seemed to have gotten better with the years. George Thorogood said to me once that when he got older, his voice and register became what he had always hoped for. Excepting the age remark I seem to think it holds true for you.
MM: You’re absolutely right. I finally have the voice I wanted to have the minute I heard Bessie Smith sing, when I was seventeen and I fell in love with the Blues. I always wanted a deep rich earthy voice but I was born with a sort of a lilting soprano. I wanted this voice so badly and I finally got it. With age everything goes South and luckily my voice did also. I gained a wider, richer lower register which is perfect for singing the Blues, which is what I love to do the most.
B411: So Bessie was a big influence on you, I take it.
MM: A huge influence, it was one of those epiphanic moments in my life. I had run away from home when I was seventeen, but since I was born and raised in Greenwich Village, which is the epicenter of all things hip, I didn’t have to run but about six blocks away. I was still in high school and took a job as a mother’s helper with a family, and I believe God sent me to that place because every night the parents would go out. So after I put the kids to bed I would listen to their amazing library of records. It was an amazing collection, they had everything Duke Ellington did, Fletcher Henderson – it was a massive floor to ceiling collection. Included in that were the entire original recordings of Bessie Smith on the original 78’s.
So this one night they went out to dinner, and after I put the kids to bed, I came across Bessie Smith and opened up this collection and there it was…Empty Bed Blues Part 1 and then on the other side Part 2. So I put this old, scratchy record on the turntable and put the needle down and heard this deep, rich, soulful voice moaning out “…when the bed gets empty makes me feel awful mean and blue…” I got goosebumps from head to toe, and at that very moment I said that’s what I want to do when I grow up.
B411: And so you did, and exceptionally well too.
MM: Thank you, I learned that song, and was singing it at parties. I also was involved with all kinds of American Roots music which was being (re)discovered and played around the village at that time. John Sebastian and I referred to it jokingly as ‘the Folkscare of the 60’s’. We we just exploring all kinds of music at the time. I was learning about old time Appalachian music, Blues, and Jug band music. I was even in a Bluegrass Band with David Grisman called Maria and the Washington Square Ramblers. There were groups forming all the time, everyone was so excited that we were discovering this ‘new music’. After all it had just been the fifties, where the most exciting thing on the radio was ‘How Much Is That Doggy In The Window’. But after Rock and roll got co-opted, and they tried to replace Elvis (being drafted) with Fabian and Pat Boone I lost interest in that. Then here came all this great Roots music that people were playing all around me I just got drawn into it.
So to back track abit, yes Bessie was a great influence – because to hear a voice like that, one that expresses so much soul I decided that was what I wanted to do.
B411: You mentioned John Sebastian, and David Grisman, on ‘Garden of Joy‘ it seems like you got the old gang together for some good ol’ jug band music.
MM: Absolutely – that was my intention. I was driving around in a Spring rain about a year and a half ago listening to the Sirius XM Bluesville 74 station (as I always do) and they just happened to be playing some great old Memphis jug band music, like the Mississippi Sheiks, and I’m thinking how funky and soulful and started to get nostalgic about all the jug band music we used to do and how much fun it was. So, as I am driving around. I called John Sebastian and told him about it doing this, and then I called David Grisman – we had been together as the Even Dozen Jug Band – they loved my wacky idea and essentially said ‘just say where and when and we will be there’.
So I get home and start going through my vast collection of old Blues and Jug Band music, and the first tune I came across on a compilation of women blues singers was ‘Bank Failure Blues’ recorded by Martha Copeland in 1929. Now this was the beginning of 2009, so I put it on to listen and it was so poignant, it still carried truth today – years later- a song about a woman working for the white folk and dutifully putting her money in the bank and finding it all gone and here we were again. That’s what I love about these songs is that they are timeless. The other song I found was ‘The Panic Is On’ by Hezekiah Jenkins, now if that ain’t an old timey name then nothing is. I found it so descriptive, Ken Burns (who I am a big fan of) could have done a three-hour documentary about how it was in the depression and not come up with a more poignant and vivid depiction of what was going on, and what people had to resort to, than this man did in this little eight verse song.
B411: Yes, those are the first songs that struck me, and the fact that things ain’t changed too much. What about other selections, any reasons or stories?
MM: Of course I wanted to visit some of our old favorites, including ‘Garden of Joy’ which we did in the Kweskin Jug Band. Then I found that there was a whole new generation of, what I call the New Jug Generation, of amazing players who totally embrace this music that are in their early twenties. So I hooked them up with the old generation veterans and called upon my dear friend Dan Hicks and we all got together and made this record in my living room. Talk about doing it the old time funky way ! Everyone was great, we all got along very well, and I am so delighted with the way it came out.
Dan Hicks contributed two of his songs, both about anger management ‘Let It Simmer‘ and the other “The Diplomat’, then he and I did two absolutely, wacky, funny duets as well. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was nominated for a Blues Music Award last year, and then again this past December when I start getting all these e-mails congratulating me on my Grammy nomination.
B411: Congratulations, are in order. This is the third Grammy nomination for you on Stony Plain label correct?
MM: Yes, my third, my sixth all together. I got three for ‘Midnight At The Oasis‘ in various forms; new artist, best produced, best song whatever it was. Then more for the acoustic blues pioneers trilogy, as you called them, Richland Women Blues, and Sweet Lovin’ Old Soul, both of which were nominated for Grammy’s. The final one was my tribute to all the early classic Blues Queens Naughty, Bawdy and Blue , such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, and Sippie Wallace – both of whom I got to know, and they both took me under their wing when I was coming up, as they were still alive.
B411: That was my favorite release, I do love me some naughty and bawdy songs.
MM: Those songs all are so wonderful and sly. This proves my point that this music should not be sitting on a shelf in the Smithsonian somewhere. That it should be kept alive and I do my best to do that. Several generations past from when I first discovered this music, are now discovering it for the first time and are delighted with it. I did extensive touring behind each release and the responses have been fabulous, proving that this music is still alive, relevant and soulful and people need to hear it.
MM: It was so great, I got to meet his niece, great nieces and family, it was just awesome. Were you there?
B411: Yes, I was it was so wonderful especially when they all sang an impromptu verse of ‘Walk Right In, Sit Right Down’, they really appreciated your efforts that day.
MM: They were so wonderful. About a dozen years or so ago I was asked to dedicate the Memphis Minnie note. At that time they did it at the B.B. King’s Blues Club. Several people sang songs, and then I got to do a small set and I did a number called ‘Tricks Ain’t Walking‘ and the family just flipped out. They really got my love for Minnie’s’ music and the amount of respect I gave her tunes when I sang them.
B411: To me your versions are very faithful to the originals, is this intentional?
MM: I try to do these songs in the original arrangement and pretty much, with original instrumentation. To me, these Blues are part our classical music. These people were all very creative, wrote creative and inventive songs, and all had different styles of playing. If you listen to early Blues you will hear that they did not sound the same each was unique, completely different ways of sounding. Memphis Minnie wrote over two-hundred songs, but not many of them never got written down. Hey if there’s nothing wrong with playing Mozart the exactly way he wrote it down three-hundred/five hundred years ago then why not these? If you want to you can certainly do a whole other new interpretation, but it is still valid to do it in the original style. Like the Stones or Eric Clapton does and take them and electrify them that’s great and valid, but to me, the purpose of doing these songs is to bring that early, cool, creative Blues music in the style of the original artist to a new audience who most likely would not listen to it on a scratchy recording. People are used to hearing things sound big, not scratchy. Once they have gotten familiar, hopefully, they will go back and learn about Memphis Minnie or Mississippi John.
B411: Yes, it is the white mans’ path to the Blues, move backwards to the original artists, after hearing modern versions of those songs. I think you strategy is a darn good one.
MM: Must be, because all of these recordings have done well. I enjoy doing it, I have gotten many letters from young musicians saying they never heard of so and so artist. But with the kids today if something catches their ear they can download the entire collection in fifteen minutes. It’s wonderful. There is so much out there to learn even for me. I thought I knew a lot about the early Blues, now I am learning several layers deeper, people like Martha Copeland, I had never heard of her before. I got turned on to Hezekiah Jenkins by Kid Stovepipe and I became a huge fan.
B411: That’s what is so great by you covering these artists I then get turned on to them, and research them and it all is paid forward.
MM: That’s it – I just want my songs to be little arrows pointing to the original artists because the are so precious and unique and they make up such a large rich part of our heritage that we need to remember them and keep them and their music alive before it all disappears.
B411: Maria, it has been so much fun, and a great learning experience talking with you. Congratulations again on the Grammy Nomination, maybe the third time is the charm for you. Hopefully so.
PS: So shortly after speaking with Maria none other than John Sebastian called and offered some thoughts on working with Maria and their times together.
Here is our conversation, and, thanks John !
B411: It was great to see that you played with Maria on her ‘Garden of Joy’ release. It was sorta like getting the old band together again, that is The Even Dozen Jug Band.
JS: Well ya know, the Even Dozen Jug Band, that was quite a unit. We didn’t know it then, we weren’t famous, but that was assembly of people like ninety percent of the people are still playing music for a living. Quite the accomplishment.
Let’s start on Maria. As a point of departure, Maria has always been one of the real genuine jug lovin’ people. When she said that she was thinking of doing a jug band album it was killing us, Fritz Richmond had just died and there we were saying ‘aww man, we really need him, again.” But the ‘yute’ was coming up in Northern California and there’s a really interesting next generation of Jug Banders. There’s guys who are obessed wth the Reverend Gary Davis, which I thought was going to end with our generation – we had that – but I was wrong.
JS: That’s right, but let’s face it, that girl can talk me into anything. She got going on that and I said we got to, then she connected with some other folks on that project just by proximity and playing Blues festivals and it kind of started to realize this Northern California clotch that has sprung up. It is not just Jug Band music – it’s old-timey music, sons of Bluegrass and all sorts of wonderfull stuff.
Maria and I have a friendship that goes back to Greenwich Village, before there was an Even Dozen Jug Band. We were both Italian, and we lived within five or six blocks of each other at various times. I was moving around with my family while Maria was more stabilzed with her family in the Carmine/Bedford area. I was already following her around when another new acquaintance, Paul Rothschild tried to interest Maria and Stephan Grossman in this idea of being a jug band. See, Paul believed there was going to be a jug band craze. So this is the weird thing, a nuance that not every interviewer picks up on, which is we didn’t start out all knowledgeable about Jug Band Music, or Noah Lewis. I didn’t know Gus Cannon’s name until a year and a half later. Because what we were interested in was – working ! That’s what we wanted to do, and, hey if you needed a Bluegrass band we had our Bluesgrass vests, and we can fill that bill. But if you needed a Jug Band – can do !
That was sort of the approach, see people think that most of these kind of energies come from within a band and in this case it was kind of a producer, overseer, good-time-Charlie, serious hanger-outer, on the street guy. That’s what Paul was, he always kept a pulse of what was coming next. I believe Paul was very aware that he was living in exciting times, and he was trying to do the right things in that regard.
So our professional life was surprisingly good. Within a month or two of deciding that this band existed and rehearsed a little bit, we fit perfectly with a number of Folk and Jazz wing dings, and hootenannies and even the beginnings of Folk Rock television. They would say ‘we have Nina Simone, Herbie Mann, and we can get the Even Dozen Jug Band’. Back when concerts were where they would pick one from each type of music for concerts.
B411: Have you been working with Maria much in these last few years? How comfortable is it?
JS: Yeh, it seems like every seven or eight years there is something we have to do together. Sometimes it’s various Jug Band reunions, others times it’s Maria’s album, because she is very prolific. I have to take my hat off to that girl. She puts the shoulder to the wheel.
It’s like all the great old cats we admired or admire. When we get together we are all like twenty years old. There we are we do what we do. The only difference is the experience. Maria often harks back to a moment when we were with the Even Dozen Jug Band, we were at a session with Paul Rothchild, and for the first time Jack Holtzman, the head of the company, is coming in to see how we were doing. He listens, and goesover to Paul and says ‘ya know, do ya think we could get Maria to sing a little deeper a little darker?’….. then he goes over to Maria and says ‘honey, on this next take I just want you to imagine that you are old and Black and got bunions, piles and got all kinds of medical problems” Maria just looked at him like ‘what the hell does he want from me’ !
Now, the fact is that her voice has gained all the wonderful grit that Jack would have killed for, thats like a “calling Jack Holtzman, your singer is ready” moment.
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Until Next Time
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
photos courtesy of Artist, Leslie K. Joseph