Maria Muldaur: Still Raising Her Voice to Inspire, Comfort and Entertain

by Kay Cordtz

A spellbinding singer in a range of genres since her girlhood in Greenwich Village, Maria Muldaur once described her deepening voice to a delicate flute that has become more of a saxophone. Her career spans nearly five decades, and in the last four decades she has released nearly an album a year (many of them self-​​produced) using her gorgeously versatile instrument on projects that sample her varied Americana repertoire. The latest—Steady Love— is her 39th recording since she became a pop star with her first self-​​titled record containing the huge radio hit “Midnight at the Oasis.”  On her new record, she manages to weave together the funky blues of her live performances — on tracks like the sexy “Soulful Dress” —with some spirited gospel worthy of her idol, Mavis Staples, on “I’ve Done Made It Up In My Mind” and “As An Eagle Stirreth in Her Nest.” Muldaur has always been able to convey a wide range of feeling from sultry to earnest to playful —sometimes within the same song.

I don’t have a problem with the secular versus the sacred,” she said recently. “To me, it’s just one big beautiful life and all worth singing about.”

Over the past ten years, Muldaur has produced and released four celebrated acoustic blues albums that pay tribute to early blues legends including Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Sippie Wallace, “women who created this music and have inspired and influenced so many of us and to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude,” she said. “I recorded those albums acoustically to present the music in the original way.”

But fans of Muldaur’s live shows are used to hearing the electrified New Orleans-​​flavored swamp funk she calls “bluesiana,” so she temporarily put the vintage music on hold.

I decided to go right back to the source — New Orleans, where I have recorded several times before — and I enlisted my favorite New Orleans musicians, led by the amazing David Torkanowsky, who’s not only a keyboard player extraordinaire but also a great bandleader and arranger and master facilitator. He helped find the right players for this project,” she said.

“I don’t have a problem with the secular versus
the sacred. To me, it’s just one big
beautiful life and all worth singing about.”

In her quest for material, Muldaur used a process she and fellow blueswoman Bonnie Raitt  call  the “demo-​​listen derby,” in which they screen hundreds of songs solicited from the country’s best songwriters.

photo by Alan Mercer

You never know where your next great song is going to come from,” she noted, “but for every one great tune that ends up on a record, we listen to at least 100 mundane, pedestrian offerings. It’s quite a feat to come up with 12 or 13 totally great songs. This time, although it was my intention to record a straight-​​ahead blues/​bluesiana album, a few gospel songs snuck into the mix. Sometimes a song you hear on day one that seems to have a lot of potential may be completely knocked out of the final lineup by better songs that emerge later on. But in the end, on the day you go in to record, the cream rises to the top, and there you have your final song selection.  I just loved these gospel songs too much not to do them!”

The CD was recorded in just a few days with minimal rehearsal.

These guys have this kind of music in their DNA,” she said of her recording band. “And what you hear is just what naturally emerged from the chemistry between the songs, these great musicians and me.”

“…Moving people and uplifting their spirits,
not fame and fortune, has really been my main
motivation all these years.”

Muldaur and her band recently completed a successful five-​​week national tour to promote Steady Love.

The audience reaction was even more spectacular than usual,” she said.  “Even in this hard economy, people are lining up to buy this CD in great quantities, and we’ve been receiving enthusiastic feedback everywhere we perform.  Since the financial meltdown, I think people are kind of depressed,” she observed. “There’s so much that seems so daunting and overwhelmingly impossible going on right now, and as we tour around the country, we’ve noticed just how much this music and these particular songs are really speaking to people. That means the world to me – way more than the various Grammy nominations and other awards I’ve received over the years. What more can an artist hope for? Moving people and uplifting their spirits, not fame and fortune, has really been my main motivation all these years. “

Muldaur’s last record, a Grammy-​​nominated tribute to jug band music called Maria Muldaur and Her Garden of Joy, was released in late 2009. On the tour that followed, she performed at the Colony in Woodstock with collaborators including some young jug band players and local jug band cohort John Sebastian. She dreamed up the concept on a drive near her Mill Valley, CA. home, listening to old jug band tunes on the radio. Waxing nostalgic for her early days in the Even Dozen Jug Band, she called her old pals Sebastian and David Grisman on the spot, and enlisted their participation. Dan Hicks, another longtime crony, also joined the project, contributing a couple of songs and singing two hilarious duets with Muldaur. She was also amazed to discover a veritable jug band craze going on in the Pacific Northwest. From the three active jug bands there, she filled out her touring band.

Maria with John Sebastian and Kit Stovepipe, photo by Catherine Sebastian

The bands were all great,” she said, “but one in particular, The Crowquill Nightowls, was utterly fantastic! This kid named Kit Stovepipe played ragtime guitar so well that it gave my old bandleader Jim Kweskin some serious competition! I called Kit up and asked if he would join us, and he thought it was a prank call,” she laughed. “So the old jugsters collaborated with what I call the ‘new jug generation’ and it was huge fun!”

The record also included a couple of topical songs written in 1929 – 30 during the last Great Depression that spoke to the tailspin of the economy.

Jug band music is designed just by nature to be a little bit wacky and lighthearted but I started that project just when the financial shit was hitting the fan,” she said. “After getting the green light from John Sebastian and David Grisman, I rushed home to start researching material for the album. I pulled out a bunch of CD’s and records from my quite considerable blues collection, and the very first album I picked up had a song entitled, ‘Bank Failure Blues’ and it gave me chills,” she said. “It was a song about a woman who had worked and scraped her whole life cleaning houses only to lose it all when the banks failed.  I also recorded another song from the Depression era called, ‘Doggone The Panic is On’ and both songs really hit a nerve with people. But there were plenty of happy, light-​​hearted songs on there to uplift spirits too,” she added.

A few years earlier, she was similarly moved to record songs with a social message. Although very involved in the 1960s music scene that raised public consciousness about many issues, Muldaur was never one for protest songs.

In the ‘60s, I totally believed in all the causes others were espousing in their songs, but musically it wasn’t what attracted me,” she said. “But after years of doing songs about love, lust, romance and seduction — which have served me pretty well — what I was most concerned with in 2007 was the state of the country and the world. But instead of making a protest album, the idea morphed into making a pro-​​peace album with songs that projected a vision of how things could be.”

Muldaur created the Women’s Voices for Peace Choir, enlisting artists like Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Holly Near, Odetta, Phoebe Snow, and her daughter Jennie Muldaur, as well as women writers in the cause of peace and social justice like Marianne Williamson, Anne Lamott and Jean Shinoda Bolen.

I looked for songs from the period of the late ‘60s to early ‘70s, when soul artists like Marvin Gaye were writing and recording songs with political themes, but with this fabulous funky beat — protest music you can dance to,” she said. “The first song I thought of was ‘Yes We Can Can,’ which was a hit for the Pointer Sisters at about the same time as ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ was high on the pop charts. It’s a real positive song about working together for social change with an irrepressible funky beat.”

Muldaur made the record in the fall of 2007. While mixing it early the following year, a friend asked if she knew that a presidential candidate was using that song’s title as a campaign slogan and suggested she send him her version. She wasn’t familiar with Obama and in any event was a self-​​described “Hillary girl.” She still supported Hillary when someone else repeated the suggestion a month later, but sent the song off anyway.

“You never know where your next great song is going to come from.”

In eight days time, I went to the mailbox and there, among a huge armful of bills and catalogues, was one envelope that was hand-​​addressed and it was a hand-​​written letter from Barack Obama,” she said. “He thanked me for the song, said how perfectly it fit the spirit of the campaign and that he told his team to put it in rotation at the speeches and rallies. I was pretty impressed by that.”

Muldaur said that other songs from the “Yes We Can” record address current events and they are sprinkled throughout her current show.

We have to remember that the meek will inherit the earth,” she said. “There are all these oppressive and monolithic structures in place and they seem so overwhelmingly, dauntingly impossible to change, but we must remember that eventually these things tend to crumble under their own weight. Mahatma Gandhi was able to stand up in a peaceable way against the biggest, most oppressive empire in the world. Segregation, apartheid, the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, so many oppressive regimes, all give way in the end when people have the courage to stand together and demand basic human rights and social justice. If people would just wake up and not be so distracted, hypnotized, and mesmerized by every possible kind of media device, then we could actually wake up and work together to effect change for the better in this country and the world.”

While on tour recently, Muldaur and her band were asked to take part in an Occupy Wall Street-​​related rally in Asheville, North Carolina. “My motto is ‘power to the peaceful’,” she said. “We’d been following the movement on a daily basis and were thrilled to actually be able to lend our energy to support it.”

Now that winter’s coming, Muldaur, her band, and her tour bus — “The Mothership” —are headed back home to California to work on her next release.

Mama don’t travel in the wintertime,” she said. “I use those months to work on my next project. I’m finishing up the fifth in my series of acoustic albums, paying tribute to one of my all time heroes and idols, Memphis Minnie, one of the blues women I respect and revere so much.”

With the assistance of soul sisters Rory Block, Bonnie Raitt, Ruthie Foster, Phoebe Snow and others, Muldaur will celebrate “a gal who was one of the forerunners of rock and roll. She was very soulful and funky, played bitchin’ guitar, wrote over 200 of her own songs, was an independent woman who called her own shots, lived life her way, and sang about it. She was way ahead of her time!”

These last observations can be said to equally describe Muldaur, another soulful, independent woman who has been seducing audiences with Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” since the earliest days of her career.

If I can turn on a new generation to the incredibly rich musical and cultural heritage we are blessed with in this country, then I’ll feel I’ve accomplished my mission in this life,” she said.

For more about Maria’s new album Steady Love, go here.

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