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Maria Muldaur Has Got the South in Her Soul

The singer talks about her lifelong path from the mean streets of '60s New York City to the raucous streets of contemporary New Orleans

Maria Muldaur Has Got the South in Her Soul
Maria Muldaur (photo: Alan Mercer)

Since her early days during the folk revival of the 1960s, Maria Muldaur has been immersed in American roots music of the past—the often quite distant past, at that. A native of New York City, specifically the West Village, Muldaur got her start playing with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band along with her then-husband Geoff Muldaur. She also fell in with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead for a time and sang harmony in the Jerry Garcia Band. Muldaur recorded her first solo album in 1973, and that eponymous debut included an improbable hit, “Midnight at the Oasis,” that brought her worldwide attention and opportunities. The song’s massive commercial success belied the eclectic nature of her musical interests, reflected in her choice of songs by Dolly Parton, Dr. John, Jimmie Rodgers, and Kate McGarrigle. Indeed, the second single off that same album, “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” was a bawdy song written by the singular New Orleans singer/songwriter Blue Lu Barker and her guitarist husband Danny Barker. The album also featured a remarkable lineup of musicians, from roots-rock players like Ry Cooder, Clarence White, Dr. John, and Spooner Oldham to jazz players such as Ray Brown, Dave Holland, and Ed Shaughnessy.

During the course of the next 45-plus years, Muldaur doggedly continued to explore blues, jazz, country, gospel, R&B, and other purely American music forms. She’s also been a dedicated and passionate champion of female composers and performers of early blues and jazz, including Barker, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, and Memphis Minnie.

Her most recent album, Let’s Get Happy Together, is the 43rd in a long, steady career and features her singing with the young trad jazz band Tuba Skinny, who are known for their spirited performances on the streets of New Orleans.

She spoke with JazzTimes about that album, as well as about her evolution as a singer and recording artist and how jazz and American roots music have shaped her and provided her an opportunity to learn continually from our rich musical past.

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JazzTimes: Unlike so many young talented people in the ’60s, you didn’t have to come to the Village; you were already there. Where did you grow up exactly? 

Maria Muldaur: On 12th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.

Right by the Village Vanguard.

Exactly. I used to pass by it when I went to P.S. 3. I would sit on the top of the steps and listen to Bill Evans and Gerry Mulligan. I was too young to go in but I’d listen to them soundcheck.

When my daughter went to NYU in 2009, we went to the nearest Capital One bank branch to open an account there for her. It was at 8th and University Place, and when I walked in I realized that it had been the Cookery.

Right, where Alberta Hunter used to play. She was one of the blues queens I had the pleasure of seeing in person. I knew Victoria Spivey and Sippie Wallace. They both sort of mentored me when I was coming up.

They probably seemed very old to you then, as is common with young people, but they actually may have been younger than us now.

I think Victoria Spivey was in her 60s then. When the Kweskin Jug Band rediscovered Sippie Wallace, she was close to 70 or so. We coaxed her out of retirement and made an album with her, and she went on to tour all over the world.

Your generation can rightfully take credit for reintroducing so many great blues artists from our history.

I think the folk revival, as they call it, emerged at the end of the ’50s when there was all this great jazz, blues, and roots music, as we call it now, that had been replaced by insipid rock & roll and pop music, where you had people like Pat Boone and Fabian singing Fats Domino songs.

When people started listening to and delving into early roots music, it sounded so cool and organic and so much more vital and wonderful. Naturally, we soaked it up. In the early ’60s, a bunch of friends of mine rediscovered jug band music, which is originally from the ’20s and ’30s. I got invited to join the Kweskin Jug Band shortly thereafter, in 1963. We’d spend all our spare time listening to old jug band recordings looking for stuff to play ourselves. We were also listening to a lot of jazz, like Fletcher Henderson, Paul Whiteman, the Dorsey Brothers, the McKinney Cotton Pickers … We’d spend hours listening to those old records. It’s really a part of me.

What kind of music was around in the house growing up?

My mother tried to make me listen only to classical music. To a young girl, it’s gloomy and ominous. I didn’t like it at all. She wanted me to have a cultured background. But her younger sister, my aunt Katie, played what she called cowboy music but what we would call early country and western music. At a young age I was listening to Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Kitty Wells. All those wonderful songs. The first song I can remember learning and singing was “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” My mother was very upset by this, but it was too late. Once I heard the soulful singing of Hank Williams, that plucked the strings of my young little heart. That was it. As I got older, I started to move to the very edge of the radio dial. They always put the cool Black stations at the edge. I would just glue my ear to the radio and listen to the early R&B and blues stations. I’d be listening to Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and all those great blues and R&B artists. Then that morphed into rock & roll. I was a goner for early rock & roll, which was very informed by the R&B stuff. But when that got whitewashed by people like Pat Boone singing Elvis, I lost interest in that.

Right at my doorstep in the Village was the beginning of the folk revival. Once I heard Doc Watson and Bill Monroe and people like that, I made a switch and I fell in love with the old-timey Appalachian fiddle music. I went down to North Carolina to learn how to play the fiddle from Doc Watson’s father-in-law Gaither Carlton.

It seems that all of that immersion in American roots music shaped you as an artist.

It totally shaped me. When I got into the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, I started hearing all this early jazz and really early blues people like Memphis Minnie and Victoria Spivey, who was alive and well. She had moved from the South to New York by the time I was hanging out on the scene.

She was in New York then?

Yes, she had moved to New York. I always used to see this older African-American woman hanging out at Gerde’s Folk City. It was Victoria. It turns out that she was one of the first artists who was savvy enough to start her own record label. She had a label called Spivey Records. She was out on the scene talent-scouting. In fact, she discovered Bob Dylan way before John Hammond and Columbia Records did. She also saw my friends playing jug band music in Washington Square Park, and I think it reminded her of the stuff that was popular in her heyday. She gave them the opportunity to make a record. We were exploring the music and following where it led us and trying to learn how to play it well, little dreaming of something like making a recording, which seemed way over our heads and beyond our wildest dreams. She’d see me singing around on the scene and she suggested to them that they get me in the band as one of the singers. That’s it. I’ve been on this journey ever since.

When did you first start singing professionally around town?

I was in a band with David Grisman. In New York City, David was already playing killer mandolin, along with three other great bluegrass pickers. They had me singing lead. It was called Maria and the Washington Square Ramblers. It didn’t last long. People at that time were forming duos, trios, and combos, right and left. I was also in a duo that played Carter Family music with a gal, Annie Bird, who played autoharp. There was just a lot of cross-pollinations going on then with different kinds of music.

Did people like Doc Watson and Bill Monroe come through New York City back then and play clubs in the Village?

There was a loose association of people who called themselves “The Friends of Old-Timey Music.” It included John Cohen and Mike Seeger—the people who were in the New Lost City Ramblers. They started going on trips based on a little hint, like a town mentioned in a song—like Mississippi John Hurt mentions Avalon, Mississippi in one of his songs. They would go on trips to the South to ferret out these people who to us were just these mystical voices and sounds who were coming to us through the mists of time on these old scratchy recordings. We imagined that most of them were long gone, but it turned out that most of them were still alive and well and still playing their music at local community events or square dances or juke joints.

They started bringing them up North and presenting them at coffeehouses, folk festivals, and concerts. That’s how I met Doc Watson and his family. They came and played a concert in the auditorium at my old elementary school. I was so taken with Gaither’s fiddle playing that I went up to him afterwards and told him how much I enjoyed it. I said to him, “I wish you lived closer to New York because I’d love to take lessons from you.” And he said, “Well, come on down to Deep Gap, North Carolina and I’ll teach you everything I know.” That’s how I ended up knowing them.

But this was going on, not just with country artists, but with blues artists like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Bukka White … you name it. I feel so blessed that I happened to be in that neighborhood and got exposed to their music and to meet most of them and to just sit at their feet and get to know them. It was a very magical time.

The same thing applies to jazz, because there are fewer people around now who saw many of the jazz greats like Coltrane, Monk, or Morgan.

I was lucky because the jazz scene was also going on there at my doorstep. I remember walking to school with my books and seeing a picture of Billie Holiday at the Café Society at Sheridan Square. I was too young to go in. When I was a senior in high school I had run away from home.

You were already in the Village, so you couldn’t have gone far. What, 12 blocks?

No, six blocks. I moved to Jones Street, but I was still in high school so I was working as a mother’s helper or, as they call it today, an au pair or nanny. I was living there and just getting room and board for helping with their kids. After I put the kids to bed and had done my homework, I would go out of the house at night. A good friend of mine was a young flute player named Jeremy Steig, and he would hip me to all the jazz cats that were playing. We’d lie about our age and go see people like Cannonball Adderley and Horace Silver. I’ll never forget that he took me to the Five Spot and there was Thelonious Monk playing solo piano with maybe eight people in the audience, and two of them were me and Jeremy. I actually got to meet Monk on the break and he was very nice.

Yes, so many of those artists are giants to us now, but they mostly played for small audiences in sparsely filled clubs.

What about that Bill Evans album live at the Vanguard with that fucking woman talking while he’s creating this sublime magical heavenly music? And meanwhile this woman is saying, “So I said to her…”

Well, that still goes on today. Some things never change. I have to ask you about your early hit record, “Midnight at the Oasis.” Was it a blessing or a curse to have such a huge success early in your career?

Nothing but a blessing. Are you kidding me? Look at all the well-deserving, brilliant singers and artists who never get that chance. Go figure that it would be a song about a camel in the desert, but it totally captured the imagination of people all over the world. It wasn’t just a hit in the United States. It was a hit everywhere. And still to this day, it’s played. So I’m not one of those spoiled rock stars that complains about how tedious it is to have a hit.

Perhaps part of it is that you sang in your own style.

People ask me if I get tired of singing it. But it’s such a hip little tune. A lot of jazz artists have covered it. Thank God it wasn’t some dumb three-chord song. It’s a delightfully constructed song, so it gives you the opportunity to improvise every night.

It’s not easily categorized. And Amos Garrett’s guitar playing on the song is almost iconic.

I know. Every time I have auditions for guitar players, the first thing they ask is, “Do I have to learn that?” It’s legendary among guitar players. In one year both Stevie Wonder and Chet Atkins said that his solo was one of the most brilliant pieces of music they had ever heard in pop music.

If you look at that album and all of my subsequent albums, I wasn’t aiming to have a commercial hit, which you can see by the fact that the other songs on the album were an eclectic mix. Actually, an interviewer told me about six years ago, “You know, you singlehandedly invented Americana music.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Look at your first album—you have a Jimmie Rodgers song, a Dolly Parton song, a New Orleans blues tune [Blue Lu Barker’s “Don’t You Feel My Leg”], some contemporary songs like one written by Kate McGarrigle, and so on.” I thought, “Well, now I have a hit, that’s interesting.” And with the subsequent albums, I went right on my own little path, ignoring larger commercial success. But that was never what I was interested in. With my second and third albums I got to work with Benny Carter and an all-star big band with Ray Brown, Frank Rosolino, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Snooky Young, to name a few.

Quite a lineup.

On the third album Sweet Harmony, I got to sing a duet with Hoagy Carmichael. I wanted to do “Rockin’ Chair” because I’d always loved Mildred Bailey’s version. My ex-husband Geoff [Muldaur] used to say that I was a reincarnation of Mildred Bailey, whatever that means. I was going to do it with Benny Carter and the big band and he said, “You know, Hoagy Carmichael’s alive and well and living up in the Hollywood Hills. Maybe we can get him to play piano on the track.” I thought, “Oh my God, that would be great.” So Benny called him up and told him, “There’s this young gal here and she’s a big fan of yours and she’s going to do one of your songs. We were hoping you’d come down and play piano on it.” Hoagy said, “Thanks, Benny, I’d like to play, but I don’t play any more. I’ve got arthritis.” Benny didn’t want to push him about playing. So he said, “Okay, I’ll get Roger Kellaway to play it, but come on down to the session anyway. Maria would love to meet you and the guys would love to see you.”

Sure enough, he shows up at the session, nattily attired and with a younger woman. He had a very elegant little hip flask in his back pocket. He was just delightful. We were all talking and my producer [Lenny Waronker] was just going crazy that we had this royalty of Hoagy Carmichael in the studio and we weren’t going to hear him play. He thinks up this idea and says, “Well, Hoagy, we do have a pianist here to play the song, but do you think you could just sing a little bit of it to get Maria to show her how it goes?” Hoagy took the bait and he sat down at the piano with a half-dozen of us gathered around. He starts playing and let me tell you, there was nothing wrong with his playing at all. It was like magnolia petals were floating out of the piano. He starts singing “Rockin’ Chair” and he gets about two-thirds of the way and he stops and puts his hands on the piano and looks at me and says, “Aw, Miss Maria, I don’t have to tell you how to sing this song. Just sing it like you’re telling a true story.” In that moment I just had to fight back tears because I realized he had written it when he was in his 20s or 30s [he was 30] and now the song had come true for him in his 70s.

Everybody then gets in their places. I get in my vocal booth with this incredible big band out in the studio. We start going over the song. All of a sudden, Hoagy tugs Lenny’s shirt and says, “You know, I’m remembering I used to sing this little harmony at the end when I’d do it with Jack Teagarden. Maybe I could sing that with Maria.” Sure enough, in two seconds they get a second vocal mic next to me in the booth and got him in there. We start going over it. I was vaguely familiar with that version with him and Jack Teagarden. We figured out what we were going to do. They play the song, and we get to the end and because I had been used to singing the melody and now, in order to sing with him, I had to switch my part around a little, I kinda messed it up. At the end of the take, out in the studio Benny’s telling everybody, “Yeah, that was perfect, you can go take a break before we do the next song.” When Hoagy saw everyone start to get up to leave, he said, “No, no, wait a minute, we messed up our part and we’re going to have to record it again.” In that moment, Benny looked at me, I looked at Benny, the band looked at Benny. We all had the simultaneous realization that Hoagy had been out of the studio for so long he didn’t realize that this was multitrack recording and that the band could have a break and we could just record our vocal part. Benny just made everybody sit back down and they all pretended to play the song until we got to where we redid our part. And then everybody took a break.

Wait, they pretended to play?

Yes, exactly. Nobody wanted to embarrass Hoagy. It was sort of a Rip Van Winkle situation. It was a very touching moment. He was so into it that he stuck around for the next song we did—a song that had been done by the Boswell Sisters called “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye.” I was going to do it with two other singers from Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks band. He stuck around and helped us map out all our harmonies. That’s my Hoagy Carmichael story. Just one of the many encounters with great musicians who were heroes of mine that I’ve been blessed to have known or worked with. Now, here I am, 40-some years later, playing with these great street musicians, Tuba Skinny, who have the same love and reverence for that older music that I had.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they have a widespread fan base all over the world. They’re out on the street and people are constantly taking little videos on their phone. They have a huge YouTube presence with hundreds of thousands of fans. And they’re doing it on an organic level. They don’t have a PR firm or anything like that. They’re very pure about how they do it, and I like that they have an egoless way of playing. They way they interweave together is just masterful. I’ve listened to a lot of this stuff over the years.

How did the group come to your attention?

When I stumbled on the music of Tuba Skinny, first of all I thought it was an old recording. I didn’t believe the woman who played me the record, [who said] that they were young street musicians. She had to show me the CD cover before I’d believe her. I just fell in love with them because there are a lot of people playing what we call Dixieland jazz or trad jazz with great skill, but there’s something about the way that Tuba Skinny plays that’s so authentic and so organic. I feel like it somehow channels the vibration and rhythm of life that existed at that time in the ’20s and ’30s. It’s a very comfortable place for me to live spiritually and musically. That’s why I’m thrilled to get the opportunity to record with them. I’m very happy with how it’s gone so far.

When I go to a Tuba Skinny show, swing dancers show up and they really get a good workout. The groove is so infectious. I think it’s going to keep happening. The kind of music I grew up with—bluegrass, old-time Appalachian music, early jazz, early blues, and early country—it’s proliferating more and more with no help from the aboveground media. No magazines or TV shows are touting this kind of music, but generation after generation is discovering it and embracing it because it’s so much more nourishing than what’s on the airwaves today.

Cover of Let's Get Happy Together

Did you record the album with the band there in New Orleans?

Yes, we recorded it there last October with social distancing protocol and everybody but the horn players and me wearing masks. We did it all in a couple of days. They’re not ones for overdubs. Everything they do has to be a real live sound. I had faith that we would get it and get it right. I think we did.

How did you pick the tunes?

I picked them. Once they agreed to do the project with me, I spent time combing through the internet, looking for tunes that would be suitable for this aggregation. Except for Duke Ellington’s “Delta Bound,” which I had always wanted to do, and the Boswell Sisters’ “Got the South in My Soul.” It’s always like an adventurous treasure hunt and you never know what you’re going to find. For example, I had never heard of Valaida Snow. Have you heard of her?

Sure, the trumpet player and singer. She was a big star in her time.

Here I fancied myself an expert on this kind of music, but I had never encountered her before. Now I’m a big fan. We did two of her songs on this album: “Swing You Sinners” and “Patience and Fortitude.” And a tune from the Goofus Five—“I Like You Best of All.” They were a Hot Five band from the 20s and I thought that this is perfect for Tuba Skinny, because it would let them shine. I just let them have at it. They did an incredible job.

I was going to ask you if it was challenging to sing with all those horns, but I realized you’ve been doing that for many years.

It’s also the way that they do it. When they do their ensemble playing, nobody is trying to stick out or grandstand. They have such a very instinctual and spontaneous way and they naturally mix themselves. They’re all making a conscious but natural effort to blend in and play what’s appropriate for that mood. I don’t find it hard to sing with them because they’re always complementing or supplementing what I was doing. And they swing so hard, it was just a joy.

What singers from that era are you most affected by?

Connie Boswell. Also, I did a Dorothy Lamour song on the record. Clad in her sarong, she had this sultry and exotic look in Hollywood, but she was married to a big-band leader. I wanted to pay tribute to some of the women from New Orleans who sang in that era. Who knew? Dorothy sang “I Go for That” with really hip and clever lyrics that make you laugh every time you hear them [including these deathless lines: “You play the uke/You’re from Dubuque/I go for that”]. I had no idea she was a singer.

So many of those female movie and TV stars had a background singing with big bands. Like Doris Day.

I’m just appreciating that now because they’re playing a lot of her stuff on the radio. She’s really a great singer. Of course, Victoria Spivey. The early blues queens were singing blues but they recorded with Louis Armstrong and his band. And Bessie Smith. People like that are my role models.

Throughout your career, you’ve really made an effort to pay tribute to great women in blues and jazz who many people don’t remember any more.

Like Memphis Minnie, who is one of my all-time musical heroes. Victoria Spivey turned me on to her. She took me to her apartment because I was trying to find songs that would work with my young voice. She had one scratchy Memphis Minnie record—a song called “Tricks Ain’t Walkin’.” I fell in love with it. That’s one thing different from today. We complain about technology, but you would have had to comb through dozens of dusty record shops or somebody’s grandfather’s collection to find that. But now you can just type in Memphis Minnie and songs she did will be right there. Like Valaida Snow. Not many people know about her, but she wasn’t an obscure artist in her day. She was very popular. Why hasn’t more notice of her carried through to this day? I feel like it’s my passion to uncover these forgotten gems. With a band like Tuba Skinny, I can breathe new life into these songs, which in and of themselves are delightful.

Was Memphis Minnie actually from Memphis?

No, she’s from Algiers, Louisiana, across from New Orleans. We learned to track some of our heroes through their songs. [Sings] “I was born in Louisiana/I was raised in Algiers.” They moved to Walls, Mississippi when she was 10 or 12. That’s about an hour south of Memphis. At an early age, she got a guitar and she decided that cotton-pickin’ was not for her. She taught herself to play that guitar and banjo too. She’d hitchhike or somehow get up to Memphis and would busk on Beale Street. That’s how she got her name. Later on she moved to Chicago. She not only would sing the blues but she wrote and recorded hundreds of her own songs. She married not one, but several guitar-playing husbands. I did a tribute album to her in 2004 [First Came Memphis Minnie]. I got Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow, Koko Taylor, and all these other singers that admired her to sing on it.

I’ll say this to an audience, “How many people here know Bessie Smith?” And a lotta hands will go up. “Okay, how many people have heard of Memphis Minnie?” Maybe one hand will go up, if that. Okay, that’s why I’m doing this. And I tell them something about her life. It’s great because now there’s a whole young crowd coming up who are getting exposed to Memphis Minnie. The songs she sang are so authentically personal, yet they’re still universal, so that 100 years later a gal can sing those songs and totally relate to what they’re saying.

How familiar were the Tuba Skinny people with your work?

Two years ago, I was in New Orleans recording my 42nd album [Don’t You Feel My Leg (The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker)], which was a tribute to another legendary New Orleans blues singer named Blue Lu Barker who originally wrote [along with husband Danny Barker] and recorded “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” which Dr. John had brought to me and I recorded on my first album. Because their song was on the album with “Midnight at the Oasis,” there was a lot of “mailbox money” and the Barkers’ publishing company tried to tell Warner Brothers that the Barkers were deceased and to just send the money to them. Dr. John said, “Deceased? The hell they are, I just seen them down on Frenchmen Street two weeks ago.” He helped us get in touch with them [the Barkers] and they got a lot of mailbox money over the years. And I became great friends with her and Danny Barker. I decided to do a tribute album to her, and that was another adventure of discovery. I had a few of their recordings, but I had no idea that they had recorded and written so many bawdy and naughty songs.

When I was down there to cut that album with another fabulous bunch of musicians, I had already discovered Tuba Skinny, so every chance I got when I wasn’t in the studio, I’d find out where they were playing. I’d go see them and I didn’t introduce myself to them. But at some point, Robin Rapuzzi, the washboard player, came over and said, “Excuse me, but is your name Maria, by any chance?” I said, “Yes.” He said, his voice rising, “Maria Muldaur?” I said, “Yeah.” I told him that I had become a fan of the band. He introduced me to the others and I’m sure that most of them didn’t know who I was. But he did and they were very sweet. They eventually asked me to sit in with them a couple times. That’s how I connected with them.

Right, you can’t begrudge that sometimes people don’t know your past.

Yes, they’re listening to the original people and music from the ’20s and ’30s, after all. But Robin knew all about me and my history with jug bands and was a real fan. I’m sure the rest of them were wondering, “Who is this batty old lady dancing in the street with her walking stick?” That’s how it should be. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s. It’s wonderful that they picked up on this music and channeled it all so perfectly. All I know is that every time I hear their music, I get happy. There you have it.

Does anyone give you crap for being a white musician doing the music of great Black artists?

No, I haven’t encountered any negative feedback about doing this music. But you know what I would tell them? You can kiss my ass until my hat falls off. I’ve loved this music since before all these woke people were even alive. And not only that, but if it were somehow not proper for a white person to do that music, why would Victoria Spivey, one of the original blues queens, come up to me out of the blue and choose me to be in a band that she was recording? She saw that I had something that was appropriate to that kind of music. I’m not bragging, but I’ve always been totally accepted by all these old Black blues artists like Victoria Spivey and Sippie Wallace, and jazz players like Benny Carter, Ray Brown, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Snooky Young, Kenny Barron, etc. Among the musicians there isn’t any racism. It’s an artificial and misplaced concern. Among musicians Black and white, I’ve always experienced nothing but mutual appreciation for each other’s musicality.