Maria Muldaur Anticipates a Bright Future for Roots Music
//Photo courtesy of Alan Mercer
Maria Muldaur is known to many for her breakout 1973 hit Midnight at the Oasis. Still, her staggering legacy as a singer constitutes 60 years and over 40 albums of deep exploration across the entire breadth of American roots music, bringing a long list of artists largely forgotten to history, such as Memphis Minnie and Blue Lu Barker, back into prominence through her eclectic and varied covers. Few could rival Muldaur’s interminable collaborative history, ranging stylistically from bluegrass virtuosos David Grisman and Doc Watson to blues and rock legends like Dr. John, Taj Mahal, and Jerry Garcia. WHRB spoke to Muldaur about both her life of musical peregrination and the history and current state of roots music in anticipation of the arrival of her tour, Way Past Midnight, to Club Passim in Cambridge on Tuesday, September 5.
What are your main aims with the Way Past Midnight tour for longer-term fans and newer listeners to your work?
MM: 2023 marks 15 years since Midnight at the Oasis, my first and biggest hit, was released and started climbing the charts. I thought this would be the perfect time to celebrate this by putting together a show called Way Past Midnight — because it is way past midnight what I’ve done. I’ve made 43 albums since my first album that had that hit on it in 1973. Of course, when an artist does a new album, they’re most excited about coming out on the road and sharing the newest material with people. But for this particular show, we’re going to go back and revisit my early hits like Midnight at the Oasis and other fan faves from those early recordings, like Don’t You Feel My Leg, which is everyone’s second favorite song I’ve ever done, and songs from my earlier recordings, and mix it in with the stories of the wonderful artists I was privileged enough to get to know and make music with.
This narrative will be illustrated by videos and a lot of photos of these folks I’m going to be talking about from way back in the day. Of course, we’re going to move through the various stages of my career and present some of the newer material as well. But this is mostly going to focus on people’s favorites from back in the day. Jim Kweskin will be my very special guest, and we will do two tunes. He’s going to join me for a tune we always used to do in the jug band, Richland Woman Blues, and he’s also going to join me on a tune from Let’s Get Happy Together, the album I did with Tuba Skinny.
Tell me what it was like going through 50 years of music and revisiting a lot of music you don’t frequently get to revisit. Did it reinvigorate you to renew any of those connections that you’ve made over those 50 years?
MM: I'm always anxious to keep those connections alive with those artists and musicians still with us. Rehearsing these tunes with my band was very touching. I didn't realize it, but I just felt like these are my oldest friends. One of them is a song I first learned from Doc Watson, whose father-in-law taught me to play fiddle, a tune that I later got to record with him and his. And so, you know, there's old-timey Appalachian music. I do a beautiful Hoagy Carmichael ballad called Old Rockin' Chair, which I recorded with Benny Carter and an all-star big band on one of my early albums. And I tell the story of how Hoagy Carmichael came to the studio and ended up singing harmony with me on The Work Song, written by the great songwriter Kate McGarrigle. And so these songs are all timeless, as it turns out. I didn't think about it as I was rehearsing them. I realized that they are like very dear old friends, and my band and I were all delighted to be brushing off the dust and making them new again.
How do you approach collaborations — mashing styles and generating a new output — when your stylistic backgrounds may be quite different?
MM: A lot of the tunes I mentioned have their own genre. Somebody said to me some years ago when they were interviewing me, “I realize you were the person who invented Americana music.” I said, “What are you talking about?” And they said, “Well, look at your first album. Yeah, you had a big pop hit, but all the other tunes on your album are what they would call Americana, although they didn't coin the phrase till many decades later”. I do a Dolly Parton song in a bluegrass style. I do Honey Babe Blues, It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion, which is a big band swing tune, and so forth, as well as songs by contemporary songwriters like Kate McGarrigle. And even an old Jimmie Rodgers tune is the first song on the album.
That was the very first song I heard of yours, even before Midnight at the Oasis — it was Any Old Time. And what struck me about that was how different it was from Jimmie Rodgers’ style.
MM: There I was in the studio with Ry Cooder, David Lindley, and all these great musicians, and I didn't even think of having a process. They were there because I related to them as musicians, and I loved what they did and felt there was a kindred connection there because they were also interpreting out of the same fountain of rich American music that I was drawing from. So we would sit down and start playing it. There's nothing very mysterious — that's what came together when those particular musicians came together. And if you pick the right musicians and they've got the right instincts for that kind of music, then something magical is bound to happen. And I was lucky in that it often did. Like playing with Dr. John on Don’t Feel My Leg, which was written and recorded by a wonderful New Orleans blueswoman named Blue Lu Barker, who actually recorded it wrote and recorded it in the year I was born: 1942. There we were in ‘73. And he put his own New Orleans spin on it, and we got some New Orleans horns on it, and it's remained a favorite to this day.
You’re drawing material from many sources spanning many decades, and nowadays, it’s very easy to parse that breadth of material with Spotify and YouTube. Give us a sense of how, back in the 70s, you arrived at such a wide breadth of records and how you searched for songs to cover.
MM: I don’t want to use the old cliche — “back in the day, we had to walk to school” – but in terms of looking for material, compared to how it is now, it is very akin to that. I grew up in Greenwich Village in the late 50s and early 60s. There was what became known as the Folk Revival starting to emerge, which was a lot of people in the urban North discovering and wanting to explore various forms of American roots music, which they call folk music — so that’s bluegrass, blues, old-time, Appalachian music, gospel — as well as a contingent of contemporary musicians and songwriters who were writing protest music and songs about various social issues and concerns that were going on in the day, like the Vietnam War and Civil Rights. So all these different forms of music were being discovered simultaneously.
In Greenwich Village, every Sunday, there would be this giant open-air mini-folk festival in Washington Square Park. There’d be a little group of people playing old-timey, then over here, some guys playing bluegrass, and so forth. It was just a lucky bit of synchronicity that all this emerged on my doorstep, and it totally drew me in. After a while, I forgot about going to college and pursued this music full-time. So, for example, Victoria Spivey, a contemporary of Bessie Smith, and one of the classic blues queens of the 20s and early 30s, had moved to New York City. She was the first artist I know of savvy enough to have her own record label. She spied on some friends of mine who included David Grisman and John Sebastian, to name a couple, and she said she would sign them to her label, but then she told them, “You boys look good, you boys sound good, but y’all need some sex appeal up there. Why don’t you get that little gal that plays the fiddle that I saw down in the park, the one with the pigtails? Now you get her in your band, and you’ll have something.” So they asked me to join the band. And after I said, “What’s a jug band?” and they told me, I said, “Okay, I’ll join.”
She took me under her wing and brought me to her apartment, and started playing me 78 recordings of the kind of blues she thought would suit my young voice. She played me a lot of her stuff, of course, but she also turned me on to Memphis Minnie. I heard one cut that she happened to have, and I fell in love with that sound, and it kind of haunted me — it was a song called Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ — and it took me 10 years before I could find another recording of Memphis Minnie, who was another amazing blueswoman who not only sang the blues but wrote and recorded over 200 of her own songs and played absolutely b*tchin’ guitar. And it just so happened Victoria Spivey had this one 78 of hers in the apartment. I searched record stores, I looked everywhere, and I could never find another one til’ in the early 70s, Arhoolie Records put out the first compilation of Memphis Minnie tunes, and that's where I learned Chauffer Blues and a lot of her other material — and I’ve done some of her tunes ever since. That’s just an example of waiting 10 years to find another Memphis Minnie song, and now, people can, with just the click of a mouse, Google Memphis Minnie or whoever and come up with everything they ever did in a matter of seconds. So it took a lot of dedication, and we were very passionate about it. Between us all, we were able to unearth a lot of great music and bring it back to life.
The radio industry has done a lot of damage by binning music into all these discrete categories — blues, country — and making separate industrial apparatuses around these genres of music from the same background. What was it like interacting with a fragmented musical industry before the genre-spanning Americana radio format emerged?
I really don't know. I mean, when I was five years old, we were Italian Americans living in the village in Manhattan. My mother's younger sister loved what she called cowboy music, and she found a station that we could get from New Jersey that played what she called cowboy music, what we'd call early Country and Western. And we were able to tune in to that every day, so my first love was Hank Williams and Kitty Wells. And, you know, I remember, in New York, the R&B and the “black stations” were way over in the corner of the dial. Back in those days, it was like putting people of color at the back of the bus; there would be a black music station, but it would be at the end of the dial with the weakest amount of wattage. But those of us who were dedicated enough could find that and listen to it. Then there was another station for what R&B morphed into, which was Rock and Roll with Alan Freed later on. There's always been different musical tastes and different shows that showcase that. I really don't find it a big detriment that there are special niches for people who like special kinds of music, and if it's your passion, you'll find it, and it'll find you.
You’ve referred to roots music several times. What do you think are the commonalities of the music that you would call “roots music” and that you direct your interest toward, since these genres span from innovative to conservative?
Music that emerged in the early 20s or even earlier, but right around the time when it became possible to record it — this is organic music, and these different genres like bluegrass and blues, to take two, and Appalachian music, came out of just regular people, not some kind of music stars or anyone who went to music school or decided “I’m going to become a musician, that’s going to be my profession.” Playing music back in those days was a natural part of a person’s life. In any small town or village, the few people who happened to be more musically talented than the rest would end up playing church socials and square dances or playing for funerals or weddings and the various social functions that people came together in the community to celebrate together. The people who wrote songs in those genres were expressing different sentiments and concerns of the human heart and spirit, but without thinking, “This will get on the radio,” or “It has to be three and a half minutes,” or “It has to have a hook” or “It's gonna get on the charts” — that has nothing to do with where any of the music I call “roots music” comes from. It comes from the heart and soul of the person who creates it. And because that's where it comes from, here we are in 2023, 100 years after most of this music was originally created, and the songs are still relevant and still resonate with us.
One of your most recent albums was an organic collaboration born on the streets with Tuba Skinny, another of my favorite bands. How do you view the state of roots music as a living phenomenon, given that we’re more cooped up now and aren’t out making music on the streets as much as we once were? Do you think the state of music today is too corporatized to produce this music?
Here I am, 60 years after I made a recording with Victoria Spivey, with the Even Dozen Jug Band, and I first joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in 1964. We talk about how there was a folk revival at that time, and people started to go to the Newport Folk Festival, and a lot of little folk clubs sprang up in different towns. There was even a show on TV called the Hootenanny Show, there’s a great video of them on YouTube you can watch. And the Jim Kweskin band ended up on a lot of TV shows of the day. So here we are, fast forward 60 years, and I’m here to tell you that there’s more blues and bluegrass festivals, musicians, more record companies, more venues that specialize in this kind of music, and more and more kids that are learning to play. And this increased 10-fold or more with no help from the above-ground media. People Magazine isn’t going to talk about it. Entertainment Tonight isn’t going to talk about it. But there’s more fiddle players and more banjo players than there ever were when any of these genres first emerged. It’s something that just organically keeps growing and spreading. That’s what grassroots is — grass takes roots and there it goes. It spreads everywhere. You can go to Europe and probably find more blues festivals than ever existed in the 1920s. This music has its own appeal and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere or fading out anytime soon. ❑
//Ashwin Sivakumar ‘26 is a staff writer for The Blues Hangover and Hillbilly Jamboree.