Maria Muldaur:

The Hardest Working Woman in Show Business

Live at McCabe’s - June 28, 2013

By Ross Altman

Maria MuldaurIf James Brown had a younger sister I think I just saw her. ”Don’t you feel my leg,” sang Maria Muldaur as she brought her Louisiana barrelhouse bonanza of a fifteen song set to an electrifying, teasing, sold-out crowd-pleasing close last night at McCabe’s usually sedate acoustic concert venue—“’cause if you do you’re gonna want to touch my thigh.”

The 10:00pm show was delayed by the crush of her loyal fans to get one more picture, one more autograph, buy one more CD from the 8:00pm show, so by the time Maria Muldaur sailed into David Nichtern’s Midnight at the Oasis during the late show’s final “Big Three” it may well have been midnight at McCabe’s. It would have made for a perfect setting for her hit song from 1973, which she pointed out was forty years and forty albums ago. “You won’t need no camel,” she let the lyric out languorously, “when I take you for a ride.” Ms. Muldaur was personally responsible for a baby boomlet that year, as nine months after her recording burst onto the radio an unusual spike occurred in the number of babies born. “Glad I was able to help,” is her twinkling reply to the now forty and younger fans who think of her as the fertility goddess and tell her she was responsible for their conception. Needless to add, we all sent our camels to bed.

She asked the stage manager for a fan, saying as demurely as possible that she didn’t mind a sauna bath, but didn’t want to take one while she was working. When they gave her an old-fashioned wooden fan, mindful of her folk audience she referred to it as an “acoustic fan.” Eventually they set up an electric fan at the front of the stage, in keeping with the Fender Stratocaster her guitarist Gary Bogessian was playing. David Tucker on drums and Chris Burns on keyboards/bass filled out her Red Hot Bluesiana Band.

Maria Muldaur came out of the Greenwich Village folk revival of the early 1960s, and she couldn’t very well have missed it, as she was born there in 1943 and went to Hunter College. In her case, and practically her case alone, Mohammad didn’t have to go to the mountain; the mountain came to Mohammad. She was practically born on the doorstep of Gerdes Folk City, and started performing under her maiden name of Maria D’Amato with the Even Dozen Jug Band in 1963. She would soon join the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, with whom she is celebrating their 50th anniversary on tour this year. She will also be performing at the Skirball Center on Thursday August 22 backed up by the Sacred Steel Campbell Brothers (“for a real dose of the Holy Ghost” promised Maria). She gave us a taste of that part of her expansive repertoire with a pointed critique of sanctimonious preachers to the tune of He Calls That Religion But I Know He’s Going to Hell With It, which I recognized as kin to Paul Robeson’s great older spiritual, Scandalize My Name.

"It was also outside of Gerdes Folk City that she would later meet “the late great Phoebe Snow,” to whom she paid tribute with Memphis Minnie’s song In My Girlish Days."

And she ventured down to New Orleans (and into jazz) with J.J. Cale’s Cajun Moon.

Considering how many accompanists she has attracted over the years, from jug bands to rock bands to Gospel groups to her aptly-named Red Hot Bluesiana Band that practically tore the acoustic guitars off the walls last night, it was a strange omission indeed that Ms. Muldaur was nowhere to be seen in the recently reviewed movie Greenwich Village: the Music That Defined a Generation. But in another sense perhaps not so strange; for Maria Muldaur comes out of a darker (literally) and more dangerous musical brew than many of the folk singers and songwriters profiled.

She was born and raised in the Village and knew its nooks and crannies as few others. If Dylan brought intellectual depth to the folk revival, and Phil Ochs brought political courage, and Odetta brought spiritual dynamism, Maria Muldaur brought a daring and untamed sexual chemistry. Naughty, Bawdy and Blue as she put it on a recent album, she was the performer whose record company Warner Brothers/Reprise had to edit out her prominent cleavage from the album cover, and then as she winsomely and irrepressibly pointed out last night left her unedited (and here she pointed to the front of her blouse beneath her jacket) alone.

Her tribute album to the Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith, and other bawdy women blues artists of the pre-censorship Hayes-code era included such standouts as One Hour Mama and It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion (“for the vegetarians in the house” ribbed Muldaur as she pulled into the first of the last Big Three).

She did a wonderful new song by Eric Bibb, son of folk singer Leon Bibb, called Bessie’s Advice, which she introduced with an equally wonderful tribute to the social role of the blues as a “pre-Oprah, pre-Dr. Phil advice column in song.”

And she preceded that with a powerful old song written for Ray Charles by the late great Curtis Mayfield, Please Lord Send Me Someone to Love, which he coupled with a thought for others as well, “Please send to all mankind some peace of mind,” and “Save this tired funky old world,” for “Peace on earth is not gonna happen/Til all one’s hatred and greed are gone.”

Maria Muldaur - Memphis MinnieShe backed that song up with a little sermon in song from her hero Memphis Minnie, the subject of her 40th and most recent album and the very first of the guitar-playing female blues singers who paved the way for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block and Maria Muldaur herself. It was called I Done Made It Up In My Mind to Serve God Till I Die—perhaps foreshadowing Dylan’s Grammy-winning song You Gotta Serve Somebody. “The grammar’s a little funky,” warned Maria, “but the message is pure.”

Memphis Minnie didn’t just play guitar, according to Muldaur; she played “absolutely bitchin’ guitar,” she added—a contemporary of Victoria Spivey (who adorns the back of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album, in a youthful photo of Bob with one of his idols.) The touchstones of female blues artistry made for a powerful theme and thread throughout Maria Muldaur’s spine-tingling show. She doesn’t try to hide-indeed she celebrates and educates her audience about the multiple sources for her richly textured song-bag.

Memphis Minnie was the first woman to play guitar and the first to go electric—decades before Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. It somewhat undermines the legendary shock value of Dylan’s strapping on a Fender Stratocaster for Maggie’s Farm to put it in the context of Memphis Minnie having done exactly the same thing in the 1940s—without all the attendant fanfare due to the fact that she was a black musician playing outside the major media’s wavering attention span.

To have an artist of Maria Muldaur’s stature keeping her eyes on the prize—the blues heritage of America’s great women artists and keeping their names and songs alive in every show she does elevates her to the pantheon of the very singers she learned from. “She is my Memphis Minnie,” said Jill Fenimore as we left the concert, and added for emphasis, “hotter than hell!”

But while Maria Muldaur venerates these blues pioneers, she also keeps their struggles in focus; “Memphis Minnie did what she had to do to make music her life, including marrying her guitarists, like Kansas Joe McCoy. More than one double entendre may accompany a song like: “Won’t you be my chauffeur—I want you to ride me downtown.”

Another figure in Muldaur’s musical mosaic derived from the finely woven literary borrowings of one song from another; her 39th album Steady Love being the source of an Elvin Bishop composition that resonates in more than one direction: I’ll Be Glad When I Get My Groove Back Again (to which thought Maria extemporized, “Mercy!”). Late in the song one hears, “Sun gonna shine in my back door some day,” which he borrowed from the old black blues, Trouble In Mind, (“yes I’m blue, but I won’t be blue always/Sun gonna shine in my back door someday.”) But that line also crossed over from the black blues tradition to the Carter Family ballad, Sun Gonna Shine In My Back Door Some Day, (“March winds gonna blow my blues all away.”)

Another song from that same album expands on the same theme: Taj Mahal was cited as the source for the song She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride, but I believe he adapted it from a song by James Rachel, and that it may predate that and go back into the mysterious wells of traditional song. I heard white blues guitarist Steve Mann sing it (and also Trouble In Mind) in his own brilliant acoustic finger-style arrangement at Ed Pearl’s legendary folk club The Ash Grove in the early 1960s, he presented it as a traditional song and Steve was as careful as a folklore professor in identifying his sources. If Steve said it was traditional (and therefore in the Public Domain) I am persuaded.

But for present purposes I am struck by the line borrowed from another song—

You don’t believe I love you look at the fool I’ve been

You don’t believe I’m sinking look at the hole I’m in—Stealin’/Stealin’

{Pretty mama don’t you tell on me

I’m stealin’ back to my same old used to be.

Kweskin Jug BandFor that song has a known author, is not merely a “zipper verse,” and far predates Taj Mahal; it is one of the known sources for the Jim Kweskin Jug Band’s repertoire (including Maria Muldaur): Will Shade of The Memphis Jug Band— from 1929. Will Shade was well named, for his most popular song (recorded by a Who’s Who of folk revivalist and blues singers from Dave Van Ronk to David Bromberg to Arlo Guthrie) might as well have been written by a shade. To give him the recognition he deserves and so seldom receive is as good a reason as I can think of to write.

Near the beginning of Maria Muldaur’s gutsy and lowdown but uplifting concert a fan snapped a photograph. That intrusion stopped the show—as Maria Muldaur held up her hand in protest and told the audience, “No pictures allowed.” She explained with disarming candor that with her dwindling brain cells she needed to keep them all focused on what she was doing on stage, and looking into cameras’ flash bulbs distracted her and kept her from performing at her best. Then came the punch line: “If you think this old broad”—her words, not mine—“is worth having a picture of I’ll make you a deal; after the show you can come out where I am signing CDs and take all the photos you want.” The audience cheered and later on gave her a standing ovation. And when the concert ended that is exactly what we did. So can this hippie chick—her words, not mine—still sing? Oh my, can she! Call her the hardest-working woman in show business. And that’s not the half of it; as she reminded us in her opening song, I can make a dress out of a feed bag—make a man out of you. (I’m a Woman by Leiber and Stoller) And that’s all.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol