Monday, July 30, 2007

Maria Muldaur - Naughty, Bawdy, and Blue

Using lawyerly-like phrases like persona non grata and non compos mentis, my brother-in-law, Ted, asked for a reprint of my now-collector's item interview of Maria Muldaur, which I conducted earlier this year and had originally published on the site that shall not be named, as I'm not giving them free publicity.


Maria Muldaur is in a RV on her way to her next gig somewhere in Iowa when her cell phone rings.

"So, where's the show?" I ask.

"Clear Lake," she answers, which gives me pause. I've never been to Clear Lake Iowa, but the name brings a flood of memories from books and movies anyway. A skinny young man in horn-rimmed glasses, an improbable rock star, blasting out a Bo Diddley beat; teenage girls in pleated skirts doing coordinated dance moves, a heavy-set guy thumping a tambourine, dancing onto the stage, surprisingly light on his feet; now a grinning Chicano kid coming out and adding his guitar to the mix. And the orchestra keeps the beat going, the horns lifting Not Fade Away higher and higher as the group laughs, unplug their guitars, and wave goodbye to the audience as they walk off-stage one-by-one.

"Thank y'all! See you next year," the last one, the tall, skinny guy, calls back to the crowd... and they're gone.

Clear Lake is one of those iconic rock places, like Max Yasgur's farm - or maybe the Altamont Speedway. It was the last stand of the Winter Dance Party of 19 and 59.

"Whoa," I say, back in the future but totally thrown out of interview gear. "Buddy Holly territory."

"Yeah," Maria answers. "We're even playing the same place, the Surf Ballroom. But at least we're not flying out."

"Stick to the RV," I say with feeling, and we move on to more pleasant subjects. I've called Maria to talk about her new CD, Naughty, Bawdy, and Blue, out in stores next Tuesday, May 15th, and the third of her classic blues albums.

"The first one I did was Richland Woman Blues in 2001," Maria says. "And then the follow-up to that was 2005's Sweet Lovin' Ol' Soul. Those two were both tributes to the early blues pioneers who so deeply inspired me at the start of my career. NB&B is the natural conclusion, paying tribute to the classic blues queens - the women who sang what I think of as 'classic' blues as opposed to 'country' blues or 'rural' blues."

The blues queens Maria salutes on Naughty, Bawdy, and Blue include Bessie Smith (“Empty Bed Blues,” “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”), Victoria Spivey (“TB Blues,” “One Hour Mama”), Alberta Hunter (“Early Every Morn”), Ma Rainey (“Yonder Come The Blues”) and Mamie Smith (“Down Home Blues”). And on the Sippie Wallace classic, “Up the Country Blues,” Muldaur does a dynamite duet with another powerhouse blues queen of more recent vintage - Bonnie Raitt.

"One of those singers I knew personally was Sippie Wallace, who wrote many great blues songs," Maria recalls. "If you're a Bonnie Raitt fan you probably already know of Sippie, because Bonnie spent a few years with her and does some of her songs like I'm A Mighty Tight Woman and Woman Be Wise, Don't Advertise Your Man. I had the pleasure of recording and performing with Sippie when the Kweskin Jug Band backed her on her so-called "comeback" album in 1967, Mighty Tight Woman.

"You also knew Victoria Spivey back in the Greenwich Village days," I say.

"She was the first artist I knew of savvy enough to have her own record label," Maria laughs. "She was in New York when I was growing up, and had this record label, and she took me under her wing and mentored me. She actually suggested to the first group I played in - The Even Dozen Jug Band - that they needed to have me in the band, too.

"She was going to sign them to her label but she said, 'You know, you boys sound good, but y'all need some sex appeal. Why don't you get that little gal I seen playing the fiddle over there by Gerde's Folk City.'

"So, they came to me and told me they were going to make a record for Victoria's label, and she told us we need some sex appeal, and she said we should ask you, so would you please join our band?

"Needless to say, this was long before the days of women's lib, so I didn't take personal affront at the idea of being asked to join a band merely for my looks as opposed to my talent. And it sounded like fun, so I did it, and then Victoria took me under her wing from there and started turning me on to the kind of blues she thought I'd sound good singing. So, it was important for me to include several of Victoria's songs on this tribute album."

"One of the things I really like about Naughty, Bawdy, and Blue is how alive the music feels," I say. "Not just the way you do it, but the words and the feeling behind them. You get this feeling of sexy, lusty women living the life."

I can almost feel Maria's smile beaming all the way from Iowa to New Hampshire.

"That's it! The music still resonates with people, and it's still relevant today. As I said before, at one time this was pop music played on the radio. But just because you can't find it on the airwaves now -"

"Except Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour," I interrupt.

Maria laughs. "Yeah, I guess. But even though you can't usually hear it on the radio now doesn't mean the blues isn't very alive and well. And these women were great role models. They were very independent. They liberated themselves way before the time of women's lib. They came from very challenging social and financial environments, and had to break racial barriers and sexual barriers. And, you know, they did it with no big fanfare, or 'rah-rah' cheering squad cheering them on. They just lived life as they pleased and sang about and they sang about sex with great humor and grace, and lustiness. They were just so soulful, and fun, you know?"

"It sounds like perfect Maria Muldaur material to me," I say, and it does. If you like the old-time blues, and spirit, and punch, and funk, and joy in your music you'll love Naughty, Bawdy, and Blue.

If you're in the Hibbing, Minnesota area, Maria Muldaur will be performing at Dylan Days on May 26th, where I bet you'll catch a great live performance from her 2006 Dylan cover album, Heart of Mine. Closer to New England, Maria will also be at the Regattabar Jazz Bar in Cambridge next Thursday, May 17th on the first leg of the Naughty, Bawdy, and Blue tour. Naughty, Bawdy, and Blue, the CD will be in stores May 15th.


Fred researches, writes, and produces The Dreamtime blog and podcast, occasional commentary on the artists played on Dylan's XM Radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour. For more on Maria, check out the Dreamtime blog and Episode 20 - Heart of Mine.

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