Q&A with Geoff Muldaur, one of the great voices and musical forces to emerge from the folk, blues and folk-rock scenes

“The impact has been significant of course.  Integrated bands helped lead the way… Butterfield made a huge contribution in 1965 when he showed up with and integrated band from Chicago.  Folk musicians in urban areas had an easy time crossing racial lines.  Once one sees this working (an audience), they think differently about their neighbors.”

Geoff Muldaur: The Dreamin’ Folk Hero

Geoff Muldaur is one of the great voices and musical forces to emerge from the folk, blues and folk-rock scenes centered in Cambridge, MA and Woodstock, NY. During the 1960's and '70's, Geoff made a series of highly influential recordings as a founding member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and the Paul Butterfield's Better Days group, as well as collaborations with then-wife Maria and other notables (Bonnie Raitt, Eric Von Schmidt, Jerry Garcia, etc.). He left the stage and recording world in the mid-1980's for a working sabbatical but continued, however, to hone his craft, albeit 'flying beneath radar'. He composed scores for film and television, and produced off-beat albums for the likes of Lenny Pickett and the Borneo Horns and the Richard Greene String Quartet. Geoff's his definitive recording of "Brazil" provided the seed for - and was featured in - Terry Gilliam's film of the same title.                  Geoff Muldaur / Photo by Lori Eanes

With his magical voice and singular approach to American music intact, Geoff is once again touring the world. He performs in concert halls, performance spaces, clubs and festivals througout the US, Canada, Japan and Europe. Geoff may be heard from time to time as a guest on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion and has been featured on a variety of National Public Radio shows, including Weekend Edition, All Things Considered, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and The World with Lisa Mullins. Geoff's albums, The Secret Handshake, Password, Private Astronomy and Texas Sheiks have met with high critical acclaim and feature Geoff's unusually crafted interpretations of classic, oftentimes obscure, American material as well as his own unique compositions. In addition to tours and recording, Geoff continues to apply his arranging skills to a variety of projects for albums and film. Although he is known as a musicians musician, it is clearly his voice that most identifies him.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Folk music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I came from a white, upper-middle class family… insulated from the real world.  Needless to say… once I heard Leadbelly, Clarence Ashley and Bessie Smith.. my mind perked up…  "What worlds are these?… I must explore."

How do you describe your songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

I can only say that my songbook is taken from thousands of sources… only the best of what I’ve heard… and then, only pieces to which I can add a little something different.  My sound is me.  My creative drive comes from my inborn curiosity… and an incurable tendency to dream.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Lonnie Johnson, Sippie Wallace, Eric von Schmidt, Paul Butterfield… and 100 others.  Best advice?… on coming back to playing music in 1998 after 14 years away… “Geoff, do you hear anyone out there who sounds like you?"  ("No”). "I’m going to tour Italy.  Want to come along.” - Bob Neuwirth

"I have no idea what will happen in the future, but I’m grateful for living in the last part of the great musical zeitgeist.  To have seen Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mississippi John Hurt, The Swan Silvertones and many others... is a gift that will never wear off.  And the zeitgeist wasn’t just in American folk music and jazz and gospel music…." (Photo: The Jim Kweskin Jug Band)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The Jim Kweskin Jug Band played The Troubadour in LA in 1964.  The audience was so square, we played a set lying down in protest.  In between sets and guy came up to the dressing room, leaned in from the door and said, “I like you guys.  I like the no-schtick, schtick.”  (Meaning we were impromptu and had no set stage patter.). Many other stories of course.

When we recorded “Livin’ in the Sunlight, Lovin’ in the Moonlight” in the mid-70s the studio was full of legends.  Benny Carter was the arranger and he filled the room with ex-Duke Ellington and Count Basie players… Russell Procope, Benny Morton, Quentin Jackson, Taft Jordan, Dock Cheatham and others.  The Brecker Bros. were recording down the hall with Dave Sandborn… and they snuck into our session, peeking their heads around the studio door just so that could lay their eyes on these monster players.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I have no idea what will happen in the future, but I’m grateful for living in the last part of the great musical zeitgeist.  To have seen Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mississippi John Hurt, The Swan Silvertones and many others... is a gift that will never wear off.  And the zeitgeist wasn’t just in American folk music and jazz and gospel music…. The greatest opera singers, flamenco guitarists, rembetika players (Papaioannou!), Irish singers, classical composers… every facet of music around the world… they are all past and gone.  It’s just a fact.  Maybe there will be another great zeitgeist in the future… who knows.

What were the reasons that make the 1960s to be the center of Folk & Blues researches and experiments?

Most of the inventors of the art were still alive.  The record industry diversified… small labels sprung up to present marginalized and regional music.  So we - the young people in urban areas - were flooded with new (to us) sounds by the very best.  And after a while, those geniuses started showing up to play at our clubs and concert halls.  No better way to research and experiment than with a living legend at an after-show party.

"I can only say that my songbook is taken from thousands of sources… only the best of what I’ve heard… and then, only pieces to which I can add a little something different.  My sound is me.  My creative drive comes from my inborn curiosity… and an incurable tendency to dream." (Photo: Geoff Muldaur)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music circuits?

Make sure you get paid!  Eat as well as you can and don’t stay in cheap digs.

What is the impact of Blues and Folk music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

The impact has been significant of course.  Integrated bands helped lead the way… Butterfield made a huge contribution in 1965 when he showed up with and integrated band from Chicago.  Folk musicians in urban areas had an easy time crossing racial lines.  Once one sees this working (an audience), they think differently about their neighbors.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

A few places… I’d like to have been there when Mozart and Haydn played Mozart’s “Haydn Quartets” for Mozart’s father, Leopold.  Or at the Roseland Ballroom when Chick Webb’s orchestra faced off against Benny Goodman’s band and beat them silly.  I’d liked to have been in Harlem when the cats got off of their gigs early in the morning and then kept jamming in the nearby parks.  Or, I would’ve like to be in Duke Ellington’s dressing room in Pittsburgh when he met the young Billy Strayhorn for the first time.  Or at the Theatre in Paris for the debut of the Rite of Spring… or with Ralph Peer when he first recorded the Carter Family in Bristol, TN; or a concert of Oum Kalthoum in Cairo; a Beale Street Sheiks recording in Memphis; Jussi Björling performing as Rodolfo in La Boheme”.  So many to choose from!

Geoff Muldaur - Home

Geoff Muldaur / Photo by Issa Sharp

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