Q&A with gifted singer Maria Muldaur “The First Lady of Roots Music” - repertoire spans blues, jazz, folk, and country music

"The message is immediately accessible in heart and soul. So, I think the music that was being created that addressed these issues was had a huge impact on the thinking of that generation and deeply motivated activism and getting involved to go down and go on civil rights marches in the south and protest the Vietnam War and everything since."

Maria Muldaur: Let’s Get Happy Together

Six-time Grammy nominee Maria Muldaur, who’s been dubbed “The First Lady of Roots Music” for previous albums touching on her wide-ranging influences from blues, country, folk, jazz and even jug band music, continues her exploration of the great American roots music songbook. On her latest excursion, this time into the vintage jazz and blues sounds of the 1920s/’30s, Maria teams up with acclaimed New Orleans street band Tuba Skinny for Let’s Get Happy Together (2021), releasing May 7th on Stony Plain Records. Maria Muldaur recorded Let’s Get Happy Together at Marigny Studios in New Orleans along with the members of Tuba Skinny. This is Maria’s 43rd album release in a long and storied career, (her ninth on Stony Plain). 

Maria Muldaur / Photo by Alan Mercer

The Crescent City has always been a favorite destination and inspiration for Muldaur and that New Orleans feel permeates throughout the album’s 12 tracks. When Maria discovered the music of Tuba Skinny, she learned that just like her, these musicians study, play and immerse themselves in the early blues, jazz and jug-band music of the ‘20s and ‘30s. “They were not just playing a marvelous repertoire of cool tunes with great skill and authenticity, but somehow channeling the very atmosphere and vibration of that bygone era,” she says. Muldaur’s career is a long and adventurous odyssey through the forms of American Roots Music: blues, jug band, bluegrass, jazz and Appalachian “Old Timey” music. Besides her six Grammy nominations, as well as other blues, folk and roots awards, Maria was the 2019 recipient of the “Lifetime Achievement Americana Trailblazer Award” from the Americana Music Association.

Interview by Michael Limnios / Transcription by Katerina Lefkidou

Special Thanks: Maria Muldaur, Karin Johnson & Mark Pucci Media

What do you miss most nowadays from the music and the feeling of the past?

Well I grew up listening to early country music and I always liked when I got to be a teenager I started listening to, there was a folk musical vibe going on in New York City, I grew up in Greenwich, New York City there was a lot of music going on then, I also listened to a lot of jazz, I would lie about my age and sneak in to jazz clubs, but I became exposed to music, what I like to call American roots music, it was like early blues, early jazz, bluegrass something called old timey music, which was like the music of the people that lived in the mountains and so I fell in love with that music, early on and although I listen to contemporary music, I feel like that music has something more soulful about it, I always enjoy going back to that time of music.

You were born and grew up in Greenwich Village in New York. How important was Greenwich Village in your life and in your career?

Well, I just happened to be born and raised in a little neighborhood in New York City that was always the epicenter for artists, for the painters and sculptors and poets and writers and musicians as well it’s very bohemian to grow up, we’re not conformists there, you know? And a lot of free spirits, people from all over the world gravitated to go there, because that was a place you could express yourself freely. And so, I was so lucky to be exposed to that even as a little girl and in the late 50s there started to be, there was a park there, called Washington Square Park and there was a big round circle, like a fountain. And every Sunday musicians would come from the place and would just be jamming together in little groups it was like a little mini folk festival, some people playing some early delta blues, maybe some people were playing bluegrass music and other people were playing protest songs, you know, songs with a political subject that maybe were about issues of social justice, so I got exposed to all of it and I started learning to play old time fiddle and learning old songs like blues, bluegrass and all kinds of songs I was really lucky to be there, right on my doorstep.

"Music is way more, is to me the most thorough means of communication, could write and eloquent piece and have it in the newspaper in your country and it could be totally correct and right on about everything it’s saying, but to have a song about that same issue, cuts through everything and reaches people on a heart level. The message is immediately accessible in heart and soul." (Photo: Maria Muldaur, 1969)

Too many experiences in your life, too many experiences in music, what are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience?

Well, early on, back in those days, they started finding some of the old blues artists, some of the old country artists, we were just scratching records and we thought they were long gone, but we started to discover they were still alive and well and playing music in their little community in the rural south, so we started bringing them up more and putting them up in coffee houses and folk clubs and folk festivals. And because I was on the scene, I got to meet a lot of those people and they were so soulful, and their music was soulful in a way that commercial pop music that you hear on the radio is not. Because the kind of music, they did not create this music with the idea “Oh I’m gonna have a hit record and make a lot of money and be famous”, it was just music that was created as an expression of their, you know, human heart and soul that expressed their concerns of their heart and soul. So, these people were just as soulful as their songs and it’s interesting that their music endured, I mean that was the early 60s that I’m talking about. Now 2021, and this original roots music is still alive and well and still being discovered and rediscovered by generations of people no matter what’s going on, no matter how much is on YouTube and pop radio, Tik Tok and all this stuff. That music it continues to thrive, because it’s something organic that the human soul needs to hear. So, the lesson I learned from that, which was your question, I wanted to emulate these artists and I learned a lot from them, they were very pure and their whole connection to music was pure, like I said it wasn’t about commercials and stuff. That was over 60 years ago that I first got involved with this kind of music and I think that’s been what’s motivated me all these years, even though I had a big hit record, a huge pop hit, with that funny little song  ("Midnight at the Oasis") about the camel in 1974, but always my main motivation and passion was just to present the music and do it with a pure heart and soul and not worry about how popular it is or trendy it is and so all these years later.

I just made my 43rd album, with a wonderfully young band called Tuba Skinny and we did songs, most of them are like a hundred years old but they’re still appealing, they still have a wonderful message and make you happy. I first heard them, I was in Woodstock, New York, I was in a clothing shop and I heard this wonderful jazz and I asked the lady in the store and she said oh that’s not the radio, that’s this band Tuba Skinny and I said “Tuba Skinny? I’ve never heard of them” she said “Yeah, they’re a young band from New Orleans” and I could not believe her when she said they were a young band and that that was a recent record because I study this kind of music and I was sure it was an old 78record. She has to show me the CD in order to believe her. I asked her to contact them and get me some of their albums and I just fell in love with them, for the same reason that I’m talking about, this is a much younger generation than me, but it was obvious from the first minute I heard them that they also love and have great respect for the early music and they play it with great reverence, they study it, and they play it in such a beautiful way, it just fills you with happiness.

"Well, my hopes is that people wake up. We just came from a very dark, terrible time here in America and the fact that a guy like Trump could get elected at all, means that it wasn’t just him that he was the symptom and natural outcome of people living in a fearful hateful mindset. It’s the same old battle that human kind’s been fighting, since Adam and Eve." (Maria Muldaur & Tuba Skinny / Photo by Josef Crosby)

The new album, titled “Let’s Get Happy Together”. So, what is happiness for Maria?

Good music. I’ll tell you my happiness is really Tuba Skinny. I mean I know I sound like a crazy fan, because from the minute I heard them, I’d love to put them on if I was cleaning the house or driving in the car, it’s like, I dare you to feel depressed if you hear a couple of their tunes. I love to perform with good musicians, and I love to tour, actually, I have a big old touring bus that until Covid, I was still touring all over the US and Canada. To me, I think music is one of the greatest gifts that mankind has and to be able to spend my whole life involved in it making albums and doing live performances, I can think of no greater joy. 

What is the impact of your generation, of your generation’s music on the civil rights, human rights and sociocultural implications?

As I said right around, that same time that people were discovering and early there was also another faction, that they concerned things like the civil rights issues that was going on at the time, segregation, the beginning of the Vietnam war and people were staring to become alerted and wanting a way to protest what was going on and change the course of what was going on in our country anyway, so a part of that was people, you know, musicians and songwriters writing songs you know, everyone from Pete Seeger to Woody Guthrie, both of whom I was blessed enough to meet when I was young. They were from a generation before mine, but then in my generation of course there was Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and so many others who wrote and performed songs that addressed these issues.

Music is way more, is to me the most thorough means of communication, could write and eloquent piece and have it in the newspaper in your country and it could be totally correct and right on about everything it’s saying, but to have a song about that same issue, cuts through everything and reaches people on a heart level. The message is immediately accessible in heart and soul. So, I think the music that was being created that addressed these issues was had a huge impact on the thinking of that generation and deeply motivated activism and getting involved to go down and go on civil rights marches in the south and protest the Vietnam War and everything since.

"I was still touring all over the US and Canada. To me, I think music is one of the greatest gifts that mankind has and to be able to spend my whole life involved in it making albums and doing live performances, I can think of no greater joy." (The Jim Kweskin Jug Band: Mel Lyman, Maria Muldaur, Geoff Muldaur, Kweskin, and Bill Keith, Newport Folk Festival, 1964 / Photo by Joe Alper)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of American roots music from jazz, blues, gospel, folk to beat generation to folk, blues revival and beyond?

There’s something that’s so elemental about it. Look at jazz and blues; This the kind of music that’s on this record, a lot of the kind of music that I’ve spent decades paying tribute to. Different early blues artists, they created this music almost a hundred years ago and without any promo, commercial promotion form above ground media, you know, like say for a pop star now had an album come out it’s gonna have articles about the songs and, promo on the social media and stuff like that, but this music, that we’re talking about, with no help from media has managed to peripherate generation after generation. Right now, there’s way more blues festivals all over the world, not just in the States, not just in Canada, but across Europe and the world. The same could be said for blue-grass and old-timey music, I can’t believe how many young kids, they found out about it, they have to kind of dig deep to even find it, but once they’re exposed, they’re immediately attracted to it, just like I was when I was a young girl in the 60s. Do you know why? Because it’s kind of like if you’re eating fast food your whole life, then someone invites you over and they set a fabulous home-cooked meal. You’ll just gobble it right up and you’ll never gonna look at McDonald's again. That’s the same on a musical level, that’s what’s going on. People of the younger generation are the most discouraged about the whole climate, environmental crisis, karma crisis the whole human mess that’s going on, that’s way worse now than it even was then and so to hear this pure music, it just naturally attracts them and that’s why, in the summer usually where there’s no Covid, I find it very hard to put a really good band together sometimes, because all the best players, they’re playing festivals in Europe and all over the place. That means that people from all over the world, even people that can’t understand a word of English, really wanna hear this music. I had played a blues festival in Czech Republic a few years ago, I’ve played in Bolivia, all over the place, because it’s a really different energy and people just naturally respond to it. Tuba Skinny’s music, you can’t sit there, you have to get up and dance. That’s something timeless, it’s not about some trendy little moment in a commercial. It just means the music is real, so people are always gonna respond to it.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?      (Maria Muldaur / Photo by Alan Mercer)

I got to go to North Carolina and stay with a guy who became very famous all over the world Doc Watson, and when he very first was discovered he wanted me to come and stay with his family and I was learning how to play old time fiddle from his father-in-law, so I wouldn’t say there was any particular piece of advice he gave me, but just by example, the kind of pure, simple way they lived down there in the mountains, that really stuck with me. But I guess, I’m thinking of this, do you know who’s Victoria Spivey?

You’re in Greece and you know who all these people are, that’s because this music is universal. Well, when I was 20 years old, she saw some of my friends playing in this park, I was in Washington Square Park and they were playing Jug Band music and some of these people in this band included John Sebastian, David Grisman and a lot of other young kids who went on to be well known musicians. But they had just re-discovered band music on some old records, they were fooling around, playing some of their songs and she was a contemporary Bessie Smith, so her big time was in the ‘20s and early ‘30s, that time of she didn’t stay in the South, she came up to New York. And she was the first artist that I know of, who was smart enough to own record label. So, she signed them, she heard the music and you know, they reminded her the music of her era and so she said she would put them on an album, put them on her record label, she would record them. And they were so excited, because in those days we were learning to play this music, we were never dreaming that we could make a record with it or anything. But they were young, teenagers, so she said “Now you boys, you need some sex appeal in your band. No go get that gal I saw was playing the fiddle in the park, you got her in your band then, you really nave something.”

So, they came up to me and said guess what, we’re gonna make a record and that lady says we’re gonna need some sex appeal in the band and she want us you to join the band. Well, you know it was way before women’s liberation, so I didn’t feel insulted (laughing) I just said (in humorous high voice) “Oh, what’s jug band music?” And they explained it to me and I joined, so then we started rehearsing and she took me under her wing and took me into her apartment and like we’re playing these old 78’s and she was trying to find some blues songs that would go well, you know, my voice was young it was, I always wanted to sound like I sound now, but back then I didn’t have a big blues voice, you know? So, she turned me on Memphis Minnie and that became one of my old-time idols, I mean I love Memphis Minnie, I even did an album in tribute to her, but anyway this was the advice she gave me, now she says “Honey, when you get up there, you don’t have to sound good, you got to look good too. She says you got to get up there and strut your stuff and make all eyes be on you. And then she looked me right in the eye and said “That’s what they call stage presence. So, you know this phrase stage presence, you know what that is? So, I mean, I was so young and impressionable, I just soaked all that up and I realized when I think about it later, that these great blues queen, was taking me under her wing and showing me how to perform and showing me what was important in being a good performer, I think that’s something that’s stayed with me always.                               (Maria Muldaur / Photo by Alan Mercer)

"Something like Covid and on some level this social war, I think is waking people up, now the Internet and the social media which could be a distraction as also a great tool for uniting people and getting them to become activists. And my little part in this is people need their spirits lifted, this has always been true, but it’s more true now than ever. And now people need I think that putting positivity and happy musical, whatever artform is and whatever you do that makes a huge difference to people."

Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, Elizabeth Cotton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Victoria Spivey, Odetta, Maria Muldaur, what's like to be a female artist in a man’s world, what is the status of women in music?

Well, I’ve been asked that question a lot especially during the years of women's liberation. But these people were my early role models, it wasn’t just the music they sang or that they have a nice voice, the early blues women were, think but to the twenties, if you think women have still repression and struggles now, in those days, first of all they had everything stacked against them, racial prejudice, racial prejudice, like religious people thought what they were doing was sinful and what they were singing about was sinful. But these women had big financial challenges and yet none of that stopped these women, they became who they were destined to be, they expressed themselves the way they wanted, they sang about what they wanted including about their sexuality in actual fun playful way, they expressed themselves freely and to be bold like that and not let any social constrains restrict you, they had such a strong spirit that it just knocked all those things to the side and I tell you, when a man musician sees a woman of that time with spirit they respect them. I have a lot of women ask me these questions, like do I have to compromise myself for, I never had a door shut in my face, but musicians around me recognized that, I’m not saying I’m the greatest musician in the world by any means, but they recognized that I had something genuine enough, that I was serious, they welcomed me and all my man musician friends always helped me and I have those women you mentioned to thank for.

Look at Rosetta Tharpe, she was playing electric guitar, before anyone, Memphis Minnie was playing even before her. But these women were pioneers. And when you’re a pioneer, you’re looking forward, you’re not looking backward to the side to see who’s telling you, you can’t do it, who’s marching forward so I didn’t think about any of this at the time I was just following my passion, I love this kind of music, I’m gonna learn everything about it, whether it was gospel or country or whatever it was and so here I am all these years later and I don’t have a lot of commercial success, but I’ve produced about 20 albums through these 20 years and four of them were nominated for Grammy’s and they were all in non-commercial categories but that means there’s something that’s still very authentic and relevant about this music. And so that’s what motivates me, I hear some good music and think, oh, I would like to record that and then I find the best musicians that I can in that genre to collaborate with me to make that recording or to perform live as well. I’ve made some jazz albums and this one is a special someone for me, I think it’s one of the most fun records I’ve made in a long time.

You talk like my lovely Odetta, the late great Odetta...

Oh, Odetta I love her. She was an influence on me. I made an album in 2008 called “Yes We Can!” and it was for, I created something called The Women’s Voices For Peace Choir. And I called up Odetta, Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, Holly Near, Phoebe Snow and Jane Fonda. These were people that were activists, writes or actually singers, they all were women that raised their voice and called for social peace and social justice and we even. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi), she’s a saint from India. She’s called the hugging saint, I even called her for this album, so Odetta came up to California and recorded with us and I think that must be the last thing she ever recorded, I have a picture of her and I’m looking at it right now as I’m talking to you, I adored her.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where and why would you really want to go with a time machine?

I think I would go back to the twenties and thirties where you could go to hear this kind of music. There’s something about this music that is, especially Tuba Skinny’s music like, they’re not just playing the notes correctly or playing a good arrangement, they’re channeling the whole vibration of that era. I’ve thought a lot about this. Why am I so attracted to them, because they have a groove, that’s much more loose and relaxed than the way a lot of people play now. Because it was before everything became so mechanized and industrialized and people just had a looser rhythm, literally, so I think that’s why I would get back to where there are many, many bands like Tuba Skinny all over the place. And I would make sure that I actually met Bessie Smith and some of my heroes.

What are your hopes and what are your fears for the future?

Well, my hopes is that people wake up. We just came from a very dark, terrible time here in America and the fact that a guy like Trump could get elected at all, means that it wasn’t just him that he was the symptom and natural outcome of people living in a fearful hateful mindset. It’s the same old battle that human kind’s been fighting, since Adam & Eve. So, I thought there was a lot of hope in the 60s, where everybody woke up, especially the younger generation. Because now there’s much less education and there’s much more distraction and much more shallow opportunity that you’re distracted by shallow stupid entertainment. And I thought God help these kids wake up and see what’s going on, they’re so busy on their phones every second and they’re watching stupid videos. But now I think the Black Lives Matter Movement, sometimes it takes something really drastic to wake people up and I think the Black Lives Matter movement shows me that people are waking up by this period, but I feel there’s a hope that warmer people are rejecting this time of hatred and separation and fear of people that are different than you.

Something like Covid and on some level this social war, I think is waking people up, now the Internet and the social media which could be a distraction as also a great tool for uniting people and getting them to become activists. And my little part in this is people need their spirits lifted, this has always been true, but it’s more true now than ever. And now people need I think that putting positivity and happy musical, whatever artform is and whatever you do that makes a huge difference to people. I used to, I’ve always had good bands and always tried to do a good performance, so people would come up to me after the show and say “You were so good” or “I really enjoyed this”. Now in the last couple of years, since Trump was president, I always tried to come up a real positive message in my message and people come after and they grab my hand and look me in the eyes and say “Thank you so much for coming here. We really needed that” So I feel blessed that I have, if I still have the energy to do this, this is what I’m gonna do.

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Maria Muldaur / Photo by Alan Mercer

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