Maria Muldaur: A lady sings the blues
The blues is a magical kind of music for Maria Muldaur.
While she has had a career spanning 39 albums and many genres — including the 1970s pop hits “Midnight at the Oasis” and “I’m a Woman” — Muldaur says she feels truly at home with the blues.
“The blues talks about human emotions and the issues that concern the human heart in a way that is very authentic and real,” Muldaur, 68, said during a recent telephone interview.
Muldaur is about to release her 40th album in a career that stretches back to the early 1960s Greenwich Village scene in New York City (where she was born and raised), first with the Even Dozen Jug Band and then the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.
Her first big hit came in 1974 with “Midnight at the Oasis,” followed in 1975 by “I’m A Woman.” She went on to also record roots, gospel, R&B and jazz music, and award winning children’s albums set to jazz music of previous eras.
Muldaur says she still loves the look on audience members’ faces when she does the old songs that put her on the map 40 years ago.
“It has been interesting so far, and it ain’t over yet,” she said.
“Midnight at the Oasis” and “I’m a Woman” earned Muldaur fame, and she has been nominated for three Grammy Awards and a number of blues music awards.
But Muldaur says she really hit her stride in 1992 while recording “Louisiana Love Call” in New Orleans. On that recording, she worked with Dr. John, Aaron and Charles Neville, among others.
“I feel like I am learning more and more as a producer and as a musician and as a singer. I enjoy honing my skills, and as a performer too, and working with really great musicians,” Muldaur said. “I am blessed to get to work with many great musicians in various genres. So it has been a very rewarding and gratifying career for me so far.”
Muldaur released “Steady Love” last year, and her new album due this fall is a tribute to blues legend Memphis Mini, who not only sang the blues in the 1920s and 1930s but wrote and recorded more than 200 of her own songs, Muldaur said.
It includes fellow singers such as Bonnie Raitt, KoKo Taylor and Phoebe Snow: “My sisters in the blues who wanted to pay tribute to Memphis Mini,” Muldaur added.
Her affection for Memphis Mini goes back to when another blues queen, Victoria Spivey, took a young, up-and-coming Muldaur under her wing, suggesting her to other bands and also introducing Muldaur to songs she felt would suit her voice.
“Of all the wonderful stuff she played, the thing that moved me and sort of inspired me the most was her scratchy old 78 (vinyl record) of Memphis Mini singing ‘Tricks Ain’t Walking No More.’” Muldaur recalled.
That’s when Memphis Mini became a serious influence on her career. But Muldaur didn’t know at the time that she would eventually pay homage to her influence.
“I just was busy discovering and delighting and exploring all the various forms of American roots music, and blues was just one thing I fell in love with. I also fell in love with Appalachian old-timey music and got to meet people like Doc Watson and go down to North Carolina and visit and learn fiddle from his father-in-law,” Muldaur said. “I had many, many musical adventures, blues being just one of them. But now, after all these years, I seem to have settled comfortably in the neighborhood of the blues.”
This neighborhood is one of honesty about life, experiences and people. This is why Muldaur can sing a Memphis Mini song written 90 years ago and still evoke a certain feeling and tell a story people can relate to.
“It’s because this music was created not with the idea to have a hit record on the radio, climb the Billboard charts or anything like that. It was a very true and authentic interpretation of the human heart and soul. And so, therefore, the music touches a chord with people, not just in the decade in which the blues first emerged,” Muldaur said.
She marvels at the number of blues clubs, bars, societies, record labels, artists and musicians there are now compared to when the genre emerged 90 years ago.
“It’s kind of music of the people, by the people and for the people,” she said. “And people just come out and have a good time."