After several years on the folk circuit and in the short-lived jug band revival, Maria Muldaur hit the national spotlight in 1974 with her sultry single Midnight at the Oasis. She has since extended a half-century-long career, recording 40-some albums of jazz, folk and especially blues.
We caught up to Muldaur, 73, on the road, of course, heading from a gig at the Sleep Inn in Minot, North Dakota, to the Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy, Ohio (“And they ask me why I sing the blues,” she quipped).
As rain pelted her motor home, she spoke of the blues, uplift, growing up in Greenwich Village and that unexpected hit.
Q: You’ve toured consistently all these years, right? You’ve never taken any time off in 50 years?
A: That’s right. I mean, I take time off between tours, but I haven’t done anything resembling retirement.
Q: Your last album, Steady Love, sounds pretty uplifting.
A: Isn’t that the real purpose of music – to uplift people’s spirits? There’s a lot of singer-songwriters who write what I call “Dear Diary” music – it’s all about their own personal woes and their feelings. That’s why shrinks and therapists get $200 an hour to listen to that stuff.
For my money I want to go out to hear live music and hear somebody play something joyous and uplifting. People who don’t know very much about the blues think blues are sad or complaining, and “My baby left me,” and that sort of thing. But really the blues is the kind of music that, before people were going to shrinks, the blues was great therapy, because the songs talk about real-life issues and problems that everyone has, but does it in such a way that both the performer and the listener have transcended the problem by the time the song is over. That’s the magic, therapeutic and healing thing about the blues, and that’s why, of all the genres of music I’ve done in the last 50 some years, I settled into the blues in recent years.
Q: What music did you hear growing up in Greenwich Village?
A: When I was a child, my Italian aunt, my mother’s sister, tuned in a station of country music – she called it cowboy music. … The first song I ever learned to sing was a Kitty Wells song, It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels at the age of 5. … But then growing up, I would say, in the neighborhood was a lot of jazz. I went past the Village Vanguard where Gerry Mulligan and Bill Evans were playing. I’d go to school, and on my way back, I’d hear them rehearsing there. On my way to junior high school, I went right past Cafe Society where Billie Holiday was playing. I was just too young by a few years to know who she was.
When I was 17, I ran away from home, but since I lived in Greenwich Village, I didn’t see the need to run more than six blocks away. … I would lie about my age and go out and go to bars and hear Thelonious Monk and Ron Carter, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, and there was also a folk music scene emerging at the time. It was a time when a lot of people from the urban North were discovering and started to explore – they called it folk music, but I called it American roots music – you know, everything from Appalachian to bluegrass and so forth and a lot of Delta blues, a lot of acoustic blues. Actually, finding the original blues pioneers who were still alive and well and bringing them north to concerts. So at an early age, just by the incredible stroke of good luck of where I happened to be, I was exposed to all these wonderful original blues artists.
Q: It must have been quite a jump to go from a jug band to having a Top 10 hit.
A: I was in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band with my then-husband, Geoff Muldaur. When that band broke up in 1970, we moved to Woodstock and made a couple of albums as a duo. And then a couple of years after that, the marriage and the musical partnership had run its course, and he went off to join the Paul Butterfield Band. And I was given the opportunity to go out to California and make my own solo album. It was not something that I was particularly dying to do, but I thought: It beats sitting here in the freezing cold of Woodstock, New York, trying to figure out how to plow my way out of the driveway.
This was for Warner Bros. records. They procured any and every musician I asked for, so I found myself in the studio with Dr. John and Jim Keltner, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Amos Garrett and so forth. I just made an album that was just an eclectic mix. … I had no expectation or intention of having a hit record. It was the last thing on my mind. But we needed one more medium tempo song. … I suggested a tune by my guitar player, David Nichtern. I said, “Is Midnight at the Oasis a midtempo song?” and he said yes, whipped out his guitar and played it. … As an afterthought, they put it out as a single. It was nominated for a Grammy in three categories, went gold and eventually platinum. And people are still loving it and are playing it all over the world 42 years later. Go figure.
Q: Do you still love singing it? You probably have to sing it every night.
A: I’m not one of these spoiled rock stars who complains how tedious it is to have to play my hits every night. I’ve been really, really blessed that I even got to have a hit or two, and what makes it really gratifying is that it’s a very cleverly, sophisticatedly written song. A lot of jazz artists have covered it. So it makes it interesting to play and sing every night. I don’t know how I’d feel if my big hit had been Wild Thing by the Troggs or something like that