Geoff Muldaur’s roots-music comeback
by Seth Rogovoy
(PITTSFIELD, Mass., March 2, 2003) – Like John Hammond, Eric Andersen and Ralph Stanley, Geoff Muldaur is one of the latter-day beneficiaries of a newfound interest in American roots music. One of the key players in the Sixties folk revival and the creative musical movement growing out of the revival, Muldaur pretty much disappeared for nearly 20 years, only to resurface just in the nick of time in 1998 with “The Secret Handshake,” his first solo album in two decades.
Muldaur followed up “The Secret Handshake” two years later with “Password.” Both albums were released on the Hightone label, and they reunited Muldaur with musician friends including David Lindley, the McGarrigle Sisters, John Sebastian, Van Dyke Parks, Roswell Rudd, Amos Garrett, Lenny Pickett and Howard Johnson.
Muldaur’s new recordings, as well as the concerts he began giving in his newfound role as a solo touring artist, reignited the interest of old fans and made new ones discovering for the first time Muldaur’s unique style blending pre-rock folk, blues, gospel and country music, rendered in his rootsy, quavery vocals and authentic guitar stylings that belie his New England upbringing and his Berklee College of Music background.
Muldaur performs on Friday night, March 7, at 8 at the Berkshire Museum in the last of this winter’s “Originals in Song” concert series.
In a recent phone interview from his home in Southern California, the former denizen of the Cambridge and Woodstock folk scenes spoke about what took him off the musical radar for most of the 1980s and ‘90s, and what eventually lured him back.
“I guess I sort of needed to find out how corrupt business really was,” said Muldaur, who wrote music for industrial clients for much of the time. “I was in corporate business in Detroit, where you might as well be gangsters. They are gangsters.
“I’m an eclectic person, and I was quite interested in what I was doing, but my friends kept urging me to play, and I really didn’t realize how much I loved it until I went to Italy and I just fell in love with playing again.
“Basically I was sort of soul sick -- I wasn’t doing what I was put on this earth to do.”
Muldaur first emerged on the Cambridge folk scene in the 1960s, when he made a series of highly influential recordings as a founding member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and Paul Butterfield’s Better Days. During this time he performed at the Newport Folk Festival, recorded with the Blues Project, and began producing local and national blues artists.
It was in Kweskin’s band that he met the group’s fiddle player, Maria D’Amato, whom he would marry and who would eventually make his last name famous as the singer behind the hit single, “Midnight at the Oasis.”
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Muldaur worked mostly behind the scenes, recording with Eric von Schmidt, John Cale and the Everly Brothers, producing albums for Lenny Pickett and the Richard Greene String Quartet, composing for film and TV, and enjoying some notoriety when Terry Gilliam featured his version of the title song, “Brazil,” in the film of that name.
While often the 1950s are disparaged as a superficial, cultural wasteland, Muldaur feels he was lucky to have grown up during that time.
“It was the tail end of the golden age,” he said. “There was music of all wonderful types everywhere. People can’t believe how great the music was back then, on every level. In 1956, what do you think you’d hear in juke joints down South? It was unbelievable. I went to rock and roll shows and heard the Coasters. Yes, I had my brother’s record collection in a house that liked jazz, but it was everywhere.
“Now, pretty much everything is on CD. Then it was social. You were more likely to be exposed to great stuff, which I was. I grew up outside of New York, so I could go into the city and hear Lightnin’ Hopkins, or go up to 52nd Street and hear jazz. I heard people who played with Jelly Roll Morton. I’m just lucky I grew up in that period.”
Muldaur counts himself lucky in more ways than one.
“I’m blessed,” he said. “I never knew it then -- I was just partying and I always wanted more. But if you can pursue what you love, and you’re able to pay the rent doing it, what more can you ask for?”
Muldaur doesn’t really buy the argument that the success of Norah Jones’s debut in the wake of the success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack signals a full-fledged, cultural revival or turnaround toward old-fashioned music, at least not on the level of the Sixties folk revival.
“I doubt there could be a wave of consciousness or a zeitgeist like I saw in the Fifties and Sixties,” he said. This is like the old discussion that big bands are coming back. I don’t want them to come back. I would like the Sixties to f---ing die. Who needs them? You know what year this is? It’s because nothing else is clicking. Rap could have been something, but it got corrupted.
“I do what I do and keep finding things that haven’t been done before. That’s my little contribution. I’m happy to just be standing on a stage with my beautiful Martin guitar. Being on stage is the only relaxing moment I have. It gets me away from everything.
“As I see our country deteriorating, my life keeps getting better, so there must be a spiritual glitch somewhere.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 6, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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