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This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the May 16, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Muldaur: Acoustic Master

Unlike the veritable sea of singer-songwriters who

are essentially pop singers emerging in the numerous coffee houses

and folk festivals of this nation, Geoff Muldaur — guitarist,

singer, and songwriter — is firmly rooted in traditional music.

He’s the definite article, the real deal.

After many years of playing businessman, Muldaur fell back into the

performing life by accident. Muldaur, the guitarist for the Jim Kweskin

Jug Band in the 1960s, lived in nearby Skillman, for most of the 1980s,

where he ran the American offices of Carthage and Hannibal Records.

Muldaur’s upcoming show for the Princeton Folk Music Society at the

Christ Congregation Church on Friday, May 18, represents a homecoming

of sorts.

"I moved to the Bay Area in 1988 to help computerize a record

distributor that had been a customer of Carthage-Hannibal Records,"

Muldaur explains in a phone interview from his present home in Venice,

California. "After playing businessman for a few years, I was

compelled by soul-sickness to start making an album in 1997."

"I had no plans to find a label at first, but that changed, mostly

due to the urging of friends. I shopped a tape of the project around

to various independent labels, and the first few passed on it,"

he says. Next he rattles off a bevy of names of independent labels

that didn’t think his album — later released as the critically

acclaimed "The Secret Handshake" — was anything they could

sell.

"They screwed up," says Muldaur, "and this happens sometimes

with market-driven decisions. If one makes a decision to put out an

album because they love it, they can’t really go wrong, can they?"

Muldaur was signed to HighTone Records, and they agreed to put

out his album, after an executive at that company, based in Oakland,

California, caught his performance with Loudon Wainwright in San Francisco.

"He came down to the dressing room and got goofy about me. When

I found out he was from HighTone I told him to buzz off, because I

had sent them a demo and they hadn’t gotten back to me about it. As

it turns out, I had my lawyer send the tape, and these guys refuse

to listen to demos sent by lawyers — which is an inspired stance,"

he adds, chuckling.

"A few days after that gig they called and told me how much they

loved the music. No mention of marketing considerations and the like.

We hit it off, and two albums have been the result," he explains.

"A nice career has developed from this."

Muldaur was born in Pelham, New York, in 1944, and raised in and around

New York City and Boston. Asked about his earliest awareness of blues

and folk music, Muldaur said he became aware of it as a six-year-old,

via his older brother’s record collection. "His collection was

mostly traditional jazz," he says. "Then later on, I started

finding 78s and 10-inch LPs, which got me going. And of course, since

then the discoveries have not ceased."

Asked what sparked his interest in becoming a performer, Muldaur says

it was the blues. "I dabbled in doo-wop and calypso a bit, but

I only dabbled. When I started singing blues something happened with

my voice that I wasn’t hearing any other person doing — white

or black."

One of many artists to emerge from the folk revival centered around

Boston, Muldaur was already a well-known blues performer by the time

he helped Jim Kweskin form his Band. When Vanguard Records signed

Kweskin in 1964, he brought Muldaur into his group as the guitarist.

In the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Muldaur befriended, fell

in love with, and married Maria D’Amato, a singer who took his last

name and later eclipsed him in popularity, most conspicuously through

her huge 1973 hit, "Midnight at the Oasis." Maria Muldaur’s

current album is a brilliant blues collection titled "Richland

Woman Blues." The couple moved to Woodstock, New York, where they

became part of a musical community that included Bob Dylan and the

Band, Paul Butterfield, Happy and Artie Traum, and dozens of other

folk and blues artists. The Muldaurs recorded three albums together.

Geoff and Maria divorced in 1972, and Muldaur began both producing

and making records of his own. He also began composing scores for

film and television, earning an Emmy Award for his recording of "Brazil"

that is featured in Terry Gilliam’s film of the same name. He began

his recording career at Prestige Records, a jazz and blues label then

based in Bergen County, with "Sleepy Man Blues" in 1963 and

a self-titled album in 1964. In the 1970s, he recorded "Sweet

Potatoes," "Is Having A Wonderful Time," and "Motion,"

for Warner Brothers, before winding up at Rounder Records in 1979 for

"Blues Boy."

Most recently, Muldaur recorded "Secret Handshake" (1998)

and "Password" (2000), both for HighTone Records.

The appeal of Muldaur’s music lies in his respect for traditional

folk and blues, much as Dave Van Ronk and Odetta see themselves as

carrying on a worthy tradition. Call him a "moldy fig" if

you want, but on "Password," Muldaur interprets and invigorates

a wide-ranging collection of traditional gospel, blues, and country

tunes, including country with "Mary of the Wild Moors," the

gospel tune, "Wait ‘Til I Put On My Robe," and the blues number,

"K.C. Moan." The critical response to "Password" has

been just as favorable as it was for "Secret Handshake."

"I’ve been very well treated in the press and on the radio,"

says Muldaur. "I’m a lucky man. I recorded `Password’ mostly at

the little garage studio of a fellow named Paul du Gre. It was funky,

but right. I recorded to multi-track tape and then mixed to tape.

It’s got that warm feeling you can only get with analog recording."

In a 1986 interview at his home in Skillman, Muldaur

declared: "My next band is gonna be fiscally responsible!"

When I reminded him of this statement, I asked if this mindset had

a role in his 1990s decision to tour without a band. His response:

"Did I say that? How mature!"

"But yes, it is the reason I’m mostly solo right now. As it turns

out, the experience has been very good for my soul, and for my chops.

I also perform with a chamber ensemble from time to time — fiddle,

French horn, bassoon, clarinet, acoustic bass. I played at the Edmonton

Folk Festival in Canada with a 10-piece blues band that included Amos

Garrett. And I just got back from Japan where I played with an acoustic

bassist," he adds, "but mostly, I tour and perform solo."

Asked what he makes of the current sea of up-and-coming singer-songwriter

types that gather at folk festivals and places like the annual North

American Folk Alliance Conference, Muldaur says most of these guitar

players are pop singers, not firmly rooted in tradition like "the

moldy figs" — people like himself, Van Ronk, Odetta, Bob Dylan,

and even his former wife, Maria.

"Most of the singer-songwriters I see around today, are, for the

most part, pop musicians," he argues. "The confusion has come

with the fact that they usually deliver their songs with the help

of an acoustic guitar."

Asked what advice he offers these bright-eyed, guitar-slingers with

stars in their eyes, he says, "I really don’t know what to tell

you about that. There are so many different types. Some are cottage

industry self-centered little whiners, some are soulful young folks

looking to express themselves and get paid in the meantime, some are

copycats, and some are totally unique. The big thing I’ve noticed

is the numbers. There are huge numbers of people out there picking

and singing. When I first started out there were very few people singing

and picking acoustic guitars outside of the rural South and the West."

"When I do give advice, it happens because I’m interested in the

person or persons musically. I usually try to turn them on to some

appropriate seminal recordings," he says.

Likewise, the audience in Princeton on Friday night will be turned

on to some seminal classic blues, traditional hymns, and ripe old

country music. "I’ll be playing songs from my entire musical life,"

he says, "traditional folk and blues, some gospel, and a originals

from the recent albums."

— Richard J. Skelly

Geoff Muldaur, Princeton Folk Music Society, Christ

Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, Princeton, 609-799-0944. $12

at the door. Friday, May 18, 8:15 p.m.


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