“Sunday was the big day at the big fountain,” Maria Muldaur recalled recently of Washington Square Park and a time when the park acted as gathering place and also as a musical career launching pad. “If you walked around the fountain, you’d find blues, old timey music, blue grass, protest songs. It was an exciting and fertile time,” Muldaur says today.
Muldaur is one of the people for whom those regular performances at the park led to a career that exists to this day. She went on to join the Even Dozen Jug Band which formed from those jams. The group included David Grisman, John Sebastian, and Stefan Grossman. Through a few twists and turns of her career, she became known as a solo artist after 1974’s “Midnight at the Oasis” from her debut album became a major hit. She has been recording ever since, performing in New York on Tuesday, October 21st at Iridium on the Upper West Side for two shows at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.
The Greenwich Village Music Scene of the 60s
Muldaur reflected on her time in the Village and what she has been up to since that time by phone. The singer and musician grew up on 12th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Her career might not have been what it was if it wasn’t for Victoria Spivey who acted as a mentor and was a supporter and friend to the performers at Washington Square Park during that time. “She was a contemporary of Bessie Smith,” Muldaur says. “She was the first person to record Bob Dylan way before Columbia Records came along.”
Spivey had a sense about a music and also ran her own record label, Spivey Records. Muldaur recalled how Spivey told the members of the Even Dozen Jug Band, “You all need some sex appeal. Why don’t you ask that girl in pig tails who sings in the park to join the group?” Muldaur laughs as she says, “This was years before women’s liberation so I didn’t know to be insulted.” Spivey took Muldaur “under her wing,” influencing both the music she was exposed to and the way she performed on stage. After Even Dozen Jug Band, Muldaur joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band with her future husband Geoff Muldaur.
Brooks Brothers & The Launch of a Solo Career
Her own solo album launched her career in a big way. That solo career came about due to a “fortuitous” encounter in Brooks Brothers. As she was purchasing a good-bye gift for her husband Geoff, at this point she knew they would be getting divorced, she ran into Mo Ostin, famous head of Warner Brothers Records. “Next thing I know he was asking me if I wanted to make a solo album. It hadn’t even crossed my mind.”
“Midnight at the Oasis” reached #6 on the Billboard charts, resulted in a Rolling Stone cover, and was nominated for two Grammy Awards.
As a solo artist for forty years now, Muldaur has been quite prolific, releasing an album each year. She usually has a “big bright idea” that leads to an album. She has continued to address issues with her music via songs and video such as “Well Well Well,” music and lyrics by Bob Dylan and Danny O Keefe. Dylan is someone Muldaur knew well from the Village scene. The song is sung by Muldaur and Mavis Staples. Muldaur put together a corresponding video highlighting the devastating effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on wildlife and the environment.
She also released a “pro-peace album,” Yes We Can (this was ahead of Barack Obama receiving the Democratic presidential nomination) in 2008 which featured Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Jane Fonda, Marianne Williamson among others.
New York City Influences
On 12th Street, Muldaur was exposed to music from the age of 5. However, as a young child, classical music was all her parents would play around the apartment. She said, “It was, to a child, ominous and dreary.” Luckily, she had a cool aunt who was into “cowboy music” – which we know of as country music – which was “much more fun-loving” and music Muldaur loves to this day.
As she got older, she was “very tuned in early on to rock ‘n roll until it started to get very corporate. They were trying to replace Elvis with [people like] Fabian. It became whitewashed and they watered it down… turned it into teen pop music.” As she turned away from that, another type of music caught her attention. Muldaur says, “I started noticing right at my doorstep the folk scene of the 1960s.”
Right at her doorstep meaning the Village music scene and those regular jams at nearby Washington Square Park.
Her musical style over the years has included music in many different genres: rock, blues, jazz, pop, folk, country, & more. “Some people see things in different categories, some people compartmentalize. To me, it is all really great music.”
Muldaur currently is on a six week tour which includes the Iridium stop and is highlighted by a multi-media retrospective of her career called “Way Past Midnight.” She says, “I’ve been making an album a year for forty years. Some of the older stuff gets put on the back shelf. I decided to dust it off and put it in the show. [And I end up] reconnecting with old friends.”
Of her New York performance, she says, “People in New York have to be my most loyal fans.”
To purchase tickets for the 10/21 Iridium show