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Geoff Muldaur: The Zelig of American Folk Music

Maria Muldaur and Geoff Muldaur
Robert Corwin

The river of American music twists and turns in new directions every day, but that river has another current that’s deeper and never changes. The core strains of American music — Tin Pan Alley, bluegrass, jazz, gospel, country, ragtime, blues, folk — are indestructible, and traces of them can be found in everything else that’s followed. Scratch the surface of the rowdiest rap song and you’ll hear the echo of one of these native styles. Just how durable this music is became evident in 2000, when the soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was a massive commercial hit. Over the years this music has had various champions, too, including Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Ry Cooder, among others.

Add to that list Geoff Muldaur, a musician’s musician who’s been swinging in the shadows for decades. Emerging as part of the East Coast folk revival of the early ’60s, Muldaur has been in and out of several notable bands, recorded 22 albums, and learned American music from the ground up. Muldaur makes old songs new with the persuasive power of his voice, a clear, sweet instrument inflected with a distinctive, plaintive quaver. His voice is the engine that drives the recently released Texas Sheiks, an acoustic blues album that was recorded last year in Austin. The songwriting credit on half of the tunes says “traditional,” which means the song is so old nobody knows who wrote it, and the Sheiks also cover tunes by Skip James, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson. They have their bona fides in order, and have the skill to make this simple music swing the way it should.

The Sheiks had been fooling around with music in various living rooms for years, but when group member Stephen Bruton was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, they got serious about making a record. A guitarist with Kris Kristofferson’s band for 40 years, Bruton, who died in May, was a highly regarded session player and close friend of Muldaur’s for four decades. In a sense, Texas Sheiks is a tribute to Bruton.

Born in 1943, and raised in a privileged suburb of Manhattan, Muldaur was the youngest in a family of three children, and his introduction to music came via his older brother, who turned him on to jazz when he was 5. He took the guitar up at 16, and formed his first group, the Goombay Rhythm Kings, while he was at prep school in Connecticut. During that period Muldaur met lifelong friend Joe Boyd, who went on to found Hannibal Records, and together they fell in love with American music. They shared a fascination with musician Lonnie Johnson, who’s often credited with having invented the guitar solo. In 1959 the pair tracked him down in a Philadelphia hotel, where he was washing dishes. They picked Johnson up, and took him to a party at the Princeton home of Murray Kempton. (Imagine being able to find Leadbelly or Howlin’ Wolf and bring them to a party at your house; Muldaur’s was the last generation for whom such a thing was possible.)

In 1961 Muldaur moved to Boston, then in the throes of the East Coast folk revival, and after immersing himself in the music for a few months, he moved to New Orleans. “I heard all this great music, and spent many nights sitting at the feet of George Lewis,” recalls Muldaur of the jazz clarinetist who is regarded as one of the chief architects of the pure jazz that flourished in New Orleans early in the 20th century.

Muldaur returned to Boston in 1962, and early the following year he met guitarist Jim Kweskin, then assembling a jug band. The lynchpin of the original lineup was John “Fritz” Richmond, whom Kweskin spotted playing washtub bass in the folk group the Hoppers, and by the fall of that year the Jug Band was rehearsing regularly. “We weren’t interested in copying traditional American music,” says Muldaur of the group’s guiding principle. “Rather, we were doing impressionistic views and reinterpretations of traditional music.”

By the end of the year the Jug Band had released their first album, and were gigging in New York; it was there Muldaur met vocalist Maria D’Amato, who joined the band, then married Muldaur in 1964. That same year, the group embarked upon a national tour, and appeared regularly on TV variety shows hosted by Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, among others. “We were considered a novelty act because we had a jug player,” explains Muldaur, who remembers spotting Duke Ellington and Spike Jones in Jug Band audiences.

By the time the group’s second album was released, in 1965, the social revolution of the ’60s was kicking into gear. The Jug Band had a surrealistic edge that allowed them to adapt nicely to the new Zeitgeist, and they became regulars at psychedelic watering holes like the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom. Albert Grossman, über-manager of the day, began representing them, and everyone was making a good living, so it came as a surprise when Kweskin abruptly disbanded the group in 1968.

Muldaur used the first free time he’d had in ages to learn how to read music, and the following year he and D’Amato began working on the first of two duet albums. Later that year they moved to Woodstock, and Muldaur began playing with guitarist Amos Garrett. Blues great Paul Butterfield was also living in Woodstock, and in 1972 Garrett and Muldaur teamed with him to form the group Better Days. “This marked the beginning of a big musical shift toward an electric situation for me,” Muldaur says. “I wasn’t going around in VW buses playing for the intelligentsia anymore.

“The music with Paul was unbelievable, too,” adds Muldaur of Butterfield, who died of a heroin overdose in 1987. “He could sit in with a band that was cooking along, and he’d blow two notes on the harmonica and it all got better. The guy just had a touch.”

After two and a half years with Butterfield, Muldaur wanted out, and in 1974, with his marriage to D’Amato over, he moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where he spent the next decade. During those years he released six albums, including Geoff Muldaur Is Having a Wonderful Time and Motion. He was running out of gas, however, and didn’t record anything, from 1981 until 1984, when, in June, all those years of the musician’s life caught up with him and he crashed. “I stayed on my sister’s couch for nine months working on getting sober; I got a job waiting tables.”

The following year Muldaur relocated to Princeton when he was asked to run Carthage and Hannibal Records, and while he was there he discovered he was good with computers. At that point he left the music world entirely, and became a well-paid computer consultant. “I was wearing suits and getting paid good,” recalls Muldaur of his years away from the music business, “but when my friend [musician] Bob Neuwirth came to town he wasn’t impressed when he saw my fancy office.” Neuwirth persuaded Muldaur to come on an Italian tour he had planned, and suddenly, Muldaur’s long sabbatical was over.

Muldaur settled in L.A. in 1999, and the following year he released a solo album, Password. Two years later came one of his most complex and beautiful recordings, Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke, a cycle of arrangements Muldaur scored for five piano pieces that had been transcribed in 1931, shortly before the legendary coronetist drank himself to death at the age of 28. Private Astronomy is a magnificent and mysterious work, and it’s also a long way from the Texas Sheiks. But then, Muldaur has always had range, and has always been immersed in distinctly different facets of American music. Every year he hosts a barbeque, and Richard Thompson, T-Bone Burnett, Loudon Wainwright, Dave Alvin, Jim Kweskin, Greg Leisz and Bob Neuwirth are among the friends who regularly show up. They’re all part of the roots music brain trust working to keep American music alive, and they all revere Muldaur’s contributions to the cause.

Geoff Muldaur, Texas Sheiks (Tradition & Moderne Records)