“You have a choice every day, you can be bummed out or you can be happy.”
Having a tough week? Feeling a bit down? Here’s a sure fire-remedy – click on the video below and catch Maria Muldaur singing with New Orleans band, Tuba Skinny, and feel your cares slip away as your smile gives way to a big grin and you suddenly find yourself on your feet dancing.
If you’re a roots music fan you’ll know Maria Muldaur from her many albums of blues, jazz and roots music over the last five decades; if not, you’ll surely know Maria’s big hit song from 1973, Midnight at the Oasis, with its sand dunes, camels and cactus. She’s still going strong, as upbeat and positive about life as ever, and has blessed us with a new album, recorded with Tuba Skinny, a group of traditional jazz musicians, entitled Let’s Get Happy Together.
Recorded in New Orleans last October during the dark days of the pandemic, but released as some semblance of normally seems to be returning (at least to America and Europe), Let’s Get Happy Together captures the note of hope we’re all looking for, not only in its title but in the exuberance and joy of the songs.
Maria Muldaur has had a stellar career, with a back catalogue of 43 albums, six Grammy nominations, multiple Blues Music Award nominations and a Lifetime Achievement Americana Trailblazer Award from the Americana Music Association in 2019. And that’s before we get to the hordes of fans all over the world.
The new album is one of the best you’ll hear this year and features twelve songs from the 1920s and 30s that Holger Petersen, the album’s executive producer and founder of Stony Plain Records, its label, says “is a historic project that pays reverence to many of the early New Orleans women of blues and jazz.”
Muldaur says that she hopes listeners “will be inspired to look up these wonderful artists yourself on YouTube and start exploring and enjoying the endless abundance of incredible music they left us.”
I got chatting by phone to Maria at her home in California about the album and about life in general. She was a breath of fresh air. I asked her, first of all, how the album came about, and she told me this remarkable story.
“Well,” she said, “a few years ago, I was shopping in a store in Woodstock, New York, and this wonderful, exuberant, toe-tapping music came over the speakers and it just sounded like the most wonderful vintage jazz. So, I remarked to the shop gal how cool it was that the local radio station would be playing this hip jazz. And she said, ‘Oh, that’s not the radio. That’s a band. That’s Tuba Skinny.’ Well, you know, I’ve studied that kind of music all my life, really immersed myself in it, since I was in a jug band back in the sixties, and I’d never heard of them. She said, well, they are a young band from New Orleans and they play on the streets. And I couldn’t believe that they were young because they were playing with such soulfulness and such authenticity. So I just was immediately smitten with their music.
“Long story short, she knows some of them. So she hooked me up with five of their albums and I became an ardent fan. It was like they were channeling not just the music itself, but the very atmosphere and aura and rhythms of life from that bygone era. It’s almost like going back in a time machine to a time when things were not as mechanized and digitalized and, you know, industrialized.
“It just makes you happy to listen to it! Well, anyway, I was making my last album two years ago in New Orleans where I was paying tribute to a wonderful New Orleans blues woman named Blue Lu Barker, who originally wrote and recorded a tune that’s been in my repertoire for almost 50 years, called Don’t You Feel My Leg. So I made it my business to go see Tuba Skinny every chance I got, whether they were playing on the street or in clubs. And eventually the washboard player recognized me. I didn’t go up and talk to them or anything – I just was there as a fan. And he said, is your name Maria? Maria Muldaur? I said, Yeah. And he couldn’t believe it!
“So I ended up sitting in with them a couple of times. And then in January of 2020, I was invited to come to New Orleans and do a special guest showcase of the International Folk Alliance, and I wondered if Tuba Skinny would play with me. So I got in touch with them. We had one quick rehearsal, and it immediately felt like going home because it just was a natural fit. Even though they were several generations younger than me, it’s clear we’ve all been drinking out of the same musical fountain.
“So anyway, we did the gig, it was wildly received and an old friend of mine, Holger Petersen happened to be there because he was getting a lifetime achievement award for having had a roots music show on the radio for 50 years in Canada. And over lunch the next day he asked me about doing an album with them. And I loved the idea. So that’s how this album came about.”
The album has songs originally done or written by Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s second wife, Dorothy Lamour, Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, Sweet Pea Spivey (sister of Victoria Spivey) and the delightfully named Goofus Five. The music is infectious and upbeat and the lyrics are clever, at times funny and uplifting. It’s music, I suggested to Maria, that stands the test of time.
“I would say that these songs were written in a time when things were more kind of heartfelt and genuine. And I go out of my way to choose songs that have relevance for me. Now, I figure if they resonate with me a hundred and some odd years later, then there’s a good chance they’ll resonate with my listeners. The very first day when Holger took me out to lunch. I got really excited about the project, and we said, well, what kind of songs will we have? And he started scrolling around. And we had the idea that a theme of the album could be paying tribute to women artists from New Orleans.
“And he came across Lil Hardin’s Let’s get Happy Together. Which we both found immediately appealing. I said that it should be the first song on the album – in fact it should be the title of the album. But little did we think that barely a month or two later, we’d all be locked down and put into hibernation? And so for the album to come out in May like it did it, just as people are starting to be vaccinated and come out of hibernation, it couldn’t be a more timely title.
“But that song was written over a hundred years ago, and it’s got very hip lyrics and is very lighthearted. I think people didn’t take themselves too seriously back in those days, because there’s all kinds of lighthearted, goofy songs. People weren’t expressing their inner anger. All my life I’ve gone for songs that have some kind of uplifting message.”
As you listen to this album, there’s a lot of positivity throughout. From talking to Maria you can’t help but suspect that these songs are reflective of her as a person.
“I’m disgustingly positive, some might say! The kids in the band say to me, ‘You’re always so upbeat, so cheerful!’ Why live here on this planet, if you’re not gonna at least attempt to be that? You have a choice every day, you can be bummed out or you can be happy. My motto is ‘No problems. Just solutions.’ That’s who I am as a person. And I always choose songs that reflect who I am as a person.
“After Midnight At The Oasis, they realized they had a possible hitmaker on their hands, and Warner Brothers were trying to duplicate that success, trying to figure out how to get that to happen again. So they brought me a song called You’re no Good [which the Swinging Blues Jeans had had a hit with in 1963]. And I listened to it and said, ‘Why in the world would I put that message out over the airways? Husbands are telling their wives they are no good; parents are telling their kids, they’re no good. Why would I amplify that message?’
“Well, my dear friend Linda Ronstadt had a huge hit with that about a year or so later, and took that all the way to the bank! But I never regretted it because I’m all about putting out a positive message.”
One of my favourite songs on Let’s Get Happy Together is Valaida Snow’s 1935 Swing You Sinners. Snow was a virtuoso jazz musician known as “Queen of the trumpet,” and hailed by Louis Armstrong as the “world’s second-best trumpet player.” The song celebrates faith as being something joyful and upbeat.
“If you’re going to have faith in God,” said Maria, “it might as well make you happy, right? Rather than, you know, cowering and graveling before some angry father God, just looking to punish you at every turn. That’s one kind of religion, but my religion is let’s get happy together!”
She told me she’s attended an African American church in her neighborhood for the last forty years where she enjoys the kind of worship that is always joyful and full of music. “And that song, I think, puts that across. It’s just swinging so hard for one thing, and without saying anything too religious, it basically says, when those old blues come around, you don’t have to wear a frown, just swing out, boys, and let the sweet tones ring!”
Even the blues, for which Maria Muldaur is well-known, shouldn’t be something downbeat and depressing. “The blues is always about surviving by the time you get to the end of it. ‘Trouble in mind, I’m blue but I won’t be blue always, the sun’s gonna shine in my back yard some day.’ That could sum up the theme of so many blues songs. It’s not about wallowing in self-pity. It’s about expressing your sorrow or your disappointment, but finding a way to transcend it. And that, to me, is the magic of the blues and why the blues will never go out of fashion.”
Talking to Maria Muldaur is a ray of sunshine. Like Rory Block, whom I spoke to a while back, who told me that at 70, she was “just getting going,” and whom Maria referred to as “her little sister,” Maria told me that, “I certainly don’t feel like I’m slowing down very much.” She’ll keep on making great music “as long as I can find some kind of music that interests me.”
I wondered as she looks back over her career, all the albums, all the awards, all the accolades, what stands out for her, what is she most proud off?
“Well of course I just always followed my passion or philosophy – Joseph Campbell used to call it following your bliss. That’s what I’ve done without ever thinking about the commercial success that might or might not be involved in a particular endeavor. It’s been all about the music. When I look back, I’ve been so blessed to work, to record, and to perform with so many of my own musical heroes. Everyone from Doc Watson to Ry Cooder to Dr. John, to Mavis Staples, to Bonnie Raitt. Working with Benny Carter in an all-star big band was certainly the thrill of a young singer’s life, as was singing a duet with Hoagy Carmichael. And singing a duet with Ralph Stanley was an out of body experience.”
And then Maria told me this great story about her 2008 album Yes We Can! for which she had formed a “peace choir” of women’s voices.
“I had originally thought of it as a protest album about the issues that were going on in the day. Then I remembered that I actually didn’t like protest music! I liked the causes they were espousing, but I didn’t like the music itself. So I quickly changed the idea to turn it into a pro-peace album. And the first song I thought of was Yes, We Can, which was an Allen Toussaint song that had been a Pointer Sisters hit around the same time as Midnight at the Oasis.
“So I formed a choir of women who have raised their voices for peace and social justice. It included Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Odetta, Jane Fonda, Phoebe Snow, Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir – and that names just a few. And so I put together this really cool album, and someone who worked in the studio where we were mixing said, you know, there’s a guy running for president and he’s using, ‘Yes we can,’ as his slogan, you should send him that song. I said, ‘yeah right, some guy running for president is gonna listen to my song!’ And then two weeks later, someone else was in the studio and said the same thing. But I wasn’t interested – because I was planning to vote for Hillary – this was early in that election year.
“But I ended up sending the album through someone I knew who could get it to him and expected nothing at all. A week later I got a handwritten letter from Obama himself thanking me for the song and saying it perfectly fit the spirit of his campaign. And he was going to have it played at his rallies and speeches. I thought, you know, I have mail on my desk I haven’t answered in four years and this guy took time out personally thank me! I ended up voting for him of course. So that’s something I’m really, really proud of.”
Now you can’t talk to Maria Muldaur without asking about that song – Midnight at the Oasis. Does she still enjoy performing it?
“I do. That song put me on top, not just in the States, but all over the world, for some strange reason. It’s a song about a camel! But, first of all, it’s a very hip song musically. A lot of jazz artists have covered it over the years because it has really hip jazz chord changes. And it’s a song that’s enjoyable to play. It almost kind of plays itself and I can improvise on it every night. God forbid if my biggest hit had been some three-chord song! So I’m just grateful every day for it; it’s a delightful song to sing.
“And as if that weren’t enough, when we get to that song, which we do almost at the very end of set, we see people in the audience, couples grabbing hands and giving each other knowing looks. Because for some reason, that song, so I’m told, was the soundtrack to many a love and lust, and it brings back hot sexy memories! So I’m happy to have provided something like that; it’s a song I’ll forever be grateful for.”
Having said that, we’re all grateful that Maria Muldaur hasn’t rested on her laurels – not at any stage over the past fifty years. And here she is, still making great music that entertains and uplifts. Quite rightly she’s very proud of Let’s Get Happy Together, which may be her best work yet. Her good friend Bonnie Raitt certainly thinks so.
That being the case, she says, “I must be still slowly but surely improving my skills as a singer. So, I’ll just keep doing it until nobody wants to hear it anymore!”
As long as Maria Muldaur keeps on making music, we want to hear it.