A Conversation with Maria Muldaur

Jesse Finkelstein: In addition to being an highly respected musician, songwriter, and singer, that you also eventually became true music historian. Was that a surprise to you?

Maria Muldaur: No, not at all. I started in the early ‘60s and being part of the folk scene of the early ‘60s. People still come to me and ask me about that whole period because they say, if you were in the ‘60s, then you don’t remember it, but I not only was there, but I do remember it all well. We were interested in the folk revival of the early ‘60s. We were people in the urban North discovering and starting to explore all kinds of American roots music, which, of course, they call folk music. We were here listening to old 78’s and old Library of Congress compilations and Smithsonian compilations of early American roots artists, like a lot of the blues artists, Skip James, Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, just to name a few off the top of my head, and also a lot of Appalachian music, a lot of bluegrass.

That was music that already was speaking to us, somewhat, from the past, so we thought that that people we were hearing on these recordings were all long gone, but it turned out they were perfectly alive and well and living in the South, where most of this music originated. People started going down and trying to locate them and bringing them up north to concerts and putting them on in coffee houses, concerts, folk festivals and so forth.

All of a sudden, this music, which might have faded away into obscurity, got new life and was much greater exposure. I was just right in the heart of all of that and passionately interested in old-timey Appalachian music, bluegrass, blues and was fortunate enough to meet some of the great American musical pioneers, all of the people I just mentioned, Victoria Spivey, Doc Watson. You name it, there they were, and we could listen to them up-close and personal. It was a very special time.

JessFinkelstein: You actually went and found some of them. What’s amazing to me is, today, people can go on the internet and find information instantly, and most are too lazy even to do that. You actually had to get in a car or bus and travel on the chance of finding them.

Maria Muldaur: A lot of times, we were given a hint. For instance, Mississippi John Hurt has a song called Avalon, so somebody had the bright idea, go to Avalon, Mississippi, and looked for him there, and that’s where they found him. There was a group called the friends of old-time music who were especially interested in finding old-timey Appalachian artists, and they found Doc Watson and his family. They brought them up north to concerts, and I happened to go to one of those concerts. It was a life-changing experience for me because I not only fell in love with Doc Watson’s music, but the fiddle playing of his father-in-law, Gaither Carlton.

Afterwards, there was a big party at Alan Lomax’s house, who lived not far from there in the Village, in Greenwich Village in New York City. For those of your listeners who don’t know who Alan Lomax is, he was one of the great collectors and chroniclers of this early music. He would go in the South on field trips and record all these amazing musicians. So there was a party at his house, and I went up to Gaither Carlton and asked him. I said, I wish you lived in New York City because I’d love to learn how to play fiddle from you … It was a very simple way of playing the fiddle that he had, and probably that’s why I was attracted to it because, I thought, I could do that.

Anyway, he invited me to come to North Carolina, and he would teach me, so I took him up on his invitation, and that led to an amazing experience of going to the south. I had never been far out of New York City in my life, and, all of a sudden, I was in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, living in Deep Gap, North Carolina with Doc Watson and his family and getting to experience, firsthand, how music was such an important part of their lives. They didn’t have television. After supper every night, various kinfolks would wander down the trail from their cabins further away in the mountains and just gather on the front porch and sing these beautiful hymns and play beautiful banjo and fiddle and guitar. I learned to play fiddle. I learned my first fiddle tunes from them. What an amazing experience, just to witness that way of life that was so different than life in New York City. It was really special. I feel blessed that I was able to do that.

JessFinkelstein: What sort of a context did that give you? Because it’s one thing to listen to that same piece of music in isolation, either in the city or some other location and be impressed by it, like it or have an opinion about it; it’s another thing to actually have lived the life of musicians and been with them and seen how it’s produced. How does that change the way you view that music?

Maria Muldaur: It made it so much more real, and it wasn’t just the music. It was just the way they lived, the way they related to each other, the way they lived in way more harmony with the environment, without making a fuss about it in any way. They had a garden. They lived off the land. Even though Doc Watson was blind, he had rigged up the electricity in his house. They had a spring house where they canned all
their vegetables and stuff and had them for the winter. God, I
still remember the meals. They’d get up at 6 in the morning.
They didn’t have a gas stove. They had a huge, wood-burning
stove, and his wife, Rosa Lee, was making biscuits, and there
was homemade jam and butter and sausage and gravy and
eggs, a country breakfast fit for a king. To my young mind, it
made a big impression on me. Just the way they lived their
lives was very much more whole, and that’s reflected in the
music. The music is very pure and simple, and that’s how
their life was.
JessFinkelstein: People listen to Reverend Gary Davis,
but you actually knew and spent time with him. Can you
tell us what he was like and what those sessions were
Maria Muldaur: Gosh, he was just amazing. He chewed on
a little cigar, and he always had a little cigar hanging out of
the side of his mouth. Anybody’s who’s heard him knows, he
played this incredible unique style, a very dynamic style of
guitar playing and singing that people are still trying to decipher and decode and figure out how to play today. I know several great musicians who have made their living just teaching Reverend Gary’s style guitar to other people. He just had
boundless energy. To us, he seemed very old. He probably
was in his late 60’s at the time, and after taking part in one of
these hootenannies, he’d come over. I had a loft with a girlfriend, my roommate. We had a loft, and we could stay up all
night. People gathered, and he was telling stories and playing
for us and having a little nip of whisky out of a little hip flask.
Then he’d come early in the morning. He said, Sunday morning, I better get uptown; I’ve got to preach today. We took
him uptown. He preached at a little storefront church there.
The things he talked, that night at the party, were the things
he preached about, so there wasn’t that much difference between the Saturday night and the Sunday morning. A lot of
folks that are really puffed up with a lot of pompous, self- righteous religiosity have traditionally made a big thing out of the
fact that the blues was the music of the devil, and they’ve
tried to promote this big dichotomy of the music of the devil
and the music of the Lord. With someone like Reverend Gary
Davis, it was seamless. It was all part of life, and whatever
subjects got addressed in the blues were perfectly valid as
things to address, from a spiritual point of view, when he was
preaching. A lot of people talk about preaching the blues, and
the blues fulfills that function in a way.

Jesse Finkelstein: Maria, thank you for sitting down with us today.

Maria Muldaur: It was my pleasure, Jesse. Let’s do it again sometime.

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