The East Coast troubadour Geoff Muldaur has become a frequent visitor to Iowa, thanks in large part to his connections with the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Society and the associated jazz festival in Davenport. Back in 2003, Muldaur arranged a series of Beiderbecke’s piano compositions for a chamber ensemble of violin, brass, and woodwinds entitled Private Astronomy. Since then, he’s been working with the Davenport community to host a concert of Beiderbecke’s compositions performed by local musicians.
One of the fortuitous consequences of this has been Muldaur heading 50 miles west recently to play a solo show in Cedar Rapids, his third in as many years. “It’s a Martin guitar, the Geoff Muldaur edition,” he bragged to the audience in a proud voice at the beginning of the show.
“We know. You told us that last time,” someone in the audience heckled back. Indeed, many people there had attended Muldaur’s previous two shows, which helped create an intimate atmosphere and some amusing repartee.
For example, Muldaur had a borrowed banjo with him and said he knew one banjo tune. A voice in the crowd yelled, “Tell your one banjo joke.” Muldaur replied laconically, “I know one banjo joke, should I tell it?” Of course the audience encouraged him to do so. “How do you know if a stage is level?” he asked. Various people shouted, “How?” Muldaur responded, “When the banjo player drools equally out of both sides of his mouth.”
The audience groaned in appreciation. Muldaur had them in the palms of his hands, or more precisely, in his fingertips, as he deftly played an assortment of classic American blues compositions by such masters as Lonnie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Sleepy John Estes. Muldaur knew many of these people personally during the great rediscovery of old blues artists among young appreciators during the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, and tonight he gave lessons and told anecdotes to highlight their importance.
Muldaur recalled the time he, Joe Boyd, and Boyd’s brother Warwick picked up Lonnie Johnson from his dishwashing job in Philadelphia and took him to Princeton to play a gig at journalist Murray Kempton’s house. It was Johnson’s first step on the way to his resurgence in the folk-blues world. Muldaur also remembered Hurt’s uncanny resemblance to the Disney character Jiminy Cricket, as well as his tendency to refer to every piece of wood as “cypress.” As Muldaur is one of the few living links to these legends, his telling of tales is important in keeping them alive in memory.
On a related note, Muldaur also played his wonderful self-penned tune, “Got to Find Blind Lemon Part One”, about heading out to East Texas with friends to make sure the great man’s grave is kept clean. Muldaur and his peers from the Greenwich Village/Cambridge, Mass., scene have themselves become part of folk-blues history, and their antics are significant in understanding how the music has developed and grown. The lyrics of this song help convey the zeitgeist of the past and connect it to the present through Muldaur’s sweet singing voice and intricate finger picking.
The show, which took place at 7 p.m. on a Sunday night, stopped short of two hours so that people could go home early before starting the work week. Muldaur stayed afterwards, ostensibly to sign CDs, but many people hung around just to thank him for playing. Locals would say that’s the Iowa way of doing things, but this really doesn’t happen very often. It happens only among friends—and it seems Muldaur has officially acquired friend status thanks to his frequent visits to the Hawkeye state.