[7 February 2010]
Americana roots music singer Maria Muldaur has gone back to her personal roots on her latest album, her 35th one in the 35 years since her eponymously titled breakthrough solo disc. She has, then, gone way back, back to 1963 when Muldaur recorded with compatriots like John Sebastian and David Grisman as part of the Even Dozen Jug Band and Jim Kweskin‘s Jug band. Muldaur’s new release is a jug band record, and even features Sebastian and Grisman on various stringed instruments and harmonica. She also enlists her old friend and jazzbo Dan Hicks, singing two of his songs and singing duets with him on two others, and lauded members of the new jug band scene like Kit Stovepipe and Suzy Thompson. The result is a joyful good time for hard times, like the title says.
Muldaur is aware that the economic recession of today bears a distinct resemblance to the one America experienced during he Great Depression. The bulk of the material on the album comes from the late twenties and early thirties. Some songs’ messages of financial woes, such as “Bank Failure Blues” and “The Panic Is On”, sound as contemporary as anything on the front page of the Wall Street Journal today. The lyrics are lighthearted and glum with an awareness of shared misery, and Muldaur delivers them with appropriate empathy and slyness. Her voice has aged. She can’t routinely hit the high notes like she used to do, but Muldaur knows to use what she has to full effect.
On the more hokum numbers, like “The Ghost of the St. Louis Blues”, “The Diplomat”, and “Shout You Cats”, Muldaur and company get downright playful. These songs are the aural equivalents of comic books, the funny kind. But like good humor, the comedy in these songs serves a purpose. One doesn’t have to be an academic scholar to see the relationship of jokes to social criticism. Subtlety has nothing to do with sobriety and these songs are positively liquid in their clarion call for having fun as the only logical response to a lousy economic situation.
As the owner of a sultry pipes, Muldaur also sings a few love songs that could melt your socks off. She croons “Let it Simmer”, “Sweet Lovin’ Ol” Soul”, and “I Ain’t Gonna Marry” with a lusty bravado that would make her forebears like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Victoria Spivey proud. The innuendoes might come between the lines or in the form of double entendres, but the sexual implications are clear.
Muldaur has long been a champion of classic American folk blues. The album fits right in with the other work she has done recently in mining this tradition, such as Richland Woman Blues and Naughty, Bawdy, and Blue. Her venture back into jug band music seems a perfect fit in these troubled times. Lord knows we could use our spirits lifted. “Keep it mellow / keep it light / take your time / it will be all right,” she sings in a breathy voice. Muldaur makes us believe that being mellow is the ticket to happiness. That’s good advice; now if only she knew how to cure the nation’s other ills!