The best place to start is with the story of how Maria Muldaur got the blues and found the inspiration for Richland Woman Blues, her 25th album and a blues feast.
When Muldaur visited Memphis a few years ago to do some recording and present at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards, she, like any music fan, spent her evenings on Beale Street. Although she heard great bands in the clubs, her epiphany came in an alley while listening to an unknown group of local musicians. Her description of the event (as described in Richland‘s extensive liner notes) bears quoting: “As I stood in the alley, boppin’ and groovin’ to their music, the thought occurred to me that I was probably standing in the very alley that Memphis Minnie had sung about in so many of her songs.” It didn’t take long for the musicians to recognize Muldaur and urge her to sit in. What followed was an all-out jam of which she says, “I let loose on one of my all-time favorite blues tunes (“Good Morning L’il Schoolgirl”) by one of my all-time favorite blues singers, and somewhere in that moment, I felt the spirit of Memphis Minnie present, right there with us in that alley.” It was, Muldaur writes, “a musical moment I will never forget”.
That episode coupled with a pilgrimage to other Delta blues “power spots” (including Memphis Minnie’s unmarked grave) led to the recording of Richland Woman Blues, a musical continuation of that physical journey and a tribute to early blues players of the 1920s and 1930s. Richland Woman Blues not only brings classic blues songs back into the light, but also shows the timelessness, artistry, and universality of this music. The quest works on another level, too: The album itself is a journey, one that explores a woman’s search for redemption and a place in a world that can be harsh. Richland Woman Blues is truly in the folk tradition that includes collaborations with other musicians in a stripped-down, acoustic setting-just as Muldaur’s jam in the Beale Street alley did. The emphasis is on the music, not the production.
But, of course, these are all reasons why we sing the blues.
Richland Woman Blues kicks off with the title track, a song by Mississippi John Hurt. Given that John Sebastian was a student of Hurt’s picking style and worked with Muldaur in The Even Dozen Jug Band, it’s fitting that he play on this coy song that finds Muldaur strutting her stuff. With a feminine growl, she exhorts her lover to hurry home or “your mama will be gone”. Her voice has grown stronger and deeper; thus is the stage set for a tour of classic blues.
Muldaur covers a variety of bluesmen and works with outstanding contemporary blues players: for example, Leadbelly’s “Grasshoppers in My Pillow” with Amos Garrett and David Wilkie; Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “It’s a Blessing” with Bonnie Raitt; Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man” with Taj Mahal; and Reverend Gary Davis’ “I Belong to That Band” with Ernie Hawkins. Muldaur’s performance of these cuts is heartfelt. Simply put: she’s got the strut to pull off these songs.
Of particular note is “It’s a Blessing”, a duet with Bonnie Raitt that Muldaur describes as having “had church”. McDowell was Raitt’s slide guitar mentor-an historical detour that reflects the vast influence of the blues. Raitt’s guitar and vocal blend perfectly with Muldaur’s as these women sing together. The song also functions as the thematic linchpin of Richland Woman Blues, appearing early on the album and then as a shortened reprise at the disc’s close. It’s a reminder of the function of the blues, a source of expression as well as a builder of community.
At its heart, though, Richland Woman Blues is about the contributions of two of the best pre-World War II blues women: Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith, who each have four songs on the album. It’s important to remember the contributions of women to early blues, for a larger audience first found this music through female blues singers who played in Vaudeville shows.
Memphis Minnie, with her pre-feminist lifestyle and art, is one of Muldaur’s primary muses. For example, with “Me and My Chauffeur Blues”, Muldaur’s voice works with Roy Rogers’ guitar to tell the timeless tale of a woman and a man-complete with plenty of spicy sexual innuendo. Her duet with Alvin Youngblood Hart on “I’m Goin’ Back Home” is a story of female control as is “In My Girlish Days”, the account of a woman using her blues story and voice as a source of empowerment.
The Bessie Smith tunes consider similar themes. “Put It Right Here” finds the singer explaining to her man how their relationship is about to change, and “My Man Blues”, a collaboration with Angel Strehli, has a nice bawdy flavor courtesy of Dave Matthews’ piano. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment on Richland Woman Blues is “Lonesome Desert Blues”, a song that entwines the musical skill of Muldaur and Matthews. The singer mourns the straying of an unfaithful man who’s given her the “lonesome desert blues”. She knows that she’s going to lose him as she cries out to the Lord to have mercy on her-in both the words and Muldaur’s voice, there is a sense of absolute physical and emotional isolation. Matthews’ piano adds to the sense of this being an impromptu experience: A woman wanders into a bar and begins singing with the house pianist because she knows of no better way to express her pain.
But the blues affirm life in the face of adversity, and Richland Woman Blues doesn’t end with the singer stranded in the desert; instead, Muldaur leads the listener back into the community with the final three songs. “Soul of a Man” is an exploration with Taj Mahal of “what is the soul of a man”-the incongruity of their voices perfectly illustrates the complexity of this question. This brings Richland Woman Blues, literally, to the musical community and salvation of “I Belong to That Band”. Muldaur’s victory in finding her way is evident as she sings each refrain: “I belong to that band / Hallelujah”. It’s the kind of catharsis that lies at the heart of the blues. That’s followed by a reprise taken from “It’s a Blessing”, tying together the singer’s journey.
Richland Woman Blues is a wonderful album, one that doesn’t hide behind fancy production (Muldaur and John Jacob are the producers). Instead, it’s about timeless music, lyrics, and musicianship. As Muldaur observes, “This is still a bluesy world, and the songs remain timeless and articulate expressions of the human condition and the human spirit.”
If there’s anyone who’s had a diverse musical career, it’s Maria Muldaur. Now, she has well and truly got the blues. And we are all the richer for it.