The myth of vulgarity in popular music goes something like this. Back in the early days of recorded music, lyrics were tasteful and conservative. Genteel songs of romantic love were the staple. Great-grandpa and grandma only listened to innocent lyrics about a boy and a girl. By the end of the Second World War, lyrics had become a little more risqué, but were certainly benign by contemporary standards. Then rock and roll emerged in the ’50s, followed by the swinging ’60s, the disco ’70s, the punk ’80s, the hip-hop ’90s, and by the twenty-first century, anything went. The progression from Scott Joplin’s syncopated ragtime to Insane Clown Posse’s sexual deviance is a straight line that marked a lessening of moral standards. It’s a nice story, but it’s simply not true. There are numerous exceptions to this neat chronology. Some of the best ones can be found on Maria Muldaur’s latest release, Naughty, Bawdy & Blue, which features a photograph of the born again Christian lady sticking out her cleavage on the cover. But don’t worry, Muldaur isn’t selling out. She’s sung these types of ribald tunes since the very beginning of her career in the early ’60s. She understands that the difference between the sacred and profane is merely the distance between Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Naughty, Bawdy & Blue completes Muldaur’s trilogy of albums made in tribute to these great female blues singers of the pre-World War II era. She covers several classic tunes here, like Mamie Smith’s “Down Home Blues”, Ma Rainey’s “Yonder Comes the Blues”, “Alberta Hunter’s “Early Every Morn”, and Victoria Spivey’s “TB Blues”. Muldaur does a wonderful job recreating the songs from the past while maintaining her own distinctive style. It’s like hearing on old 78 rpm record of the past magically restored and cleaned up without any hisses or crackles, but better because of the full range of high fidelity employed. These tunes never sounded so good on a sonic level. More importantly, Muldaur’s vast talents are on full display here, whether she swoops up each note with gleeful joy or moans in sweet sorrow. She poignantly sings about sex and violence as if they were part of her everyday experience, as they were for the original audiences for these songs — at least as much as modern day versions are for today’s listeners.
Consider the salacious lyrics of “Handy Man” (made popular by Ethel Waters) and “Empty Bed Blues” (famously done by Bessie Smith). Muldaur delivers the sexy lines with a husky romp in her voice on the first tune. “He shakes my ashes / Greases my griddle / Churns my butter / Strokes my fiddle”, Muldaur croons, and makes the word “churn” sound downright nasty in the best sense of the word. She makes the Smith tune even hotter while singing about her cabbage boiling over once her man puts his meat in. Whew! Muldaur comes off as a corrupted innocent who, once she has discovered the joys of the flesh, can no longer be satisfied when she is denied them by crooning in a sweet voice and then letting herself get carried away.
Then there’s the no-good men who make her want to put them in the grave because of their low-down ways. She counts the ways in which she’s been done wrong on tracks like Sippie Wallace’s “Up the Country Blues” as if she’s reading a warrant before letting her man have it. “He knocked and kicked me / He stomped and ‘bused me / He knocked and cursed me / He treated me dirty”, Muldaur sings, and announces that her man is gonna reap just want he sowed. The true meaning of the “Up the Country Blues” seems to be that she’s going to be sent upstate to prison for wreaking her vengeance.
James Dapogny’s Chicago Jazz Band does a great job accompanying Muldaur. Dapogny arranges the instruments well. He knows when to let the band swing as a whole in a beautifully ordered chaos and when to let the horns loose. He allows the individual players on clarinet, tuba, drums, guitar, and piano take their solos without getting in the way of the song, a tricky thing to balance. Bonnie Raitt joins Muldaur on Sippie Wallace’s “Separation Blues”, a song that Raitt, Wallace, and Muldaur used to sing together back in the day. Raitt and Muldaur’s voices blend together well in blues harmony. “Fare thee well / Mama’s gone goodbye”, the two women sing as one, and while they are not singing about Wallace per se, her spirit and that of the other blues women of the spirit linger lovingly over the entire disc.