Maria Muldaur has done more than any other contemporary artist to keep the music of early 20th century jazz and blues women alive. She has recorded full-length albums dedicated to individual performers such as Blue Lu Barker and Memphis Minnie, as well as thematic ones including the critically acclaimed Richland Woman’s Blues and Naughty, Bawdy & Blue. While Muldaur is best remembered for her work as a member of the Jim Kweskin the Jug Band during the Greenwich Village folk revival days of the early 1960s and her monster solo hit “Midnight at the Oasis” during the 1970s, she has continued to put out excellent releases (over 40 albums!) that showcase her vocal talents and good taste. Let’s Get Happy Together is another stellar recording.
This time, Muldaur has joined forces with the New Orleans roots band Tuba Skinny (Shayne Cohn, cornet; Todd Burdick, tuba; Barnabus Jones, trombone; Jason Lawrence, banjo; Craig Flory, clarinet; Greg Sherman, guitar; Max Bien-Kahn, guitar; and Robin Rapuzzi, washboard) on Let’s Get Happy Together. They do an excellent job of recreating the music from a bygone era without sounding retro or precious. Indeed, they make the old sounds from the 1920s and 1930s seem fresh and new through their skillful playing. The pairing of Muldaur and Tuba Skinny seems a perfect match.
This is the kind of Crescent City music that makes a person smile and tap one’s feet when it’s happy and moan with a knowing smile when it’s sad. The 12 tracks may vary in topic, but all share a sense of the absurd. There is something about New Orleans culture with its masks and costumes that suggests what’s hidden may be truer than what’s revealed. For example, the swinging “Be Your Natural Self” was originally performed by Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, who sometimes performed as a man and other times as a woman. Muldaur sings the seemingly innocent lyrics about being true to one’s disposition with a sly inflection and is backed by a bawdy horn section that suggests doing what comes naturally might be more risqué than it initially appears
Songs like these may seem obscure to modern audiences, but the music also comes off as hip and modern in its sensibility. Sam Caslow’s “Swing You Sinners” (originally sung by Valaida Snow) lets the listener know that jazz isn’t just the devil’s music but the way to redemption as well. The band members get the rhythm moving before Muldaur joins in and lets you know that “music is good for you”. The title track (by Lil Hardin Armstrong) about getting high and Frank Lasser’s “I Go For That” (originally sung by Dorothy Lamour) reveals that hedonism has always been in style, especially when times are tough.
On the other hand, “Big City Blues” (first sung by Annette Henshaw and written by Jaxon) and “Road of Stone” (first sung by Sweet Pea Spivey) are heartbreakingly sad. Muldaur and the band understand one can’t be truly happy without another person in one’s life. This desire for human connection is expressed on all the cuts and at the heart of the disc. Good times or bad are best experienced with another. Hence, the album’s (and song’s) title about getting happy requires being with someone else. That seems fitting for an album that matches two musical entitles as one. Muldaur and Tuba Skinny collectively combine to make beautiful music as they know two together can be more fun than one alone.