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Singer-songwriter Geoff Muldaur performs jazz and blues from the '20s and '30s


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. Singer, arranger, composer and musician Geoff Muldaur has had a lifelong passion for jazz and blues of the 1920s and '30s. His recordings reinterpreting that music have led many listeners to seek out records from that era. Muldaur was a founding member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in 1962. That band was together for about six years and inspired people like Jerry Garcia and John Sebastian. After the jug band broke up, Muldaur recorded with his then-wife Maria Muldaur and teamed up with Paul Butterfield to form the band Better Days.

Geoff Muldaur has a new two-CD box set titled "His Last Letter." It traces his musical influences and includes tunes by Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton and even poems of Tennessee Williams set to music. It's arranged for and recorded with Dutch chamber musicians. Here's the track "The Whale Has Swallowed Me" by J.B. Lenoir from the new CD.


GEOFF MULDAUR: (Singing) They say the whale swallowed Jonah out in the deep blue sea. Sometimes I get that funny feeling that a whale has swallowed me. Well, now, if I live, pray if I don't get killed, I do believe one day I will finally cross over this hill.

BIANCULLI: In the mid-'80s, Geoff Muldaur began a long sabbatical from performing, reemerging in 1999. In 2009, he spoke with Terry Gross and brought his guitar.


TERRY GROSS: I'm always interested in hearing how people discover music that isn't the music being played or listened to by their generation. How did you discover early jazz and blues?

MULDAUR: Well, you know, I'm a kid of the '50s. And actually, it started a little earlier than that for me because my brother had this record collection of 78s and LPs of jazz people. So I used to spend all my time in his room after school and listening to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke and all these great jazz players. And in amongst that stuff were little smatterings of country blues. You know, they'd put them on an anthology or something. All of a sudden, there'd be a Lead Belly piece or a Blind Lemon Jefferson piece or Blind Willie Johnson piece. And he'd go, what is that stuff? You know, it was very mysterious to me, the country blues thing.

And at that time in America, there wasn't a huge difference in the feeling of things between what I was hearing on the street corner with doo-wop music and - you know, which was so gospel related, and the pop music of the time. I'm out, you know, as a 13-year-old kid buying Fats Domino and Little Richard and Jimmy Reed. You know, we're living outside of New York, and we're dancing to Jimmy Reed. So times were very different. And it was - there were influences coming from all over.

GROSS: Well, you've been generous enough to bring your guitar with you. And I'd like you to play one of the first early jazz or blues songs that you fell in love with that made you really want to seek out more music from that period.

MULDAUR: Well, I couldn't help but fall in love with Lonnie Johnson. I mean, he was on some of those jazz records with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington. And then my friend Joe Boyd and his brother Warwick and myself went down to Philadelphia, picked him up and brought him up to a party when we were living in Princeton, N.J.

GROSS: Well, let's back up a second. He was - what was he doing in Philadelphia's? Wasn't he working at a hotel or something?

MULDAUR: He was. I thought he was washing dishes. Other people said he might have been a cook or something. But he came out of that door with a suit on and his big guitar case, and we took him up to the home of Murray Kempton, who was a journalist, and passed the hat for him. And, you know, we just kept screaming for these blues things, including this tune I'll play a little bit for you called "Jelly Roll Baker."

(Singing, playing guitar) She said, Mr. Jelly Roll Baker, let me be your slave. Gabriel blows his trumpet, then I'll rise from my grave for some of your sweet jelly roll. Yes, I love your sweet jelly roll. It's good for the sick, yes, and it's good for the old. I was in a hospital all shot full of holes. Nurse left a man dying just to get a jelly roll. She loved her jelly. Yeah, she loved her sweet jelly roll. She'd rather leave a man die than to miss her sweet jelly roll.

GROSS: Oh, that's great. So when you were listening to that as a kid, did you know Jelly Roll...

MULDAUR: Well...

GROSS: ...What was intended by the word Jelly Roll?


MULDAUR: That's a good question because I was saying things around the house I was getting in trouble for, and I didn't know - I hit this stuff so young...

GROSS: Right (laughter).

MULDAUR: ...And especially the Bessie Smith stuff. So, yeah, I knew by then. And that's one of the tunes we were asking for at that party. And, you know, double entendre, you know, when you're young...

GROSS: You did an album in about 2003 of songs that Bix Beiderbecke played on or that were from his period. So these are songs from the late '20s and '30s. And in the liner notes to this, you write, in my house, in my father's world of rah-rah Ivy League grads, Bix lore was common fare. Everyone seemed to have a Bix story, about meeting him, drinking with him. And later, you write that the trumpeter Muggsy Spanier came to your house and spent time in your brother's room listening to music. How did your family know these people?

MULDAUR: Well, my brother was out there doing reconnaissance. He was 10 years older than I was. So when he was 18, going into 52nd Street and down to the Village, I was 8. So when he was hunting up these people - and my parents loved Dixieland and that kind of music, anyway. So they'd go down there to Nick's or to Ryan's and these clubs in New York. And then, you know, when everybody starts having those cocktails and having fun, you meet people. So somehow Muggsy Spanier came out to the house. And that was impressive.

GROSS: Were you there? You were there?

MULDAUR: Oh, I was sitting there listening to him. I remember him talking about kicking his mute around the room to get individual types of bumps in it so his sound would be different than anybody else's.

GROSS: Oh, that's almost avant garde.


MULDAUR: Well, there you go. That's typical of avant garde. You know, keep going back with it. But - and he also talked about Bix, and I remember that, just sort of shaking his head, you know, sadly.

GROSS: Your Bix Beiderbecke record is so much fun. I think we should hear a track from it. And this is you singing lead on "Take Your Tomorrow (And Give Me Today)." And do you want to say anything about why you chose to put this on the CD and how you arranged it?

MULDAUR: Well, the original reason for the CD was to do the chamber arrangements of the piano pieces. So they're all on there.

GROSS: Of the Beiderbecke piano pieces.

MULDAUR: Yes. Yes. And, you know, we wanted to spice it up with some of the old tunes, and we decided to do them in ways that have never been done. In other words, if a male sang the original, then a female could sing this time. Or if it was a group effort, it would be a single solo effort. So I tried to mix it up per usual. I don't like to try and recreate the sounds of others. I try and sort of get an impression. I guess I'm sort of an impressionist.

GROSS: OK. So this is Geoff Muldaur from his album from about 2003 that's a tribute to Bix Beiderbecke.


GEOFF MULDAUR AND THE HARMONY BOYS: (Singing) Why should I wait for happiness? I've grown impatient more or less. I cannot wait somehow. Show me a bluebird now. Take your tomorrow, and give me today. For your tomorrow is too far away. At every dawning, I've waited in vain. I find each morning brings only rain. How can I borrow tomorrow today with clouds around me all heavy and gray? What your tomorrow may bring don't mean a thing. That's why I say, take your tomorrow, and give me today. Well, you know, when skies are gray, I cannot say.

GROSS: That's Geoff Muldaur from his album "Private Astronomy: A Vision Of The Music Of Bix Beiderbecke."

That's really so much fun to listen to. One of my favorite quotes about you comes from Loudon Wainwright, who said, Geoff Muldaur was and is one of my musical heroes. When I listen to him sing and play, I can hear the coal mine, the cotton field - last but certainly foremost, the boy's boarding school (laughter).

MULDAUR: He is such a clever guy.

GROSS: Isn't he? So how did you - when you were listening to blues, you know, when you were young, did you feel a connection to the world of the blues singers? Or did you feel like you lived in this very distant world, distant in time and place and class?

MULDAUR: Well, that's - there's a good question. You know, I didn't feel comfortable in the world that I knew around me.

GROSS: Why not?

MULDAUR: You know, it wasn't the best of childhoods for me. But music was an escape. I don't know that I identified with the world of the musicians that I was listening to, but I identified with some mysterious spirituality that was in there, some feeling. And this is not uncommon. You know, how come a flute player from South Side of Chicago named Paul Butterfield picked up the harmonica and became one of the greatest blues harmonica players of all time? So you just don't know who's going to get hit with this kind of feeling or ability. And I'm very grateful I was hit with a little of it.

BIANCULLI: Geoff Muldaur visiting Terry Gross in 2009. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with musician, composer, arranger and singer Geoff Muldaur. He has a new CD box set called "His Last Letter" tracing his musical influences. When Terry spoke with him in 2009, he brought his guitar.

GROSS: You wrote a song about looking for Blind Lemon Jefferson's grave. Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the great blues performers. So the song is about wanting to find his grave so you could make sure it was clean. What - but you actually did this. The song is based on an actual trip that you made. What inspired you to do it?

MULDAUR: Probably alcohol.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULDAUR: You know, I mean, I was up all night in New Orleans as usual. I was living down there when I was 18...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

MULDAUR: ...And hanging out at these crazy places with these crazy people. You know, it was 1961, and things were swinging. And so we were down over at, you know, the Cafe du Monde, little south of there, having some red beans and rice. And I thought about this tune - one kind favor I'll ask of you, please see that my grave is kept clean.

GROSS: That's one of his songs.

MULDAUR: And I go - yeah, yeah. And I goaded these four guys that were with me into cruising around the streets to look for brooms. And we found them. And by the time the sun was up in the - you know, in the morning, we were hitchhiking to East Texas through the bayou country. You know, this is not a recommended trip...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULDAUR: ...For anybody. So I'm here to tell the tale. The first trip ended up in a turnaround, which is - which I wrote about in the song, spending the night in jail in Lafayette. But I got there eventually.

GROSS: And did you sweep the grave?

MULDAUR: Of course. They had moved it by the time I got there. But it is a beautiful, little graveyard. You know, we found one big graveyard, and we're standing in - it was all these people with sort of coiffed hair and white belts, and it just didn't feel right. I said, Blind Lemon could not be in this graveyard. And I looked across this field, sort of a flood plain, and there was this little island of dirt with little trees on it and, you know, and grass and a little split-rail fence with these scissor-tail flycatchers going up and down off of the fence. And I looked over. And I said, he's there. He's got to be there. And we ran across that field and found him and found his mother and his sister. It was beautiful.

GROSS: Who moved his grave?

MULDAUR: The - some blues society.

GROSS: Good.

MULDAUR: So as you can tell from this, it took a few years before I got back there when I got back there.

GROSS: Well, would you perform some of your song about Blind Lemon Jefferson, about looking for the grave?

MULDAUR: Why, certainly.

GROSS: Thank you.

MULDAUR: Let's see if I can remember this one.

(Singing, playing guitar) With my broom in my hand, headed out from Jackson Square. With my broom in my hand, headed out from Jackson Square. I had to get to east Texas, find that graveyard somewhere. Went down on Highway 90, and I followed Lafayette. Went down Highway 90, and I followed Lafayette. I had one dime in my pocket. I was hungry, and I was soaking wet.

So it goes on like that.

GROSS: It's a nice song. It's called "Got To Find Blind Lemon Jefferson - Part One." And it's on Jeff Muldaur's album "The Secret Handshake." And he's performing for us today in the studio. So how did you get put in prison, which we hear about a little later in the song?

MULDAUR: Oh, no, no, no, just jail, just for the night.

GROSS: Jail, right. Yeah, I'm sorry. Yes. And that happened how?

MULDAUR: Well, I'll tell you how it happened. I was so cold. It was in the high 20s. And I had moccasins on and a martin guitar with me. And I went into a little cop shop on the outside of town. And I asked them if I could stay there. This is going to be a little hard to believe, but this is what happened. And they said, well, you got to get out of here. You can't stay here. And I said, look; if I were to run at you, you would then tackle me and arrest me, right? And then you could take me to jail. And they said, this guy's so crazy. Let's take him downtown. And they took me downtown and let me sleep up there for the night. So I asked them...

GROSS: So you really did ask there for, like, you know, a room for a night (laughter)?

MULDAUR: Yeah. Yeah. So that's why I, even in the lyric, write it that way. Somebody said, don't write it that way. I said, that's what happened. I asked to get in jail.

GROSS: Yeah, just do those two lines for us.

MULDAUR: Well, let me see.

(Singing, playing guitar) Please, Mr. Policeman, please, put me in your jail. Well, please, Mr. Policeman, please, put me in your jail. I got to get me some rest 'fore I get back on the trail, because I've got to find Blind Lemon. I got to find Blind Lemon, I got to find Blind Lemon, see that his grave is kept clean.

BIANCULLI: Geoff Muldaur performing in the studio in 2009. After a break, we'll continue his interview with Terry Gross. And Justin Chang will review "The Gray Man," the new movie starring Ryan Gosling. Meanwhile, here's a track from Geoff Muldaur's new CD set, his arrangement of the Blind Lemon Jefferson song "Black Horse Blues." I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


MULDAUR: (Singing) Tell me; what time do the trains come through your town? I want to now what time that the trains come through your town. I want a long-haired momma, and I’m feeling kind of down. One goes south at 8 and one goes south at 9. One goes south at 8 and one goes south at 9. I got to have a good talk with a long-haired gal of mine.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Geoff Muldaur. He's had a lifelong passion for music of the '20s and '30s. His own recordings, as well as those he made with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and his former wife, Maria Muldaur, were inspired by recordings from that era. His new double CD, "His Last Letter," traces his musical influences and is arranged for and recorded with chamber musicians in Amsterdam.

GROSS: So you met Jim Kweskin and with him formed the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and obviously you found somebody in him who was a musical kindred spirit. I mean, he's even on the new CD, on the "Texas Sheiks" CD...

MULDAUR: He sure is.

GROSS: ...Performing "Blues In The Bottle," which is one of the songs he was famous for with the Jug Band. Why a jug band with literally a jug?

MULDAUR: Well, I think his friend who called himself Bruno Wolf thought about the jug. And, you know, we got Fritz Richmond to pick up the jug and try it out. And he was so quick to make it fun that it sort of - you know, and we use the jug on certain tunes, but he also played washtub bass. And he had a great bass head and he was a great part singer. And we just used the whole jug band idea as a sort of, you know, a loose and groovy kind of thing. It was just an excuse to do anything we wanted. You know, sort of like when Terry Gilliam did the Brazil thing, it became an image of some mystical place. There's no real connection, you know. So this whole idea of a jug band - and I guess you may know - I mean, all the folk groups then wore striped shirts and had stage patter, and it was very commercial in those days. And so the jug band was sort of a precursor of the Grateful Dead, you know, but acoustic.

GROSS: Would you like to play a song that you did in the jug band period?

MULDAUR: Oh, yeah. Let me see here. This was one of the first things I ever did with the Jug Band, with Jim Kweskin Jug Band. It's called "Wild About My Lovin'."

(Playing guitar, singing) Listen here, people, about to sing this song, gone to St. Louis and it won't be long. Wild about my lovin', I like to my fun. Do you want to be a girl of mine? Baby, bring it with you when you come. Don't need no sugar in my teeth 'cause the girl I love sweet enough for me. Wild about my lovin'. I like to have my fun. Do you want to be a girl of mine? Baby, bring it with you when you come.

GROSS: That's Geoff Muldaur performing in the studio. It must have been amazing performing with the Jug Band in the '60s at a time when probably, like, a lot of the people in the audience were really high and probably some of the people on stage were, too. There was this sense of kind of community at that time, I think it's fair to say, between performers and audiences that was based in part on liking this music that other people didn't like or didn't know about, and also about sharing in this alternative culture. So can you talk a little bit what it was like for you being a performer in that period?

MULDAUR: Well, you know, there were two - there were different sets of circumstances. The one you just mentioned was the most common. But we became sort of a curiosity piece for television. So we were on a lot of television shows. We'd come out to LA and we'd do the - you know, we did the Johnny Carson show. We did the "The Steve Allen Show." We did three of those. And we'd do all the, you know - whoever was having a weekly variety show like Pat Boone or Al Hirt.

GROSS: Oh, really?

MULDAUR: Oh, yeah. And so we were sort of a curiosity, and we sure weren't playing for our compadres in those audiences. And it was really interesting. They loved those good old chunky, you know, funky things. You know, you'd get this square audience in a studio in Burbank, and they were just loving it.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear what the band actually sounded like together? Is there a track that you'd particularly like to hear?

MULDAUR: Well, I - gee, you know, Jimmy and I have been playing recently, and "Blues My Naughty Sweetie" might be a good one.

GROSS: Oh, that's perfect. OK, let's hear that. And that's the opening track from - I think the album's just called Jug Band Music.

MULDAUR: You got it.

GROSS: So let's hear this. This is Geoff Muldaur with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.


JIM KWESKIN JUG BAND: (Singing) There are blues that you get from loneliness and there are blues that you get from pain. And there are blues when you are lonely for your one and only, the blues you can never explain. And there are blues that you get from sleepless nights. But the meanest blues that be, they're the blues that I've got on my mind, I mean, the ones that are the meanest kind, the blues my naughty sweetie gives to me. Let's hear it now.

GROSS: That's the Jim Kweskin Jug Band with my guest, Geoff Muldaur. And Geoff Muldaur is a singer, guitarist and arranger. How did the band split up?

MULDAUR: Well, Jim had been joining a sort of a communal situation on Fort Hill in Boston, and they were buying up these little houses and fixing them up. And the communal - the community he was living in started to be more important to him than singing vo-do-de-o-do (ph) or razzmatazz songs. So he just decided to break it up. And it really got to especially myself and Fritz. Well, I sort of thought I was in a band for my life. You know, I thought I had signed on for life. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me.


MULDAUR: Because I couldn't - I knew very quickly that I had to learn the craft of music. In the jug band, everything was done, you know, yakking back and forth across the room laboriously for months on end, coming up with these unique arrangements, which I had a major part in. And I knew I couldn't just take that out in the world, so I started taking courses over at the Berklee school of music, private lessons, and learning how to read and write. You know, it's been very helpful. That's why I get to do arrangements for people and write charts and write documentary film scores and things like that.

So what looked like a disaster was just the next - you know, was just one door closes, another one opens. And then all of a sudden, Maria and myself, you know, we're making albums with Amos Garrett and moving to Woodstock. And our manager, Albert Grossman, is getting us together with people. And then I'm - all of a sudden, I'm with Paul Butterfield. And life just kept expanding.

GROSS: Yeah, you and Maria Muldaur were married and performed together and did a couple albums together. Do you want to do a song from that era of your life?

MULDAUR: Yeah, I'd love to. This came out of the jug band, but it fit really nice with Amos Garrett and his beautiful electric guitar playing. This is called "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You."

(Singing, playing guitar) Love makes me treat you the way that I do. Gee, baby, ain't I good to you? Nothing's too good in this world for a girl like you. Gee, baby, ain't I good to you? I bought you a fur coat for Christmas, a diamond ring, a Cadillac car, most everything. It's love makes me treat you the way that I do. Gee, baby, ain't I good to you?

So it goes on like that.

GROSS: Very nice (laughter).

MULDAUR: "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You."

BIANCULLI: Geoff Muldaur with his guitar in the studio in 2009 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with musician, composer, arranger and singer Geoff Muldaur, who brought his guitar along. He has a new double CD called "His Last Letter" tracing his musical influences.

GROSS: Now, you left music for a few years. How long a hiatus was it?

MULDAUR: It was about 17 years.

GROSS: Whoa, (laughter) that's really long. How come? I mean, you're so passionate about it and so good at it.

MULDAUR: It's the classic crash and burn thing, you know? And I'm alive, and some of my friends aren't, and I made a great effort to get out of the lifestyle I was in, and, you know, I've continued with that for the last 25 or -6 years. And, you know, after a while of working and - believe it or not, I was developing software for the steel industry in Detroit, Mich., When Bob Neuwirth came to visit me, an old friend of mine, and he was in town recording Patti Smith. And he came up to my office. And I had programmers and analysts and a fancy suit on, and I was making money. And he wasn't impressed (laughter). He said, do you think anybody else can do this? I went, well, I guess so, Bob. He said, You hear anybody out there playing music the way you play music? Well, I don't know. I guess not, Bob. It was one of those.


MULDAUR: And he dragged me over to Italy that fall, and that's when I got the bug again. I said, you know what? I'm not knocking these northern Italians silly, but I love this. And I started practicing. And that's when I came up with the "Wild Ox Moan." And, you know, I just - I got bit again. And I've been having the greatest time ever since.

GROSS: Well, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like for you to perform some of the "Wild Ox Moan." Maybe you can tell us about it before we hear it. The reason why I want you to do this - you go into this kind of, like, blues falsetto in it, which is almost like a blues yodel.

MULDAUR: I do. But it's something that the writer of this tune - if she did write it because it's so different I almost can't believe anybody wrote it. Her name was Vera Hall, and she was a schoolteacher from outside of Tuscaloosa, Ala. And she recorded at the Library of Congress in the late '30s for the Lomaxes, I guess. And she had this little crack she'd do in her voice. She did it with a few tunes. And she did "The Boll Weevil," and she did children's songs. And she - and I heard her when I was - she was one of those tunes that was, you know, on one of those jazz anthologies, you know - (vocalizing) - these little things like that. And I just - I took to her. So I arranged what was an a cappella tune for the guitar, and I came up with this thing, the "Wild Ox Moan."

(Singing, playing guitar) Well, run here, pretty woman, and sit on daddy's knee. I got something to tell you, woman. Well, don't you holler and plead. Well, I'm going up the country. Well, don't you want to go? Well, I'm going to Texas 'cause that's where I belong. Well, that is where I belong.

GROSS: Nice (laughter). Really good. Thank you so much for doing that. That's "Wild Ox Moan." My guest is guitarist and singer and arranger Geoff Muldaur. So do you feel that age and experience is, like, changing your taste at all in music - like, not necessarily what you want to listen to, but what you want to perform or a range?

MULDAUR: It is getting that way. In other words, I do have plans to move away from the vocal because I'm a second tenor, and you can't sing like this forever. Although it just - I'm singing in the same keys I did when I was in the jug band when I was 19, so - the same tunes and the same keys. So I'm very, very lucky, and it - but it's a knock-wood. And my chamber arrangements - I'm just as happy other people would sing some of the stuff I've put to chamber music - the Tennessee Williams poems, etc. So I'm planning in a more classical way, my model being Giuseppe Verdi, you know, because he didn't - you know, his greatest operas were written at the age of 70-plus, you know? So I got a lot of ideas and a lot of things I want to do. But digging down and shouting the blues, you can't do that forever.

GROSS: Geoff Muldaur, thanks so much.

MULDAUR: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Geoff Muldaur visiting Terry Gross in 2009. He has a new two-CD set called "His Last Letter," which reflects and revisits his musical and inspirational influences. Let's hear one more sample from Jeff Muldaur's new CD set. This is "Heavenly Grass" from a poem by Tennessee Williams.


MULDAUR: (Singing) My feet took a walk in heavenly grass all day while the sky shone clear as glass. Well, my feet took a walk in heavenly grass all night while lonesome stars rolled past. Then my feet came down to walk on Earth, and my mother cried when she gave me birth.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new Ryan Gosling movie, "The Gray Man." This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.