One of the greatest white blues and roots music singers who was a major influence on Jerry Garcia.
Geoff Muldaur may not be a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he doesn’t have a Grammy, though he does have an Emmy Award for his soundtrack work in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a music legend who helped shape American music from the ‘60s on. He first came to prominence with Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band who were the most successful and influential ‘60s jug band. A few quotes will give a clear sense of the influence he had at a formative time in the music we all love, Van Dyke Parks is reported to have said “Bob Dylan didn’t want to be Woody Guthrie. He wanted to be Geoff Muldaur. Geoff was the big man on campus. He still is.”, and the UK’s own Richard Thompson said, “There are only three white blues singers – and Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them.”, and Bonnie Raitt is on record confirming, “Geoff has always been one of my favourite singers”. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Geoff Muldaur over Zoom to discuss the latest addition to his considerable lifetime body of work ‘His Last Letter – The Amsterdam Project’ which builds on the orchestration style of his Bix Beiderbecke tribute album and was recorded in Amsterdam over a period of ten years and features sumptuous music, sound and packaging. He shares the emotion he felt when he read the last letter his great grandfather wrote to his wife the day before he drowned in Yokohama Harbour following a maritime collision, which inspired his new work. He explains that he has never felt constrained by any specific genre and the fun he had with The Jug Band, his duets with his then wife, Maria, his time in Woodstock and working with Paul Butterfield.
How are you?
I’m alright man, I’m in the middle of writing music and I always get in the zone, you know.
There is an awful lot of music on ‘His Last Letter – The Amsterdam Project’.
Well, it took a minute, didn’t it, haha.
Before we get down to our chat, I’ve got to say that ‘His Last Letter – The Amsterdam Project’ is amazing on many levels, starting with the packaging, the arrangements and orchestration, and also the actual songs. Not only is it significant artistically, but I assume financially it was quite an investment. What was your motivation for producing it?
Well, I’m not hampered by stardom, for one thing, haha, so I have time to create, and I have had for years. I took time off from music in the ‘80s and ‘90s and I came back in 1998, and I came back wanting to apply myself, and to me, it is the body of work that is important not the accolades you receive for the time you exist. A lot of this stuff I had been dreaming up before I did this album, and I really couldn’t find players who could play it. It doesn’t sound hard, but it is extremely hard to play, and so I found myself in Amsterdam and I thought to myself, you know what, I could get some pretty damn good players here and I wouldn’t have eye rolling going on like in the studios in New York. I thought I could also just learn on the job, man, go to my own university in Amsterdam and learn from these beautiful players. They were all so happy to do this, they could sit there in a rehearsal, and if you are a bassoon player you can sit there for two hours and never play your bassoon. I think they liked to play something different and well crafted, and most of them liked my singing, I think. I spent ten years there, going back and forth, and it was a real education, and now I’m starting a new one in New York, man, and that is where the real eye rollers are but now, I’m armed with craft, haha.
When I listen to it I got the sense that on the one hand, it was a history and a review of your career to date, but on the other, the music was also new, so it is also looking forward to the future.
I have to admit I am a conceptualess person, I’m a cork floating on the ocean when it comes to a concept I don’t pre-conceive, apart from my Bix Beiderbecke album in 2003 when I did a tribute to Bix Beiderbecke, I have never done a conceptual album. I just get started, and Mo Austin at Warner Brothers used to say, “What are we going to call this?”, and I was like, let’s just finish it, and then we’ll decide, haha. I didn’t do it that way, I wanted some of this music, and as I’ve said I had been fooling around with some of the easier arrangements with people who were game and extremely talented. If I wasn’t Yo-Yo Ma or somebody, I wouldn’t be able to get players like this in the United States, they are all in the orchestras, and some of the chamber ensembles. The players in Amsterdam were killers, man.
That certainly comes across, and for such a small country it is really amazing.
Well, we’ve got one Brit Mike Sterling who was great as well on cello, man.
How would you describe this music?
Here we go again, which bin are we going to put it in, I’m Ry Cooder without a name, if Ry Cooder puts an album out, they put it in the Ry Cooder bin, haha. Where else are they going to put it though, blues, americana, nah, nah, nah, or something like that? It is the same with me, I like to dance on the tops of various genres, enjoy myself and put some of my own ideas and feelings into my influences. I certainly don’t copy, I’m not good at it and I don’t tend to it, I just want to find my own voice in the material that I love. If I can’t mess with it, I won’t do it.
Do you look after your voice because it still sounds superb on ‘His Last Letter – The Amsterdam Project’?
I don’t know what happened man, I shouldn’t be able to sing like that and all the vocals, except one, are live with the instruments in the studio, there is no studio separation, I was there with the people and that is why it sounds so damn good. For some reason, we managed to get things in one or two takes, and I was mostly in good voice. I don’t really know man, I’m not going to think about it too much because it may go away. Most people my age can’t sing like that, I hope they don’t mind my saying so.
You say you are not a star, but with your voice and music, you pointed the way for a lot of other artists.
Maybe. I feel very good, and I haven’t so much had a career because as I said before, I have a body of work, and I’ve played with some magnificent musicians and bands, starting with the Jug Band, and playing with Paul Butterfield, that was another kind of university because I now know how to write for rhythm sections, I know what I want. I’ve been very lucky with all of that, and when I was young I was throwing it all away as fast as I could get it because I was a reckless crazy youth, and you know that and we don’t have to go into it, haha, and I was fortunate to pull out of all that, as James Dean gets his sleeve caught on the door of his vehicle going off the cliff, somehow I rolled out of the car. So here I am, and I’m just so grateful to be able to produce this music. I couldn’t do it without the help of a patron, I mean, who the hell has a patron? I start a project and they seem to come, and I’ll play something for somebody, and they are like I have to help you get this done.
The days of supportive record labels seems to have largely gone.
That is why some many people are making, I can’t say bad sounding records, but unwarm and unprofessional, in my opinion, sounding records, the sounds are so brittle. That’s another thing, we were so fortunate to work in the beautiful studios in Amsterdam, the Dutch Radio Studios, the sounds man, just that warm cuddly thing you get from a room with real sound. We could go on and on, man, a whole bunch of luck just coming together, haha.
You mentioned your Bix Beiderbecke album, which is nearly twenty years old I think, that was similar in that it was a more orchestrated piece of music.
It is getting there. Yes, it is all part of a journey, and that gave me the confidence, I think, and also the mission because even though I went into that project knowing how to do horn charts because I’d written for documentaries and advertisements, so I had some craft going into it, but when I got into that Bix Beiderbecke thing, I realised I was the guy for the job. I knew how to do it, I had that vision and that sound. So, it boosted me in a place where I was like, well you are going to have to start really picking this up and make it more exquisite, and that is what I tried to do in Amsterdam. I’m ready to move on now, man, you are never going to get a body of work if you don’t move on, haha.
You’ve said yourself that your music is eclectic, but you were eclectic before most people knew what you could be eclectic about.
Haha, that was the Jug Band all the way. Those are just a bunch of really crazy and talented people who were that Jug Band, I mean Bill Keith changed the world of the banjo, and Maria is Maria and that voice, it is incredible, how great she was, Jim Kweskin is one of the great pickers but he is not thought of as a super picker but I’m telling you, he has a thing about his thumb, and when you play with him it is like a freight car going on a journey, I mean, he is a steady guy. We just had some great players, and probably the most incredible was the jug and washtub player, Fritz Richmond, he took those instruments seriously and not as a joke, and took them to a level nobody else did. I don’t know how much of a joke skiffle music was in the UK, but we were seriously trying to plumb the depths.
Skiffle in the UK was in the ‘50s and it was more than crude, but it did provide an entry-level for future musicians. The Jug Band lasted until the start of the ‘70s, didn’t it?
No, no, it was ’68, ’63 – ’68, it felt like such a short time to me, but when you think about it in that era, I mean, how long do you think the Lovin’ Spoonful were together, it was just two and a half years, and we sure influenced them, haha, Sebastian keeps playing jug band music, you know, haha. Garcia’s first band was a jug band, so you know I’m just happy to bounce along playing one lucky thing to the next, and I had to have that time off to clean myself up a little, but here we go.
You had your Woodstock years, which is another key piece of American musical history.
Sure, hanging out with Paul Butterfield and Rick Danko, Garth Hudson was my next-door neighbour, and those guys could play man, they had the same thing we all have who need to play music so much. It is a dream state for you, I don’t know what character flaws or assets contribute to someone needing that expression, I mean, when I write music for these musicians now, like in Amsterdam, I picture those people, I want to make them happy. I want them to feel like they are reading some interesting stuff and they play a lick, and they go this is nice, you know, it is about the musicians and the dream. Then when you finish you have to do all the business stuff, and I’m happy for that as well, haha.
Talking about writing for the players, you yourself don’t play on every track of ‘The Last Letter – The Amsterdam Project’.
The ‘Octet – In Three Movements’ is a twenty minute classical piece and I would have been in the way, haha. That first Movement is treacherous. I had that rhythmic idea for years and I was like, what the hell am I going to do with that thing, and I couldn’t believe they could play it, and it swings as well. I’m on most of the other things, some of the instrumentals I’m not.
‘His Last Letter’ was inspired by your great grandfather’s ship being sunk in 1870 in Japan and his drowning. Clearly, the suite means a lot to you.
Very moving, it was very moving to get that letter from my cousin, it was my great grandfather’s last letter to his wife which he gave to the packet boat in Yokohama Harbour the night before he died. The letter shook in my hand it was so beautiful, it was a love letter, he is coming home, he is going to go to Canton and come home to her. I’m sorry to say this British frigate, a British steamer cut him up. When I read that I thought I’m going to find Captain Eyre’s, he was the captain of the boat that killed my great grandfather, great grandson and stick a stiletto right in him, just like in the ‘Godfather’ movie, you know. I got over it, so anyway, it was very moving to get that letter, and I changed the names of my great grandfather and my great grandmother because they didn’t flow very well, I put in Dick and Mimi Farina’s names, I don’t know if you know about them.
Oh yes, fantastic artists.
Farina and Mimi Dear because I miss them so much. What a journey this is, and you know for you to man, if you have chosen music to be a big part of your life it is a pretty good deal, it is very rewarding to the soul. I’m not out there ruining the environment, I’m not out there doing damage.
Listing to the record, while there is a whole range of music on there, early jazz seems to be one of your anchors, is that true?
Yeah, it is what you first listen to, you know, I can remember solos from when I was six, because those first things you listen to like when you got your first rock’n’roll or rhythm & blues records, the first record I bought was on a 78, 45s were just coming in, so I got the El Dorados singing ‘At My Front Door’ on 78, and then these funny looking 45s came in and we all got these funny looking players, and up came Fats Domino, and in came Little Richard and all that. But before that happened I had spent so much time in my big brother’s room, he was ten years older than I was, so when he was seventeen I was seven, and he already had a big collection of records, and 10 and 12 inch LPs, so I was in his room listening to Jelly Roll and Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and all those people, and I was listening to, if you don’t mind me saying so, all the people who invented our music. There is a big difference between the inventors and the people who augment it or copy it, or ruin it, haha. To hear that pureness of the original conceptions of what a solo is, nobody did that before Louis Armstrong did it, and nobody can sing like Bessie Smith, and the harmonies Jelly Roll had in his head from all those cultures that took place from Haiti and France, and Indians and American blacks all in New Orleans, the pollination of music, you know. So, it was a wonderful start, and I think that gave me my attitude of making a personal statement rather than creating things that just conjure up an era or something. I like to hear something in a piece of music where I can go that is beautiful, but I would like to hear it this way, and then you start carving it out, you know.
You bring in a bit of country music.
Who can help that, haha? Those guys man, half of them may be storming The White House at the moment, but those guys with the songs and the hooks. Sure, I’ve been to The Grand Ole Opry, I’ve hung out with Bill Monroe and those guys. What a beautiful thing, and perhaps for you, that we got to hear the last third of the great zeitgeist of the golden age of music, not just American music, but music around the world. I mean if you listen to rebetiko music, or you listen to opera music, or you listen to Umm Kulthum in Cairo. What came out of the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s was a golden era.
Without the Jug Band, and the record collectors, it is possible that a lot of the earlier music could have disappeared, I think.
Perhaps it would have, and some of those nerdy guys went down South and got those guys like Mississippi John Hurt and Son House. I got to hang out with all those players, I really, really, spent time with John Hurt, Son House used to come over to my apartment and hang out and drink with me. The encounter with Lonnie Johnson was like a gift from the ages, the first great star of blues music in America, that was Lonnie Johnson. It wasn’t lost on the British public, but it was lost on our public in America. It was so beautiful man, and B B King’s biggest hero was Lonnie Johnson. As we keep talking, I’m just going to keep saying how lucky everything has been.
Bringing things up to date, I have to ask you about The Texas Sheiks and Stephen Bruton.
We also did a couple of electric cuts down there, and I have a solo by Stephen that is so good, and I’m going to try and fit it on a record somehow. He had that Texas thing, man, it isn’t like the delta thing, the delta players were phenomenal, but they weren’t into the changes of the popular song or the jazz, so all these Texas guys had all these chords in their head just like the Piedmont guys did, like Blind Willie McTell and stuff, so Bruton just had it all there, man. When he got cancer and it wasn’t looking good, we just said we should do some sessions down in Texas so he can forget about his chemo sessions. He really enjoyed it, and he really introduced me to a couple of characters, Cindy Cashdollar and Johnny Nicholas who were great, we brought in Susy Thompson my favourite string band fiddler. Then Kweskin joined us, and it was so much fun for Stephen. Boy, talk about missing somebody, but this is part of reaching out in the world and getting beautiful relationships, it is going to happen if you stick around the planet, they start dropping on you.
It is a price we have to pay, unfortunately.
It is worth it though, definitely worth it. There was a patron involved with that and it took us two weekends, and then I said I’ve got another idea, maybe I could do something in Amsterdam, so ten years later, haha.
I want to mention the Tennessee Williams poetry you have put music to on ‘His Last Letter – The Amsterdam Project’.
I wrote something for a Pablo Neruda poem, but I can only put it this way, he doesn’t swing, man, but that Tennessee guy, he swings, and it made it really easy to do that. I will tell you something, and I couldn’t have researched this, and I did so much research on the album and the booklet is eighty pages or something, and it is a little book because COVID struck and I had nothing better to do than to dig in and uncover some history, but in I lived in The French Quarter on Dumaine Street in a little apartment in a little row, and I saw a picture of an apartment building that Tennessee Williams bought and I was like I think I lived in that place. He bought it after I left, but I think it is the same building, and I couldn’t put it in the album notes because I wasn’t sure. Also, I didn’t want to spend any more time on the damn thing, haha, is COVID over yet I want to stop and start playing again, haha. The shared experience of New Orleans and anything goes, and the magical, magical mist in the air there, the smell of all those foods and spices, even the manure of the horses.
You know, it is incumbent on me, at least, to try and get a couple more dreams going, man. This thing in New York is going to be fun, we are going down there in a couple of weeks, and I’ve got a room full of players and these jazz arrangements for more big band kind of things. It will sound like me, somehow, and I’m really enjoying getting back working.
Where have you got the tunes and songs from?
One wonderful thing that has never been recorded is something by a friend of mine, and once again friends leave us, and in his honour, I’m doing this song, and he is also the architect of the studio we are going to record in, and he also arranged all the music for ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ on Broadway. He is a really talented guy, he played piano with Maria, and I miss him, Jeff Gutcheon. Some of the guys from ‘Saturday Night Live’ are going to be on it, including Lenny Pickett who I produced years ago is going to be on it. Then there is this whole other thing with a wonderful woman, Catherine Russell, who is going to sing ‘Lover Man’ because I’m going to redo something I did with Maria because I wasn’t ready to write this way then, and I want to get it right today. She is a wonderful singer, and she is the daughter of the head of Louis Armstrong’s band, Louis Russell. The connections just give me goosebumps. Isn’t that great?
That is not a tune you can just play around with.
When we finish this interview, I’m going to go upstairs and I got an idea in my head as we were talking, haha, it is something to write so I can’t help myself, I’m sorry man, haha.
Is there anything you want to say to our UK Readers?
I hope to get back to your island someday, but things are really screwed up at the moment with travel and everything. I don’t know what we can do about it, all I can do is keep producing my art, man. I can’t really waste too much time chewing on it, I see these clips coming up on my computer about the next fucked up thing. I like watching snooker, I’ve been watching Ronnie O’Sullivan for years, and that is my favourite thing, Ronnie O’Sullivan has saved me from all our politics. He has just won that match with Trump, the other Trump, haha, like Stephen Hendry says, when Ronnie is on, he wins, that’s it. I love watching him, it takes you out of all this crap that is going on. My children are OK, my grandchildren are OK, and I’m OK, so all is good.
And you are still working.
Pretty soon the birds are going to be migrating through here and I’m a twitcher. I’ve done quite a bit of twitching in Holland now, but not a lot in the UK. I went to Whitstable to visit friends. You have a beautiful country, man. I remember when I went down to play a gig in Brighton, and the promoter picked me up, and this was in the late ‘90s, and I said what is going on with this train system, man, it is getting all screwed up, when I first came here things were beautiful. And he said I thought my father died for those trains in the war, and that is the big change. Nationalism is a ruse because it used to be something worthwhile and to be proud of, but they are now turning on their own people. You go out, rape the world, and don’t talk about it too much. The first time I walked across Hyde Park I thought how beautiful, the Brits have done damage, but they sure make it nice for their own people, but it was many years ago. That’s been the change, and this place is even crazier. I felt very comfortable in The Netherlands, but they are getting pecked away at by the money guys. It’s what happens, man.
They call it progress.
It really is, huh? Thanks for taking some interest in this guy, and I will just keep making music and we can talk again about the next one. This one won’t fit in any one bin, but there are lots for people to listen to it and like it hopefully.
Geoff Muldaur’s ‘His Last Letter – The Amsterdam Project’ is out now on CD and vinyl via Moon River Music.
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