Geoff Muldaur Takes Texas Sheiks On The Road For decades, singer songwriter Geoff Muldaur has been reinterpreting blues and jazz of the '20s and '30s. Today, we'll play some of the tracks from Muldaur's new album, Texas Sheiks, and he'll perform some songs live. Muldaur's band, also called Texas Sheiks, is currently on tour.
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Geoff Muldaur Takes Texas Sheiks On The Road

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Geoff Muldaur Takes Texas Sheiks On The Road

Geoff Muldaur Takes Texas Sheiks On The Road

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're ending the New Year with great music as we continue our holiday week series of memorable interviews from 2009. This next interview and performance with Geoff Muldaur was recorded a few weeks ago.

Muldaur has had a lifelong passion for jazz and blues of the '20s and '30s. His recordings reinterpreting that music, has led many listeners to seek out recordings from that era. Muldaur was a founding member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in 1962. That band 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." In the mid-'80s he began a long sabbatical from performing, reemerging in 1999 with the album, "The Secret Handshake." Now he has a new CD called "Texas Sheiks" that features his old friend Jim Kweskin as a guest star.

Here's the opening track "The World is Going Wrong" featuring Muldaur singing and playing six-string banjo.

(Soundbite of song, "The World is Going Wrong")

Mr. GEOFF MULDAUR (Singer, musician): (Singing) Strange things have happened like never before. My baby told me I would have to go. I can't be good no more once like I did before. I can't be good, baby honey because the world's gone wrong.

Feel bad this morning. Ain't got no home. No use a-worrying 'cause the world gone wrong. Can't be good no more, like I did before. Can't be good, baby. Honey, because the world's gone wrong. I tried to be loving...

GROSS: That's Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks from the new album "Texas Sheiks." Geoff Muldaur, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love the CD. There's a nice story behind this album - well, nice is the wrong word because it's about a good friend of yours who is sick, but tell us the story behind it.

Mr. MULDAUR: Well, first of all, it's good to be here. And you're talking about Stephen Bruton?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MULDAUR: My longtime friend from Fort Worth, Texas, and eventually Austin, Texas, and I met Stephen in Newport, Rhode Island, when the Jug Band was playing there. He drove up there when he was a teenager in a jacket and tie to see our banjo player, Bill Keith, because at the time, he was a banjo player. And you know, we played over the years in various situations, recordings and some road work together, but he was mostly the backup guy for Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt and others.

And it's tough to talk about him still, you know, because he passed away this last May. And we put this album together so he could just have some fun and forget about what was going on with all his treatments down in Austin. So we got his friends together, and we made the "Texas Sheiks" album.

GROSS: So he died before it was released.

Mr. MULDAUR: But he got to hear it.

GROSS: Good.

Mr. MULDAUR: On those beautiful earphones he had, and he was smiling, you know.

GROSS: Good.

Mr. MULDAUR: You know, so.

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?

Mr. 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 Louie 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 the sudden, there would be a Lead Belly piece or a Blind Lemon Jefferson piece or a Blind Willie Johnson piece, and you 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 at 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 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.

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

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

Mr. 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(ph), 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."

(Soundbite of song, "Jelly Roll Baker")

Mr. MULDAUR: (Singing) 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 dyin' just to get a jelly roll. She loved her jelly, yeah, she loved her sweet jelly roll. She'd rather leave a man dying 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 what jelly roll - what was intended by the word jelly roll?

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. 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: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Geoff Muldaur, and he has a new CD called "Texas Sheiks," and we're talking about how he first discovered early blues and jazz.

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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: 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?

Mr. 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 eight. 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(ph) or to Ryan's(ph) and these clubs in New York, and 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?

Mr. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. 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?

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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. I don't like to try and re-create the sounds of others. I try and sort of get an impression, I guess. I'm sort of an impressionist.

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

(Soundbite of song, "Take Your Tomorrow (And Give Me Today)")

Mr. MULDAUR: (Singing) Why should I wait for happiness? I've grown impatient, more or less. I cannot wait somehow. Show me a bluebird now.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Take your tomorrow, and give me today. For your tomorrow is too far away, and 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.

Mr. MULDAUR: (Singing) Well, you know, when skies are gray I can not say...

GROSS: That's Geoff Muldaur, from his album, "Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke." Geoff Muldaur has a new CD called "Texas Sheiks."

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 boys' boarding school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MULDAUR: He is such a clever guy.

GROSS: Isn't he?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: GROSS: My guest is Geoff Muldaur. His new CD is called "Texas Sheiks." More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview and performance with Geoff Muldaur. His new CD "Texas Sheiks" features jazz and blues from the '20s and '30s.

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 - you actually did this. The song is based on an actual trip that you made. What inspired you to do it?

Mr. MULDAUR: Probably alcohol.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. 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, near the Cafe Du Monde, a 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. And I'd go...

GROSS: That's one of his songs.

Mr. MULDAUR: 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, you know, in the morning, we were hitchhiking to East Texas through the Bayou country. You know, this is not a recommended trip for anybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MULDAUR: 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?

Mr. 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 were standing in it. 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, 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 there, 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?

Mr. MULDAUR: Some blues society.

GROSS: Good.

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

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

Mr. MULDAUR: Why, certainly.

GROSS: Thank you.

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

(Soundbite of song, "Got To Find Blind Lemon-Part One")

Mr. MULDAUR: (Singing) 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. Well, down on Highway 90, not (unintelligible) Lafayette. Well, down on Highway 90, not (unintelligible) Lafayette. I had one dime in my pocket. I was hungry, and I was soaking wet.

So it goes on like that.

GROSS: My guest is Geoff Muldaur. His new CD is called "Texas Sheiks." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview and performance with Geoff Muldaur. His new CD, "Texas Sheiks," features jazz and blues from the '20s and '30s.

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

Mr. MULDAUR: He sure is.

GROSS: �performing "Blues in the Bottle," which is one of the songs he was famous for with the Jug Band. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: There was a 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?

Mr. 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 L.A., we'd do the, you know, we did "The Johnny Carson Show." We did "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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. 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 love 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: Why don't we hear what the band actually sounded like together? Is there a track that you'd particularly like to hear?

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

GROSS: Oh, that's perfect. Okay, let's hear that. That's the opening track from, I think the album's just called "Jug Band Music."

Mr. MULDAUR: You got it.

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

(Soundbite of song, "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me")

Mr. MULDAUR: (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, oh, 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, they're the blues my naughty sweetie gives to me. Let's hear it now.

GROSS: The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, with my guest Geoff Muldaur. And Geoff Muldaur is a singer, guitarist and arranger. And his new CD is called "Texas Sheiks." You left music for a few years. How long a hiatus was it?

Mr. MULDAUR: It was about 17 years.

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

Mr. 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 six years. And, you know, after a while of working in - believe it or not, I was developing software for the steel industry in Detroit, Michigan when Bob Newirth(ph) 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MULDAUR: He said, do you think anybody else can do this? And 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MULDAUR: It was one of those. 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." You know, I just, I got bit again. And I've been having the greatest time ever since.

GROSS: Now, 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 blue yodel.

Mr. 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, Alabama. And she recorded at the Library of Congress in the late �30s, for the Lomaxes, I guess. And she had these little cracks she'd do in her voice. She did it with a few tunes. And she did "The Boweevil" 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�

(Singing) Mo, mo.

These little things like, and I just - I took to her. And so I arranged what was an a capella tune for the guitar and came up with this thing, the "Wild Ox Moan."

(Soundbite of song, "Wild Ox Moan")

Mr. MULDAUR: (Singing) Well, round here, pretty woman and sit down 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 down to Texas, �cause that's where I belong. Well, that is where I belong.

GROSS: Nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Geoff Muldaur, thanks so much.

Mr. MULDAUR: Thank you.

GROSS: Geoff Muldaur, recorded in early December. His new CD is called "Texas Sheiks."

(Soundbite of song, "Auld Lang Syne")

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.

I've been thinking about what to wish you for the new year. I wish happiness and good health to you and your family, fulfillment in your personal life and your work. And if you're out of work, I hope you find a good job. If you have a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan, I hope they stay safe and well. So, best wishes for 2010 from all of us at FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

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