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Geoff Muldaur Does One Kind Favor For Blind Lemon Jefferson

        "One kind favor I ask of you,
         see that my grave is kept clean."
         Blind Lemon Jefferson

Have you ever made a promise to someone? One that may have sounded impossible even frivolous on the face of it, but you knew in your heart had to be kept? Maybe someone asked you a favor that seemed without any sense to the visible world, yet made perfect sense to you at a gut level. Seemingly absurd pilgrimages and treks have been undertaken for centuries from Haiku journeys to the multitudes who gathered at the gates of Graceland in August of 1977. One southern Gothic-haunted night forty years ago, young blues man, Geoff Muldaur challenged some musician friends to do the great Blind Lemon Jefferson the very favor he requested in his song.  "See that my grave is kept clean."  So Geoff and friends bought brooms and headed for East Texas in search of the grave of Blind Lemon Jefferson for some house cleaning. It took more than one trip, so it took more than one song to tell the story.

And isn't this the way of things? In the career of Geoff Muldaur, as in the life of so many others who have devoted their lives to preserving and continuing the legacy of some of the greatest songwriters and musicians of the 20th century, hasn't there been similar musical road trips? Like Muldaur's youthful adventure to Jefferson's grave, he has also swept clean the dust that obscured the music of these now ancient blues artists and gave a voice to a people who were oppressed by racial hatred, economic hardships, injustice and disability.

In this sense, Muldaur has been like a clean window through which we can see and hear the best of the last century of almost undiscovered gems. And in some sense, all it took was curiosity, the desire to do a favor for a friend and the purchase of a broom. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

However, in his pursuit of great American music, Muldaur has managed to transcend his musical ancestry into his own distinctive artistry. He is a talented and skilled acoustic blues guitarist with roots in jug band, Piedmont and Mississippi Delta blues influences.  From these distinctive roots he has created a style that has influenced a multitude of other artists including Bonnie Raitt, John Sebastian, John Cale, Richard Thompson and David Lindley.

With a career as diverse as the American music he has championed for so many years, Muldaur managed to be involved in some of the most original and interesting projects while following his own particular muse in lieu of commercial pursuits. And like many of today's veterans of the folk and blues movement of the sixties, he also raised a home grown legacy in the form of his family.

Rather than finding his roots in the usual breeding ground for many of his contemporary peers in the basket houses and dingy clubs of Greenwich Village, Muldaur made his name in his home town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then moved on to the pre-Dylan/Band and Festival days of Woodstock, NY.   As a young blues enthusiast and player, Muldaur found his breakthrough moment in 1963, when Jim Kweskin, another acoustic blues talent, passed through Boston. At the same time The Beatles were electrifying the nation with revitalized rock and roll, Kweskin and Muldaur discovered a musical chemistry that would equally influence generations of converts to the pure sound of folk-blues and jug band music.  The style would later be picked up by John Sebastian and Zal Yalvonsky who would take the music through the Greenwich Village scene Muldaur had managed to avoid, and on to the national charts as The Lovin' Spoonful.  Indeed, John Sebestian has described Muldaur as "The Lovin' Spoonful's favorite singer."   Today, Sebastian continues to sing Geoff's praises and maintains his own jug band simply named The J-Band.

The fateful 1963 rendezvous of Kweskin and Muldaur spawned the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, who released a series of albums between 1963 and 1971.  While the band never achieved popular success, they provided a much needed education in the homemade sound called jug band.  The music is known for using hand made and household instruments (like a whiskey jug) to make music.   Developed between the thirties and the forties, the music festively combined ragtime, blues, folk, country
and jazz.  It took a few decades for a young New Englander like Geoff Muldaur to seek out the music of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt and Yank Rachell.

The Kweskin Jug Band can also be credited with helping launch the careers of Muldaur's first wife, Maria Muldaur, and fiddle player Richard Greene.

In 1973, after the Kweskin Band split up, Muldaur found his way to Paul Butterfield's Better Days Band, which emphasized a more acoustic sound than the harmonica man had cultivated during the sixties.  It was a sound that was perfect for Muldaur's skill and talent.   These sessions represent some of the best tracks ever recorded by Butterfield.  Muldaur's contribution to the two albums completed by the band are immeasurable.

During the mid-70's Muldaur paved his own unique solo path. Through the last four decades, he has managed to forge a signature style that has blended the best of a blue-eyed country-soul with a smooth easy folk blues that would make Blind Lemon break out in a whiskey-stained grin. All of this and his original, lyric-driven, melodic songwriting, creates an irresistible combination. Muldaur's solo work includes albums with Maria Muldaur; 1987's Sweet Potato," 1998's "Password" and The Secret Handshake.  Along the way, he composed the title song for Terry Gilliam's classic film, Brazil.

Over the last fifty years, singer-songwriters have fit into two styles; great with their lyrics, melodies and sometimes even vocals or always one piece shy of 'the sum of the parts.'  In other words, someone like Bob Dylan may not be the best vocalist or instrumentalist, but man, can he write himself a song.   Then, there's Leonard Cohen, who is basically a poet with a great, gravelly speaking voice . . . but, as was the case in New York City when he recorded his first album, Cohen had to enlist musicians to help with melody and music.

Geoff Muldaur need make no disclaimer of his style.   His lyrics, melodies, themes, vocal ability and instrumental talent are an even match, giving his audience an artist who can move from early Americana that brings to mind Stephen Foster, to echoes of the blue-eyed soul of Ray Charles, then pay a clear-eyed tribute to Hank Williams and Mississippi John Hurt, all on one album or in a solo concert.

As most durable artists of any era, it seems most increasingly true of the roots blues, folk and country musicians of the sixties, Geoff Muldaur finds himself today in the enviable position of having his legacy continued not only by the young talent pursing their own vocation in folk-blues, but also by his two daughters, who now have their own respective careers in music.   Clare is married to French songwriter-musician, Oliver Manchon, and is the lead singer for Clare and the Reasons.   His second daughter Jenn is currently working with David Byrne.

Today, Muldaur keeps himself busy with new recording projects and as a much in-demand live performer. He is currently working on a new album entitled, Geoff Muldaur Presents The Texas Sheiks. His concerts are front porch affairs with the performer comfortably seated, sounding at times like a full band as he intricately fingerpicks his unique style of country-blues. From his knowledge of the music he's embraced and his own road tales, he weaves in unique stories. This is
the source of his early epiphany with blues father Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Perhaps his finest song,  "Searching for Blind Lemon, Parts One and Two" captures a youth's intuitive desire to make a symbolic gesture for his musical hero. It makes perfect sense to any blues musician, under the influence or not, to make the trip to sweep off Blind Lemon's grave. If you take your blues seriously, that is. In this story, Muldaur made into a beautifully humorous and picturesque, two-part epic blues masterpiece. It is such a well-told story in song, it's worthy of a short story and one that could've been written by Flannery O'Conner. Part one of the story can be found on the CD, Secret Handshake while Part 2 completes the story on Password.

As he tells the story of finally finding Blind Lemon's grave, he describes an eastern storm  heading out of Fort Worth and then, the clarity that comes in the aftermath arrives, as he finds the grave site, broom in hand, ready to sweep.

Well, we seen a little island
way across the flowery field
when we ran over to it,
could hear that church bell begin to peel.
Fly catchers jumpin'
sweet smells in the air
when we found Blind Lemon,
his sister and mom were there.
We got to find Blind Lemon
see that his grave is kept clean.

So it goes in the musical life of Geoff Muldaur.   What began as a sincere, off beat attempt to do a song requested favor for a musical giant, resulted in providing continuity to musical forms that could have been left behind in a dirty grave instead of bringing those sweet smells in the air, created no doubt by the broom sweeping of artists like Muldaur, who find joy in doing favors for near-forgotten old blues guys like Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Terry Roland


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