Legendary singer Maria Muldaur, best known for her lush, romantic 1974 huge pop single "Midnight At The Oasis" and more recently known for her work as a blues artist and Grammy nominated blues albums, was asked by Elmore Magazine (July, 2008) recently how it happened that she decided to do an album of topical, socially-relevant songs at this point in her career. Below Maria writes what inspired her to morph into a singer of protest songs after all these years. Her new CD is YES WE CAN!
In the past forty-five years of singing and recording, being an interpreter of song, but not a writer, I have most often gravitated towards songs that celebrate the delicate, delicious, sometimes rough and tumble dance between the sexes—(certainly a topic perennially foremost on the minds of humankind ever since Eve took that first bite!). Over the years it has been very gratifying to hear people’s stories of how my music has touched them, intersecting with their lives at particular pivotal moments—I’ve heard all kinds of touching stories, but I must say what I hear the most are stories, (often x-rated!), of how my music has been the Soundtrack to various love affairs, lust affairs, seductions, lost virginities, honeymoons, and yes, I’ve actually been shown more than a few pictures of children who, as their proud parents tell it, were conceived to my music!—When I hear these stories I just smile and say, “Glad I could be of help!”
So I was pleasantly amused, but not surprised, when a friend emailed me an article he’d come across in which a well-known music critic declared that “‘Midnight At The Oasis’ was probably responsible for the conception of more children than any other song of the 1970s”. He signed off with “Thought you’d like to see this—Have a great day, Fertility Goddess”—“Goodness!,” I thought, “I’ve been called a “hippie love goddess” before, but never that!” That email came at the very moment I was due to create my thirty-fifth album. After years of being given free artistic rein to produce whatever inspired me, I was in a bit of a quandary. “What is there left to sing about? What is truly on my heart and mind most of all these days? What would a “Fertility Goddess’s” gig be in 2008?”
My conclusion was deadly serious. What’s been weighing on my heart and mind so heavy it hurts, is the sad, deplorable, alarming condition of our Planet today—wars, nuclear proliferation, global climate change, rapid depletion and rape of the Earth’s once bountiful resources, genocide, poverty, starvation. The whole litany of the world’s ills make it imperative and urgent for us to all WAKE UP and start working together towards a massive healing of the growing imbalance that so-called “modern” society is spinning towards at such a reckless pace. Right now we live in a world so deeply out of balance, the thought occurred to me that if things continue as they are, there will come a time soon when there won’t be any people to make romance and babies, and no place to do so either!
So...what to sing about...? Quite to my own surprise, after all these years of not particularly liking topical songs, I decided to make a protest album! Several events happened in rapid succession that inspired this decision. The first was reading a compelling book by Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen entitled Urgent Message from Mother: Gather the Women, Save the World, which discusses the patriarchal paradigm that has created and fueled most of the misery on this planet for millennia and how it is going to take a more balanced mindset to shift and change things. Despite the seemingly hopeless situation the world finds itself in today, the book encourages women to get together and do even relatively small things to effect change. That was very inspiring to me.
Right around that same time I went to see an Indian holy woman named Amma, known around the world as “the hugging saint,” who rose out of abject poverty in a tiny fishing village in southern India to become a spiritual leader to millions of people around the world. Amma, who is considered to be the living embodiment of Divine Mother Energy on the planet at this time, has spoken at the United Nations, the International Parliament for Peace, and recently won the Ghandi-King Award. Every bit of money raised through her many charities goes to hospitals, orphanages, homes for the poor, AIDS clinics, vocational schools, colleges, and more. She is a shining example of a woman starting from nowhere to become a major instrument of change in this world, and that was deeply inspiring.
The third thing that galvanized me was a benefit I did with Jane Fonda and Cindy Sheehan to raise money for a wonderful documentary film called Sir! No Sir! which was a real eye-opener for me. Even though I was a young woman living in Cambridge, Mass. in the early 60s and was right in the midst of it all, I had the same perception that most people in America had, that the anti-war movement started on college campuses among radical, leftist, liberal, “elitist” college students. The film dispels that common perception and documents the fact that the anti-war movement actually started within the army among the enlisted GIs. It shows footage of young army guys on bases in Texas and around the country coming to the conclusion on their own, that the Vietnam War was a terrible, unnecessary and unjust war. The film shows them handing out pamphlets, having meetings, and chronicles how the whole anti-war movement grew. A lot of the young guys that were shown in the movie were there in the audience, Vietnam vets now in their early 60s. There was also a woman there who was the head of the Iraq War Vets For Peace. The whole evening was very moving and ended with Jane Fonda, Holly Near and myself leading the audience in a stirring rendition of “Down by the Riverside (Ain’t Gonna Study War No More),” long the national anthem of peace-lovers everywhere. Not a dry eye in the house!
That was it! I was fired up! However, the concept of a “protest” album quickly morphed into a pro-peace album, because plenty of complaining has already been done. It’s easy to look back with derision but I wanted to look forward with vision, offer hope and solutions. I realized the issues that concern me most, go much deeper than just singing clever songs that “diss” the current leaders in power and the irresponsible, destructive havoc they have wreaked upon our world. They are, after all, just the latest personifications of the age-old, worn out Patriarchal Paradigm of Greed, Power, Oppression, Aggression, War, and the “To the Victor Goes the Spoils” mentality that has landed us all in the predicament we face today. Surely this entire retrograde mindset MUST change if we are to survive as a species at all, and most of us have come to the conclusion that the only thing that will ever transform the prevailing outmoded, moribund paradigm is a peaceful, non-violent spirit of brotherly love and co-operation that must start from within and spread outward `round the world from there.
In light of that, I wasn’t as interested in songs of angry accusations, as in songs that pose questions like “War—What Is It Good For?,” and “Why Can’t We Live Together?,” and offer positive solutions like “Make A Better World,” “Pray For The USA,” and “Yes We Can.” Most of these songs were written in the 1960s and early' 70s, but because we have not evolved (in fact we have de-volved!) I feel it is vitally crucial to voice these messages once again. As Pete Seeger said recently, “If you love your country, you’ll find ways to speak up for what is right. Finding the right songs and singing them over and over again is the right way to start.”
As part of this project I created “The Women’s Voices For Peace Choir.” I enlisted many women—singers, activists, and writers. Most of these women have boldly and tirelessly been lifting their voices for peace, non-violence, and social justice their whole lives, and their commitment to these causes has been deeply inspiring to me over the years. We (Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Holly Near, Odetta, Phoebe Snow, Linda Tillery, Annie Sampson, Jenni Muldaur, Jane Fonda, Anne Lamott, Marianne Williamson, Amma, Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen and more) came together to lift our voices together in a heartfelt musical prayer for Peace.
THE 40-YEAR SLEEP
When asked why I thought protest music wasn’t more prevalent today, I would have to say the culprit is materialism and the dumbing-down of America. All the distractions that are put before us have lulled us into a materialistic stupor, just acquiring wealth and creature comforts for ourselves and one’s family. Young people are not nearly as educated now as they were. Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the people,” but I say, entertainment is the opiate of the people. Now it’s not just that you’re running home to watch your favorite show on TV. There are literally over 500 channels, but barely a dozen good things to watch at any given time. People have 2 TVs, devices to tape one show while watching another, DVDs from the video store, video games and everything else, an endless glut of mindless entertainment that I think has perpetrated a kind of mass hypnosis in this country.
They’ve made this constant entertainment so cheap. There was a time when everybody wanted to listen to music on really great speakers. Today’s technology can make the music on home stereos as fabulous as it sounds in concert, but we’re listening to music on gadgets smaller than cell phones. It’s insane! Every nanosecond we’re entertaining ourselves so that we don’t think about what’s going on – I’ve even seen ads for musical toilet paper rolls, lest, God forbid, you be in the bathroom and have a moment of solitude to ponder the meaning of life!
When people get too darn comfortable, they don’t protest on the street. But now, maybe before everything goes as absolutely wrong as possible, our country will wake up. People were sleepwalking - The Somnambulant Zombie Walk of The Walmart People - just worried about their barbecue on Memorial Day, and not paying any attention to what’s really going on. But with gas almost five dollars a gallon, people are waking up. It’s too bad that most people have to be clobbered over the head repeatedly before they actually start opening their eyes.
But perhaps if things had been a little more comfy in the last four or eight years, people wouldn’t be at this point now. We wouldn’t have Obama running and the whole nation longing for Peace – not just from the Iraq War but from all wars. One cut from this album asks “Why Can’t We Live Together?” Everybody wants to live together, that’s what the whole album is about. The three Dylan songs I chose to do are pretty much protest songs, there’s no way of getting around that. But they’re eloquent; no one can do it like him. “Masters of War” is the most eloquent indictment of war and the people behind the scenes who manipulate us into these wars.
A recent San Francisco Chronicle story just creeped me out: eighteen Army people, G.I.s or veterans, commit suicide daily. Over 3,900 committed suicide in 2006 alone. Only a few months ago we reached the “official” death toll of G.I.s at 4,000, supposedly a big landmark number, but meanwhile, in 2006 alone, almost that many killed themselves, either in Iraq or when they got back.
There’s not enough support for G.I.s. The VA hospitals are crumbling, VA programs are being reduced. The government sends these poor kids off to war and then the same government doesn’t even support them and their families when they get back. They return so mentally, emotionally and psychically blown away that they do away with themselves. That this isn’t a widely reported front-page story is just another example of how morally bankrupt this society has become. I’m just a “Blues Babe”, just a blues singer out here, but God gave me this voice and while I can sing, I just have to express what I think many, many people in this country are feeling.
People who are awake are righteously depressed about what’s going on. You’d have to be crazy not to be depressed! Every five seconds, commercials and magazine ads try to shove more drugs down our throats to numb any sense of malaise, which would be the first step to waking up to the fact that something’s wrong. They want to dull it right out of us. There’s a large segment of the population that would never take illegal street drugs to self-medicate the angst that everybody’s feeling. Well, now they just make it all legal and have a nice doctor behind a desk telling us there’s no reason to feel an ounce of depression. “Here. Take this. Side effects may include suicide, exploding spleen, heart failure. . .but nevermind all that – you won’t feel depressed anymore.” Are we going to wake up, or aren’t we? I have to do what I can, or I have no right to bitch and rant about it.
We had more time in the ’60s when I was a young hippie mom singing in the Kweskin Jug Band, raising my daughter, having an organic garden, and getting our stuff at the Goodwill. We were able to live in a beautiful house in Cambridge with a big backyard. We had to be “creatively thrifty”, but you could be poor and still have a decent lifestyle. Now... “You Have To Be Rich Just To Be Poor These Days” is a song I wrote about all of this recently.
Most families didn’t have to have two parents working in the ’60s. There was time, not only because you were not being bombarded with constant entertainment, but because people didn’t have to work two or three jobs just to rent a shitty little apartment. There was time to write a letter to your senator or go to the town meeting. Now people have two jobs, work overtime and struggle to just to keep their heads above water. Who has time to foment social and political unrest?
Many people think 9/11 was a false flag used to whip up support for going to war with not one, but two countries, and to take our attention off the mass manipulation going on in this country. It worked for a while, but people are starting to wake up. I want my music to be used as part of that wake-up call.
In the past I’ve done very positive, spiritual songs, and coming up in the '60s, I believed in all the causes sung about at protest meetings in those days. But I wasn’t attracted to it musically—it wasn’t as captivating me as the beautiful sound of the Stanley Brothers singing some beautiful modal mountain song or Doc Watson picking his guitar or Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton and Skip James playing beautiful, soulful blues—that’s what enchanted me. I was totally in tune with the sentiments of the protest songs people were singing in those days (God bless them), but it wasn’t music that I gravitated towards.
Now, while trying to shoulder my responsibilities as a so-called “fertility goddess” and human being on the planet, I am also staying true to my musical preferences. This pro-peace album is way fun to sing, funky and very bluesy without being “the blues” per se. Actually, you could describe these songs as “blues for the planet.” Protest music doesn’t have to be folkies earnestly strumming away on acoustic guitars. Many black Soul artists in the early 70s were very aware of the inequities going on in society, and they wrote about it very eloquently, creating a very compelling and appealing style of music. This is protest music you can dance to! It’s heavy but it’s also a lot of fun! It is my hope that this music will be part of the soundtrack to people waking up and working together for a better world.
It’s now or never!