Friday, February 16, 2018

Maria Muldaur (November/December 1994)

Most people know Maria Muldaur as the woman who sang “Midnight at the Oasis,” a song so flirtatious it made expressions like “Put your camel to bed” seem like aphrodisiacs.  But your average one-hit wonder, she’s not.  In the past twenty years, she’s recorded over a dozen albums, including the award-winning On the Sunny Side (Music For Little People, 1990) and Louisiana Love Call (Black Top, 1992), her well-received return to high-profile recording.  Her new album, Meet Me at Midnite, has just been released, and it, too, percolates with the jazzy sass and rootsy blues that have defined her career ever since her jug-band days in the ‘60s.

Christians may remember Muldaur as part of the late-‘70s rock’n’roll revival that swept Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, and Van Morrison onto the gospel train.  Her two first-rate gospel albums (1980’s live Gospel Nights and 1982’s There Is a Love), her appearances on The 700 Club, and the story of her dramatic conversion following the auto accident that nearly killed her daughter caught the attention of many.

Then, seemingly overnight, Muldaur’s blip disappeared off the radar screen of not only the Church but the world as well.  Between fly-by-night record deals and the mercurial nature of the club circuit, she found herself low on cash and morale.

Enter the Marin City Church of God—the “funky little black church” that Muldaur has attended for fifteen years.  With the help of their enthusiasm and generosity, she’s continued on her pilgrimage—a pilgrimage she discussed between gigs with The DOOR’s Arsenio Orteza.  She also discussed “air-brushed” Christianity, “white-bread Christianity,” and Jimmy Swaggart—one of whose books she’s actually read.  In fact, the interview went so well that, from now on, all DOOR interviewees will either have to have read a Jimmy Swaggart book or to have made expressions like “Put your camel to bed” seem like aphrodisiacs.

DOOR:  Do you think God was somehow behind the gospel music you and Dylan and other folk-and-blues rock icons were recording in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s?
MULDAUR:  Absolutely.  I think it was in the air.  I mean, it’s kind of a “latter rain,” isn’t it?

DOOR:  Is it?
MULDAUR:  I think so.  My idea of what this is all about has gone through a great evolution since the day I got “born again” at a black church in L.A.  But I think the prophecy that in the last days the Holy Spirit will be poured—how does that go?  Men and women will see visions and dream dreams.  It talks about the gifts of the Spirit being poured on everybody at large, and I think that’s what’s happening, only I think it’s something that goes beyond the narrow definitions of American fundamentalist doctrine.  I’m starting to see that the Second Coming of Christ isn’t going to be a guy in a robe with a beard and sandals with lightning coming out of the sky.

DOOR:  What do you think it’ll be like?
MULDAUR:  There seems to be a natural outcropping of Christ-consciousness popping up all over the place, not just in churches at altar calls.  I think now it’s happening outside the normal definition of modern-day Christianity.  And I think it’s all moving to join together.

DOOR:  What do you mean by “Christ-consciousness”?
MULDAUR:  Well are you familiar with Matthew Fox?

DOOR:  Are we ever!  He’s the disenfranchised Catholic priest.
MULDAUR:  Well, who says you need a franchise?

DOOR:  Well, he’s on the outs with the official church.
MULDAUR:  But so was Jesus, wasn’t He?  Who needs a franchise?  There’s a lot of good food besides McDonald’s, isn’t there?

DOOR:  Burger King’s all right.  But sometimes they’re slow.
MULDAUR:  Uh, have you read any of Matthew Fox?

DOOR:  Us?  Are you kidding?  Of Course we… uh… he did Fox’s Book Of Martyrs, right?
MULDAUR:  About eight or nine years ago, I came across a book of his called Original Blessing, and I was drawn to it.

DOOR:  Why?
MULDAUR:  Well, I got saved in a black church in L.A. after my daughter’s car accident.  And the thing that happened to me—the sudden indwelling of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues and the whole thing—was explained to me in the lingo of modern-day, fundamentalist Christianity.  I consider myself lucky that it happened in a black church and that when I got up here in Marin County, I ended up being drawn to this funky little black church right over the hill from where I live.  I’ve been a member there since about 1980.  It’s a Church of God.

DOOR:  Why do you consider yourself lucky to have signed on there?
MULDAUR:  It’s absolutely worship out of the Bible, but it’s very free.  It’s very much led by the Spirit.  Whoever feels moved can stand up and share something.  And it’s very joyful and very forgiving and very nitty-gritty and down-to-earth.  The pastor is just wonderful.  His sermons are about real, funky, true-life situations.  And the music?  It’s not an award-winning choir or anything, but God!  They really mean it when they sing.  It’s just a really funky, country church with no rigid dogma attached to it.  So I feel lucky that while all this air-brushed Christianity was going on—

DOOR:  “Air-brushed Christianity”?
MULDAUR:  I mean, I was on the Jim and Tammy Bakker show.  But first I was on The 700 Club, which—until recently—I had a lot of respect for.

DOOR:  How recently?
MULDAUR:  Since Pat started getting into politics.  I find some of the things that they’re into alarmingly odious.  I believe, however, that most of their money goes to ministry.  I used to love to go on The 700 Club.  When they were having a fund drive or something, they’d have me answer the ministry phones.  And I loved that more than anything—one-on-one ministering to people over the phone.  They have “Operation Blessing” and all that stuff.  And the people would call and say, “My daughter has cancer, and she’s gotta have an operation, and I need bus fare to Alaska where she lives.”  And “Operation Blessing” would be able to provide that.

DOOR:  So your memories of The 700 Club are mostly happy ones?
MULDAUR:  At least there’s a lot of teaching on the program and lots of direct ministry to people’s needs.  They do solicit money but, as far as I can ascertain, it does go largely to the causes intended.  But I got a weird feeling from the Jim and Tammy show.

DOOR:  Why did you agree to appear?
MULDAUR:  I was told it was another show like The 700 Club, but that they were even more into music.

DOOR:  What’s your assessment of the Bakkers’ show now, with the benefit of hindsight?
MULDAUR:  The couple of times I was on, I found that the people who worked behind the scenes were all really sweet believers.  But there was still something a little creepy.  Something didn’t ring true.  Tammy was always crying.  And they were always crying for money.  I mean, I can’t stand Gene Scott.  To me, Pat Robertson is the best of the lot.  But if he’s trying to mix church and state, that’s where he loses me.  I’m probably going to be excommunicated from whatever Christian circles I’m still accepted in for saying this, but that’s not what ministry is all about.

DOOR:  So what does this have to do with Matthew Fox?
MULDAUR:  Oh. Well, I think the saving grace in my Christian walk has been my being rooted in this very simple, funky church where the belief is simple and direct.  It’s not air-brushed Christianity.  It’s not white-bread Christianity.

DOOR:  Sounds more like rye or pumpernickel.
MULDAUR:  I’ll tell you a beautiful story.  One time I was really struggling financially.  And finally, someone came through with a tour that was going to take place mostly in the Northwest and British Columbia.  It was a pretty good tour, and this was after a really dry spell.  The money promised to be good.  And then, about three weeks before I was supposed to go out, I found out that the guy who had purportedly been putting the tour together had taken all the advance money and put it up his nose—

DOOR:  Uh, some of our readers are literalists.  Could you clarify what “put it up his nose” means?
MULDAUR:  He bought drugs with it.  The promoters were furious.  They thought the money had gone to the performers.  So the tour was canceled.  When a tour is canceled three weeks before it’s supposed to start, the chances of getting any work on the club circuit are virtually nil, because clubs are booked up to a month in advance.  I was devastated.
I went to church that Sunday, and I stood up and said, “I need your prayers because I need a miracle.”  I explained what happened, and they all murmured that they would pray for me.
Later, in the middle of another part of the service, one of the ladies in the choir stood up and said, “Oh, Pastor, can I say something that’s on my heart and mind this morning?”  And he said, “Yeah, Sister Boyd.  Go ahead.”  She said, “Well, I been thinking.  You know, Maria has been such a blessing to us.  And I just think we ought to do more than just pray for her.  I think we should show her where our hearts are and take up a collection for her.”
And I stood up and shouted, “No!”  The last thing I’d meant when I asked for a prayer for a miracle in my finances was for them to dig into their pockets!  But the pastor wouldn’t hear my protest.  And I couldn’t just say, “Oh no.  You guys don’t have the money.”
He wouldn’t let me leave.  He grabbed me when he was greeting people at the end, and he said, “You stand right here!”   And they collected—I’ll never forget—$197.43 in nickels and dimes and little five-dollar checks.  I was in tears!  And I was so moved that they had done that.  It taught me so much about stewardship.  

DOOR:  How?
MULDAUR:  You know the story in the Bible about the lady with the oil?  I never stretched $197 so far in my life.  I wouldn’t even buy a cup of coffee.  And that money lasted.  And I prayed.  And about three weeks later, when the money was almost gone, I got a call from New York from the producers of a play called Pump Boys And Dinettes, wanting to know if I would come and star in their Broadway musical.  And see, no normal club gig would’ve come through in that time.  And all of a sudden, I was making really good money, not funky blues club money.  Anyway, that’s an example of the kind of Christianity that’s in practice at my church.

DOOR:  Uh, about Matthew Fox?
MULDAUR:  His book, Original Blessing, came to my attention, and the name appealed to me: “original blessing” as in contrast to “original sin.”  Fox started out as a Jesuit priest, and in his studies he came upon early Christian mystics, like Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich—these ecstatic early saints.

DOOR:  What appealed to you beyond the book’s title?
MULDAUR:  His vision of Christianity.  It’s not based so much on how we’re these miserable, sinning worms that have to grovel, begging and hoping for a little forgiveness from an angry God, but on how we’re born with original blessing, which is life itself.  That’s the supreme gift.  And the whole train of thought was such a positive one.  Just at the point where I was getting disillusioned and starting to see the Jim and Tammy Bakker version of Christianity for what it was, this was a great way to evolve to another level.  That book sort of turned on a light inside of me, and I started reading more things like it, keeping in my Christian walk and not being so afraid of the dogma end of things.
One of the things I liked that Fox says is that God made man to be co-creators with Him, just like the way God told Adam to name the animals.  God made them, but he told Adam, “OK, now you name them.”  That’s an example.
When we open up to the Holy Spirit and become aware that that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, whatever our gifts and callings are, we’re co-creators with God.  That’s kind of the direction I’m moving in.

DOOR:  Did your 700 Club appearances and gospel albums have a negative effect on your career?
MULDAUR:  When I got saved, people called up wanting me to give my testimony.  You know how it is when you’re a new baby Christian.  You want to run around in the middle of the night, ringing bells and telling everybody like Paul Revere, saying, “Jesus is coming!”  So I happily did any article I was asked to do, gave my testimony and, of course, found myself embraced by the “Christian Movement.”  But I found that a lot of my fans—I mean, it happened to Dylan.  He was getting booed when I was giving these interviews, but I didn’t think it would happen to me.

DOOR:  So you got grief from crowds?
MULDAUR:  Nobody booed me, but people read about me and thought, “She’s not just going to come here and sing gospel music, is she?”  And I’ve always done gospel songs, even before I was saved, because I’ve always been moved by the power of gospel music, starting with when I first heard the Staple Singers when I was seventeen.  On my first Warner Brothers albums, I did “Traveling Shoes,” “Just As an Eagle,” and “Keep a Light in My Window.”  And my basic secular show didn’t change much.  Still, there was a time when I think I was being avoided.
You know, an artist can stand up and say she’s been abused by her father and that she used to be into drugs and bestiality and that she evaded her taxes for twenty years, and people will not only come out to see her, they’ll flock to support her.  But God forbid you should mention the “G-word”!  People have such an aversion to it!

DOOR:  What made you start keeping a lower “Christian profile”?
MULDAUR:  Two things.  Number one: I wanted to reassess my definition of “born-again Christian” and did not want to be associated with what was going on with Jimmy Swaggart.
Number two: I thought that if people only have a sensationalistic kind of interest, then I wasn’t going to tell them.

DOOR:  We can understand your not wanting to be associated with Jimmy Swaggart.
MULDAUR:  The thing that got me about what happened to him down in New Orleans was not so much what he did—to me, that was just a sad commentary on his marriage or his inability to express himself normally within his marriage in a healthy, sexual way.  I mean, to have to go and seek that kind of thing, shows how warped he was.  I had nothing but compassion and forgiveness toward him about that.
But what really pissed me off was that months earlier he had written a book called Tough Answers to Tough Questions.  It sold for $20 or something.  And it purported to tell Christians how to have a really strong walk with Jesus.

DOOR:  We haven’t read that one.
MULDAUR:  It actually advised against women joining aerobics groups or ballet classes because the actions of women in leotards on the dance floor might arouse prurient interest on behalf of the viewer.  So I’m thinking, here’s some pudgy housewife in Kansas who finally gets up the nerve to join a little exercise class at the “Y,” and then she goes out, spends 20 bucks on his book, and is told that if she really wants to please God, she won’t [join that class].

DOOR:  It sounds almost pharisaical.
MULDAUR:  Exactly.  And, after all, wasn’t that why Jesus’ ministry pissed the Pharisees off so much?  They’d set themselves up.  From the time God gave Moses the Ten Commandments to the time Jesus was born, over 4,000 laws evolved in Jewish law.  I mean, the Ten Commandments are pretty well fought out.  If we just did that, we’d already have heaven on earth, right?  But no.  Man had to improve on what God sent down.  So by the time Jesus arrived, there was this huge hierarchy of a priesthood standing as the middleman for people who honestly wanted to know how to please God.   You know, “We’ll tell you… and by the way, that’ll be so many shekels.  Change your money at the temple gate, and we’ll interpret what God wants for you.”

DOOR:  When you put it that way, televangelism doesn’t seem so new.
MULDAUR:  What Jesus’ ministry was all about was reestablishing a direct relationship between man and God, about walking around as a living example of how one could enter into sonship with God.  In other words, He was the Son of God, and through the Holy Spirit we could all become children of God again.  And that’s what drives me so crazy about these televangelists and even evangelists who act like that in their own little local pulpits.  They lead honest, seeking, sincere people so far off the mark, and make people think that without the interpretations of somebody as sick as Jimmy Swaggart, they can’t find their way to God.

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