Nostalgia, like chest pain, is often a sign of deeper problems. I know this, and try to remind myself when I begin to look backward that I am most likely trying to avoid looking forward. Even so, a point came when I found myself craving Maria Muldaur’s self-titled album much the same way one might crave chocolate, or sex.
At the time, I was not particularly craving either of those pleasures. I did not realize it yet, but I was becoming very sick, a sickness that would take weeks to diagnose and months to overcome. So I wasn’t hungry. And as for sex, well… I had a boyfriend. We’ll call him Dave. We had been going out for close to two years, and he had moved in with me a few months previously. I loved him. I told people as much. I told him as much, almost every day. We weren’t engaged, but the subject had been brought up in that carefully casual way reserved for truly alarming conversations. My friends were already scouting wedding locations. Even I was gradually coming around to the idea. He was a good man. I was very happy. There seemed no point in fighting such good fortune.
I think part of me understood, however, what it meant for me to finally go onto Amazon and order Maria Muldaur. I had made desultory attempts at record stores, but of course no one carried the thing any more. No one my age even knows who she is.
My parents had me young. For me, the music that takes me back to my childhood is not Sonny & Cher, Elvis, or Peter, Paul & Mary; it’s Jethro Tull, the Grateful Dead, and the later works of the Beatles. And Maria—oh, definitely Maria.
Maria Muldaur was a little Italian girl from the Bronx who sang some blessed, bastard child of a three-way between bluegrass, jazz, and the blues, with pop stepping in as the responsible godparent. She sang covers of old tunes—Blue Lu Barker’s “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” Jimmie Rodgers’s “Any Old Time”—and new songs that sounded like old ones, often written by her friend David Nichtern. He wrote her first hit: “Midnight at the Oasis,” a sultry come-hither set in a Valentino desert. And he wrote “I Never Did Sing You a Love Song,” the awkwardly titled and infinitely less popular number that also appeared on Maria Muldaur.
That album was released when I was one year old; my parents must have bought it shortly afterward. To me, the world has always held her voice, that emotional and earthy instrument that conveyed the messy side of humanity: sweat, blood, tears, and the stains they leave no matter how often you go down to the river or the bottle to wash them off. Baez, Ronstadt, and Mitchell were all anemic waifs compared to her; only Raitt had that growl, but even she couldn’t go from there to a high pure note with such seeming ease. I loved Maria all through my childhood, and when I began singing myself in my late twenties, hers was the voice I hopelessly aspired to copy.
Yet even as a child, “Love Song” disturbed me. Maria’s voice is sweet as she sings, “I never did sing you a love song/I just laid my thoughts down in rhyme.” But there is an edge to it, a sense of weary anguish that is made clear as the lyrics continue. “Up and down the river/so many boats to ride,” goes the chorus. “Yet precious few deliver/the goods that we need to survive.” And then comes the moan: a trembling, almost collapsing “mmmmm” that covers five bars. It begins as a sigh, then scales upward into a kind of protest, and finally deflates and slides into resigned defeat. It breaks your heart.
Maria tells her man that he’s never hurt her, that she¹s never deceived him. They never make each other cry. And then that final chorus: “And ye-e-e-et somehow I seem to recall/I stirred in my sleep a while/Dreaming of a river man exchanging my life for a smile.” When you hear that moan for the second time, you understand why she’s making it.
Oh, how I feared that River Man as a child. He was dark and cadaverous in my imaginings, and his smile was skeletal. Often, he held a rose (I may have been influenced by those Grateful Dead album covers), and he offered it in a tortured mockery of everything it should have symbolized. But even more than the River Man, I feared the words themselves. I think even then I understood the idea behind the song: grown-ups don’t always make the right choices. Sometimes, there are no right choices.
I think that song was my first intimation that my own parents’ marriage would not last.
And so, some thirty years later, I suddenly found it imperative to have that album back. I thought it was to hear “Midnight at the Oasis” and “Three Dollar Bill” again, the sly and sexy songs that still make me laugh and sashay when I hear them. I put it in my CD player as I was cleaning house alone, and sure enough, the first guitar notes of “Any Old Time” swung me back into my OshKosh days. I was grinning and dusting until “Love Song” came on. And for the first time, I really listened to it.
I’d never noticed that it was in waltz time, a melancholy beat. It starts simply, with just piano and slide guitar. The drums are understated, mere brushes. And then Maria’s voice kicks in, high and smooth, with the slightest burr scraping a few notes, just enough to rough them up a little. “I never did sing you a love song,” she sighs, so tired, so sad.
I’d never noticed the strings before, either. You know, normally I hate string arrangements—they’re so cheap and sentimental. But in this song, they just melt me. Why is that?
It was when Maria hit that high note in “and ye-e-et” that I realized I was sitting down, whisk broom held limply in one hand, as tears welled up in my eyes. I tried not to understand it, tried to blame it on this strange sick feeling that had been growing in me, but I knew. Maria knew, and now I did too.
I broke up with Dave shortly afterward. It was a bad breakup, the kind that leaves both parties wounded and unable to speak to each other. In the weeks of angry recriminations that followed, the thing that seemed to drive Dave crazy the most was my inability to give him an acceptable explanation for ending so abruptly a relationship he had thought was going so well. I tried my hardest to explain, to enumerate our differences, but I could never quite get at the truth: that I had seen the River Man, exchanging my life for a smile.