Maria Muldaur Sings Blue Lu Barker
On Friday, July 12, Midsummer Night Swing welcomes Maria Muldaur to the stage for a very special evening of songs by New Orleans jazz icon Blue Lu Barker. New Orleans–based music journalist Alison Fensterstock provides a look inside the music.
It was hot out already in New Orleans on the first Saturday afternoon of the 2019 Jazz and Heritage Festival. Late April in South Louisiana could pass for August almost anywhere else. And inside the Blues Tent on the festival grounds, it was getting even steamier. With a fat pink blossom tucked behind her ear, backed by the suggestive growl of horns, Maria Muldaur was working her way through a playful tale of seduction by degrees: "Don't you feel my leg," she cooed with a wink. "'Cause if you feel my leg, you'll want to feel my thigh, and if you feel my thigh, you'll want to go up high—so don't you feel my thigh."
Muldaur included "Don't You Feel My Leg" on her self-titled 1973 debut album, the release that also delivered the top ten hit "Midnight at the Oasis." The native New Yorker was a denizen of the bohemian '60s Greenwich Village scene, which delighted in unearthing old folk, blues, and traditional jazz tunes, but she wasn't familiar with that particular teasing, risque blues, first recorded in 1938 by New Orleans singer Blue Lu Barker, until the late Mac Rebennack—who at the time had only recently taken on the moniker Dr. John—introduced her to it. According to an interview with Muldaur in the New Orleans music magazine Offbeat, "Midnight at the Oasis" was the album's charting hit, but "Don't You Feel My Leg" turned out to be its most requested track at radio stations around the country. And nearly fifty years later, it remains a crowd favorite.
Billie Holiday once declared that Blue Lu's coy, girlish vocal style was a major influence.
Blue Lu co-wrote "Don't You Feel My Leg" with her husband, the banjo and guitar player Danny Barker. The couple, both born in New Orleans at the dawn of the jazz era, grew up in colorful times. Young Louisa Dupont's father sold bootleg liquor at the family pool hall, and Danny became captivated by the music he could hear through the door when he delivered groceries to houses in Storyville, the famous red-light district. After they married in 1930 they moved up to New York, where she took on her stage name and their musical careers took off. The Barkers performed with stars like Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, and fellow New Orleanians Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong, and recorded as well, for labels like Decca and Apollo Records. Billie Holiday once declared that Blue Lu's coy, girlish vocal style was a major influence.
When the couple moved back to New Orleans in 1965, they were welcomed back into the city's musical life and also embarked on another calling: preserving New Orleans music history and tradition. Danny, who had always enjoyed compiling the stories he coaxed from musical old-timers, got a curator job at the New Orleans Jazz Museum and continued work on a memoir, A Life in Jazz, that contained a treasure trove of cultural and historical details about the eccentric city (the book was finally published in 1986, and reissued in 2016). In 1970, Danny started the Fairview Baptist Church Band for school-age musicians—an effort that would later be widely credited with keeping traditional New Orleans brass-band traditions alive.
The Barkers became friends with Muldaur after the release of her 1973 album—its success earned the couple hefty, well-deserved royalties on their tune—and remained so until their deaths in 1994 (Danny) and 1998 (Lu). And Muldaur has continued her love affair with New Orleans music. In 1992, she recorded the album Louisiana Love Call with a marquee cast of local artists, including Dr. John, Charles and Aaron Neville, Cajun star Zachary Richard, and others. It featured a new take on "Don't You Feel My Leg."
Last year, Muldaur returned to the Barkers with the album Don't You Feel My Leg (The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker), recorded with more New Orleans all stars, including pianist David Torkanowsky, who appears on Dr. John's yet-to-be-released posthumous album; bassist Roland Guerin, a veteran of both Dr. John and Allen Toussaint's touring bands; and drummer Herlin Riley, a onetime member of Wynton Marsalis's Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The 12-song album, which digs extensively and lovingly into the Barkers' catalog, earned a 2019 Grammy nomination. More important, it's the perfect tribute to the Barkers: reviving and preserving the work of the two great preservationists.
Alison Fensterstock is a writer in New Orleans.