By Ben Gerson
June 24, 1974 12:00 PM

When Maria D’Amato was growing up in the Italian enclave of Greenwich Village, her mother, a high school teacher and poet, tried to interest her in classical music. But the Village of the early ’60s was the focus of the new infatuation with folk, and no one was more infatuated than Maria. The young folk enthusiasts needed no help from outside—their instruments were a kazoo, a discarded Clorox bottle and an overturned washtub with broomstick and string attached—and Maria was soon a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band along with such future luminaries as John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful and Steve Katz of Blood, Sweat and Tears.

The name D’Amato, meanwhile, was lost when she married singer Geoff Muldaur, and except among a coffeehouse following, Maria settled into a decade of obscurity which has just now dramatically ended. At 32, her first solo album, called simply, Maria Muldaur, sold into the gold ($1 million worth), and the engaging single Midnight at the Oasis has hovered around the top of the charts for weeks. An artist who “never thought I’d be accepted in the pop mainstream,” she has triumphed with a mixed bag of country, swing, barrelhouse, plus her own whimsical impression of the classic blues styles of Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith.

En route from the folk cafes to the Hollywood Bowl (where she plays next month), Maria suffered two traumatic breaks—first from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, where she had settled and where she met her husband, and then from Geoff himself. In 1968, a schism developed in the Boston-based Jug Band, when harmonica player Mel Lyman formed a quasi-religious if violence-prone cult around himself, called the Fort Hill Commune. The Muldaurs split for Woodstock, N.Y., cut two albums together and then separated. “I decided to make Maria Muldaur last summer, because I thought it would keep me in pocket change for a few months,” she now says, with no false modesty. Instead, the album has enabled Maria to buy a retirement house for her parents and to take over support from Geoff of their 9-year-old daughter Jenny. Their perception of the fickleness of showbiz fame and “our mutual musical respect,” Maria says, “transcends any jealousy” on Geoff’s part.

Success has seemingly not turned Maria’s raven-curled, Renaissance head. Unlike other stars who charter planes, Maria is afraid to fly and travels by train or, on her current southwestern tour, in an over-aged, rented bus. Jenny empties ashtrays, serves soft drinks, and takes an occasional onstage encore appearance when traveling with her mother.

The Cher-and-Chastity-Bono-type togetherness is due more to Jenny’s insistence than to mother’s indulgence. “It’s already too much of a ‘star trip’ for me,” Maria avers. Upon moving to Hollywood last fall, she bought some plants, some wine and made some pillows in preparation for a cozy, Woodstock-style housewarming. “That’s when I noticed this change,” Maria worries. “It’s like there were star-sniffers lurking around. I felt creepy all night.” Although the house is not far from the Sunset Strip, Maria avoids the scene. For a heretofore gregarious folkie, “each moment of solitude is like a diamond, and that rare.” She especially resents the rock paparazzi, now that she is “going with a guy”—her bass player John Kahn. “Every time we kiss,” she says, “we hear clicking.” Her Pavlovian nightmare is that “we’re going to be so used to it that when all the photographers go away we’ll have to make a tape of clicking noises and play it at night.”

Also clicking through her consciousness is a new album, in which Maria will be working with one of her first heroes, legendary North Carolina folk-guitarist Doc Watson, and some “well-respected, legit guys” who used to back up Ellington and Basie. “What’s come out of the whirlwind,” she says, “is a real commitment to the music I had fallen into by accident. Singing with these sidemen makes me think I’m really getting there.”