Big hit? Maybe not. But whenever this song dials up on my shuffle, I feel as if an old girlfriend has just phoned me for a good dish session.
I came to this record well after it was released (on the 1974 album Waitress in a Donut Shop). In my New England college days I certainly knew Maria Muldaur's voice from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (theater profs, groovy young arty types, turned me on), and her hit song "Midnight at the Oasis," also from 1974, I heard over and over again on the local radio station.
But then I went to live in England for a couple of years, where everything got mixed up. One of my best American pals there was a West Coaster and therefore a Dan Hicks fan; belatedly I appreciated that the Jim Kweskin folks had serendipitously been doing the same stuff. In those pre-Internet days when regional music scenes still had distinct identities, it really meant something to have my own New England chanteuse holding the fort (though Dan Hicks's Mary Ann Price had already jumped ship to sing back-up for the Kinks, a job I've wanted most of my life....)
In those austerity years I had only a cassette player, so somewhere I acquired a cassette of Waitress in a Donut Shop. I didn't have many cassettes; the few I owned got played over and over. And so this album bored into my brain..
But, oh, how lovely that was.
You know me, I love storytelling songs. And the scenario here is smartly laid out. She's a waitress in a donut shop (hence the album's title), and he's a regular customer. She waits every day for him to show up; she's invested a whole lot more in his daily appearance than he probably has in his routine morning stop.
But oh, the yearning she pours into this daily encounter, and the constant consciousness of how futile it is. "Sweet heart / But it doesn't beat for me." Already I'm on board, loving how she deconstructs the word "sweetheart" into its constituent components.
She knows who she is and where she stands. "I'm a waitress in a donut shop. / I see him on his morning stop. / He talks of love, but he's talking about his sweetheart / She gives him a rough time / He gives me his dime / And then parts." There's an edge of class consciousness there -- the tiniest scintilla -- just enough to trigger all of us 1970s-era hippies into siding with this working girl.
What a sneaky little populist love story this is. And, in the retro jug band tradition, it's all gussied up with road-house piano trills and a horn section. Here we are in the mid-1970s -- punk and the New Wave waiting just around the corner -- and the snazzy mood of this throwback track is deliciously out of sync.
Maria Muldaur's voice was never for the mainstream; her clear bell-like tones, her supple melismas, were completely out of fashion as the yelping 1970s progressed. But then, I've never been one for fashion. And those devoted nights spent with this cassette on my portable player -- well, as the old song says, they can't take that away from me.