The Aptly Nicknamed Happy Traum
He might have been — no, he was — given the name Harry Peter Traum at birth, back at the beginning of May 1938 in the Bronx, New York, but Happy Traum goes by a nickname that says it like it is. A more genial and generous soul you’ll never meet in the often otherwise world of music, and Traum spreads that same emotion and feeling to his decades of listeners and fans longtime and new. Traum has been performing, recording, and treating as both a pleasure and a profession the music he loves since the 1950s, and he recently released a fine record of songs he loves, titled, also aptly, Just For The Love Of It (2015).
Traum’s first record in a decade, though it’s a decade he has spent performing and teaching music constantly, was difficult for him, as labors of love can be. “Artie helped me produce the last one,” Traum says, “and it was hard to get up the steam at first” for another. Happy and Artie Traum, who was five years younger than Happy, were brothers as well as a popular folk duo, playing together off and on from 1969 until Artie’s death in 2008. He was only 65, and his early death still resonates in the tightly knit, affectionate Woodstock music scene that he and Happy helped make long ago.
Though Happy Traum would take guitar lessons from Brownie McGhee in the late 1960s, he is unequivocal about his first musical inspiration. “I was 15 or 16 and didn’t play the guitar at all. And I went to a Pete Seeger show in Brooklyn. One guy with an instrument, 1,500 people, and songs that were meaningful, songs that said something to me. It threw my whole world into wonder.” Through Seeger, Traum “found everyone else — Josh White, Guthrie, Burl Ives,” and the people whose songs, or versions of songs, appear on his latest record: “They’re songs I’ve known all my life.”
This doesn’t mean Traum has been playing them all his life. “One song in particular, ‘Jay Gould’s Daughter,’ I hadn’t done in decades. I’ve just started playing it again.” He’s been singing Woody Guthrie’s songs, on the other hand, for more than 50 years. On Just For The Love Of It, there are traditional Scottish ballads; songs by Guthrie, Seeger, Bob Dylan; and songs that Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, and others popularized. Some of the songwriters, like Seeger and Dylan, were Traum’s Hudson Valley neighbors and became lifelong friends. Some songs Traum learned from McGhee, who taught him the fingerpicking style that Traum mastered as a young man. The first track on his new record, “Careless Love Blues,” is one McGhee taught Traum. As to the order after this, “they kinda arranged themselves,” Traum chuckles. “In The Pines,” the mournful lost-love lament popularized by Lead Belly, is the closer.
Still, Traum wondered, as he started thinking about heading back into a studio, “Does the world really need another CD?” He’s made so many records, from his very first trip to a recording studio in 1963 – with Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, and Peter LaFarge, among others — to cut Broadside Ballads, Volume 1 for Folkways. He’s made tapes and DVDs, and enlisted legendary friends to as well, for Homespun, the music instruction company he founded with his wife, Jane, in 1967. Then Traum thought about the folks with whom he still enjoys making music the most, and how they do it: folk style. That decided him. “You just get in a room with other people, and I wanted to capture the immediacy of that moment as best I could.” The songs on his new record, made “with people around me I love,” were done in “two or three takes at the most, with the exception of Larry overdubbing a little, to sweeten it.”
Larry Campbell, stringman extraordinare and producer, who’s increasingly exploring his own strengths these days as a singer and songwriter, has played with Traum since the late 1970s and the glorious gone days of the Joyous Lake. Laughs Traum, “Larry came to Woodstock with John Herald. We inducted him quickly into the Woodstock Mountains Revue and took him to Europe in 1978. His mother” – Maggie Campbell, a dear friend and lady much missed – “was still calling up to check on him.” Campbell was just over 20, and playing with Traum and Woodstock’s musicians was, as Herman Melville said of that whale-ship, his Yale College and Harvard. Campbell’s beautiful playing, as well as production work, on Just For The Love Of It make the record gleam.
Campbell has a self-titled new record with Teresa Williams; they’ve been married 27 years. Though Williams had met Campbell through music, and she sang the title role in the touring show of “Always… Patsy Cline” in the late 1990s, she surprised Traum one day at Levon Helm’s. (Campbell was Helm’s bandleader, and Williams in the band, at the Midnight Rambles from 2005 until Helm’s death in 2012.) Traum recalls, “Teresa is the kind of person who stayed in the background. Then she opened her mouth, and oh, my God.” Her rich, plaintive voice gives life and light to “In The Pines,” a song she’s sung many times in Traum’s company (most recently, at the Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams Bearsville Theater show, right before Christmas).
Traum met David Amram in 1971, when Dylan asked Traum to come to a recording session he and John Hammond were running – “Hammond was the titular producer,” Traum recalls, “but it was something Dylan was doing. He wanted me to play bass. David was on French horn, Jon Sholle on guitar. Ed Sanders was there, and Allen Ginsberg. Gregory Corso showed up with a Tibetan Buddhist woman monk.” His relationship with Amram flowered after this cosmic meeting, from which some of the tracks were released in 1983 on Ginsberg’s First Blues. Amram comes to Woodstock regularly to perform with Traum, recently at the Maverick, and during Traum’s annual Solstice Concerts in December. With his panoply of musical instruments, it’s trite to say that the 85-year-old Amram enriches all he touches; he’s played with just about everyone in American music, for over 60 years. Go listen to that Manchurian Candidate soundtrack yet again — the real one, of course, not the remake — and be reminded of Amram’s excellence as a composer as well.
Martin Simpson happened to be in town, teaching at Richard Thompson’s acoustic guitar and songwriting camp, Frets and Refrains (as was Traum – Woodstock really is this kind of place, friends). So Traum invited him to be on the record. Fingerpicking fans, and those who love the glide of Simpson’s slide guitar, listen, and rejoice. John Sebastian is one of Traum’s closest friends — and a Woodstock neighbor, who gave one of the best solo shows I’ve ever heard at the Woodstock Playhouse in 2014. Sebastian’s lyrical, lovely harmonica has more ways of speaking than one can imagine. Yet I dare to say that Traum’s favorite musician on Just For The Love Of It is his son, Adam. Traum speaks of Adam with quiet pride, as modest about Adam’s talent and success as he is about his own. “It’s a nice thing – every musical dad’s dream is that he’d like the same kind of music I like. And he’s making his way as a musician.”
Just For The Love Of It was a title chosen by Jane Traum. Says Happy, “I’d thought of calling the record Things Are Coming My Way [which is Track 6], but I didn’t want to highlight one song over the other.” Jane suggested a name that summed up why Happy had sat down with his friends in the first place, and it’s perfect. In support of his new record, and also a show he’s recently put together called Coming Of Age In The Folk Revival, Traum will soon be leaving the Catskills for some time on the road. Go. It’s 2016 this weekend. With pleasure, I can wish you a happy, and a Happy, new year today.
photographs via HappyTraum.com