Happy Traum

The New York City folk scene of the early 1960s has become so foundational, so seminal in American cultural mythology, it is easy to forget that those youngsters were revivalists too: middle class kids disenchanted with materialism, the post-war industrial boom and its sordid underbelly of global domination, and an increasingly standardized and technological national culture. In the hill folk and blues of the past they found mysterious sounds, mythologies, and presumably more authentic identities. They found eccentricity, infinite regional variation, fragments caught on tape and the rest borne forward by the brilliant and generative unreliability of the oral tradition.

The cycle has repeated countless time since then. Smart young people are drawn to old things —themselves in a fedora, their voices on a Victrola — just as generations of European artists were drawn to the glowing secrets of Hellenism as they imagined them. It’s not always pretty. Witness for example the calculated “poor-geoisie” scruff of some (by no means all) of the current century’s ecstatic and collectivist folk-rock bands, miming an older world and a new innocence on top an unquestioned foundation of privilege.

Oh well. The older generations of well-meaning appropriators can be accused of much the same. And it’s just music after all. But I do see one significant difference. Due to the prominence of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and bit later, Paul Simon, the NYC folk revival came to be synonymous with the dawn of the singer-songwriter age. Along with the Beatles, this generation of artists fostered the novel expectation that the singer writes the songs she sings. Outside of the realm of production pop, where professional writers still flourish, this has remained the dominant paradigm ever since.

What we forget is that, to those folkies, as to their early British invasion contemporaries, the art of interpretation and the “great find” were not only still valid; they were, perhaps, still considered the high road. If the Stones had had their way, they might never have stopped being principally a tribute to McKinley Morganfield, Chester Burnett, and Willie Dixon, their heroes to this day. Even the Zombies—ultra-fine and more Brahms than blues—were slavishly devoted to American rhythm and blues, and their genius sprung from the ways in which they got it all terribly wrong.

Similarly, the great ‘50s and ‘60s folkies found their spiritual sustenance and their repertoire in Harry Smith’s anthology of American folk music and in the field recordings of Alan Lomax. Of course they couldn’t sound like that, but there was, amongst these kids, a pretty deep sense of obligation to the past, service to its mysteries, and a default reverence and humility in the presence of African American achievement. Being a folkie came with a historical and archival calling as well as a musical one.

Enter, finally, Happy Traum, the great folk guitarist, interpreter, recording artist, educator, Woodstock community pillar, and legendarily nice guy. He is of course a songwriter as well, one who enjoyed a major label run in the height of the singer-songwriter ‘70s with his late brother Artie. But as the years pass and the story runs clearer, Mr. Traum emerges as one of the significant surviving voices of the interpretative and curatorial calling of folk. Often categorized as coming from the school of Lead Belly, the Bronx native’s actual mentor and guitar teacher was the Piedmont blues master Brownie McGhee.

Happy was on the Greenwich Village folk scene as early as the late ‘50s, before it was a scene. Among the first of those trendsetters, he is certainly among the last ones standing and working. (Meanwhile, down the road, the Fugs are in the studio too.)

“I came up in the time of changeover in the folk world,” Traum says. “It was all about singing traditionals at first, finding great songs, digging into old records and manuscripts. And then the great songwriters came along, Dylan, Phil Ochs, Buffy St. Marie. But Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology was kind of our touchstone for learning songs and for discovering Mississippi John Hurt, Clarence Ashley, the Carter Family and more obscure names like Richard “Rabbit” Brown, who has one of the great songs on that anthology. Cajun songs, Gospel songs. We swallowed it whole, we inhaled it. Pete Seeger was also a real archivist as well as a songwriter, and a gigantic influence on me and most people from my generation.”

When the “hard no” social rules of the first Covid year gave way to this tenuous, greenish-yellow light of permission to congregate now, Mr. Traum, well into his 80s, decided to make another record. The fruit of this is There’s a Bright Side Somewhere, a delightfully rambling, heartfelt and in many ways virtuosic 13-song collection out now on Lark’s Nest Music. There’s a Bright Side Somewhere was recorded—mostly live, by people in a room—at Dave Cook’s Area 52 in Saugerties, where Mr. Traum has recorded several of his recent projects.

The first thing one notices is the depth and breadth of Mr. Traum’s mastery of the folk traditions, and the sturdy and assured current state of his chops! While he never conceived it as an inclusive career retrospective of his art and his times, it sort of becomes one anyway. The record combines traditionals (from many traditions); compositions by a few founders and masters (Brownie McGhee, Blind Willie McTell, Woody Guthrie); a few numbers by writers of his own generation (Dylan, Eric Andersen); and a couple of originals—the improvised “Santa Cruz Blues” (named for Happy’s preferred brand of boutique acoustic guitar), and the poignant “Love Song to a Girl in an Old Photograph.”

“I knew I wanted to highlight some of my solo guitar playing more than I had in the past, so I have three solo pieces on this record,” says Traum. The arrangements run from true solo recordings to a roomful of old friends sawing away together, knowing the forms but hashing out the details intuitively and empathically, based on individual mastery and a shared love of the music. This record is as Woodstock as you can get. It highlights both the multi-generational nature of the Woodstock musical community and the fact that the last 15 years have represented a real renaissance and a complete refreshing of that community.

Among the many salubrious effects of Levon Helm’s late-career, Woodstock-headquartered Grammy run was not just a restocked pool of ace players but ones imbued with that delight in the mysteries of the old ways. Even the youngest players on this scene—as versatile and fluent as any modern player needs to be—are hip to the elusive simplicity of folk and blues: a minute to learn, a lifetime to never quite master. Of the old-soul younger professional players on the record and in this community, Traum says, “I think that recognition of where it all came from is evident in any younger player who has that kind of seeking mind, to go beyond the latest thing.”

Name time. Let’s start with a few of Mr. Traum’s true peers. John Sebastian blows some wicked harmonica on a few tracks. “I think John has been on every recording I’ve made in the last 50 years,” says Happy. “He’s been a dear friend and a generous musical partner.” One of the most influential secret agents of 20th century folk curation, Geoff Muldaur provides a vocal cameo on “In the Wee Midnight Hour.” The patriarch of Catskill roots music Jay Ungar plays fiddle on the traditional “Dry Bones.” And while Levon of course was not around to chip in, Amy Helm sings on several tracks.

For There’s a Bright Side Somewhere’s many layers of inspired roots counterpoint and filigree, Happy didn’t have to look far to find the very best. Local hero Cindy Cashdollar contributes several flavors of slide. Larry Campbell, on the other hand, leaves his guitar on the bench and instead plays mandolin on a few songs. “Artie and I had a band in the ‘70s called the Woodstock Mountains Review. It included John Herald, Bill Keith, John Sebastian, Eric Andersen at one point, and many others. In 1979 we went to Europe on a tour and Larry Campbell came along. He was probably just out of his teens at that point.”

Meanwhile the credentialed Woodstock drummer Eric Parker (Joe Cocker, Steve Winwood, etc.) provides the record’s only instances of percussion. “When I pull musicians into a session like this,” says Traum, “I try for the musicianship part and the good vibe part. I want to keep the music up, even a sad song, with a certain kind of spirit. So I’m drawn, maybe unconsciously, to players like Eric who are a great hang, always in the groove and always in the vibe.”

The next-gen Woodstock-centric talents involved are no less impressive. “I didn’t want to have a whole album of geezers,” Traum laughs. Keyboard whiz Marco Benevento cameos, Levon and Lumineers sideman Byron Isaacs provides much of the record’s bass; all-purpose musical handyman Zach Djanikian mostly just sings on this one. Ryan Berg covers bass duties on several track while Neil Eisenberg plays accordion, Abby Newton plays cello, and Eugene Ruffolo anchors the background vocal ensemble on nearly a half dozen songs. Traum’s son Adam lends a hand as well, playing slide guitar on Woody Guthrie’s “New York Town.” “He’s a very talented musician and deep into the roots music himself.”

Finally, Happy employed a few of what he himself calls ringers. These include the banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka and folk multi-instrumentalist Bruce Molsky. The record’s one truly incongruous moment is also one of its highest highs, “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies,” a duet with the violinist Darol Anger. As an original member of David Grisman’s boundary shattering quintet and, co-founder of the folk-classical Turtle Island String Quartet, Anger is one of folk music’s great confusionists, blurring the lines between folk, jazz, and chamber music. His contribution to “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” is a multi-tracked, slow-blossoming and simply gorgeous ambient string arrangement. Traum says, “I knew he would take me out of my comfort zone. This guy is a master. I love him and I know that whatever he gives he’ll give it with all his heart, and I think it is my favorite cut on the record.”

About the album closing “Love Song to a Girl in an Old Photograph,” Traum says, “I wanted to have something I wrote, and I really haven’t written anything in quite a few years now. So I pulled this song off a 1971 record that Artie and I did. This song is very nostalgic. It’s about time and looking back, and now, 50 years later at the age of 84, I have a totally different perspective on it.”

Even if you plan to listen online, consider buying the CD, if only for Traum’s concise and revealing song annotations. For more information on Happy Traum and There’s a Bright Side Somewhere, visit www.happytraum.com.

See Happy Traum at the Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase, where he’ll do a workshop Friday, October 21 at the Pavillion of The Bear Cantina at the Bearsville Center, 295 Tinker Street, Woodstock, and in a performance with his son Adam, at noon, Saturday, October 22 at the Bearsville Theater, same address.