Happy Traum (Interview): "Bob Dylan called me and said: 'You should learn how to play the bass'"
Updated: May 9, 2021
Happy Traum was not only there when things started happening in the Village (we're talking Greenwich Village here) – he was an important protagonist of a culturally formative era. Born in the Bronx in 1938, Harry Peter "Happy" Traum became a part of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Already his first stint at a recording studio was a historic one: In 1962 he appeared on "Broadside Ballads, Vol.1", a compilation of Folkway Studios — together with Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and others. Traum's band at that time, The New World Singers, was the first one to record Dylan's "Blowing In The Wind" (even before Dylan recorded it himself). Traum also recorded a duet with Dylan, "Let Me Die In My Footsteps" (Dylan used the moniker Blind Boy Grunt for it).
Traum's story does by no means stop at The Village. In the late 1960s, he moved to Woodstock — to find a flourishing music scene in a rural environment there that drew many artists from all over the world. He had abandoned The New World Singers by that point – but certainly not his career in music: He formed a duo with his late brother Artie Traum. They got signed by Capitol Records and remained (on and off) active until Artie's death in 2008. Besides that and his several solo albums, Happy Traum has also appeared on several Dylan albums ("Greatest Hits, Vol.2" and „Another Self Portrait") as well as on a recording of seminal poet Allen Ginsberg, organized by Dylan.
His accomplishments reach much further, though. In the late 1960s, he, together with his wife and partner Jane Traum, founded Homespun Tapes (now Homespun Music Instruction). They started with tapes, later moving on to video cassettes, DVDs and now Digital and streaming format, Homespun is a rich collection of amazing lessons by legends of their fields. Pete Seeger, Bela Fleck or Steve Martin teaching Banjo, Tony Rice teaching guitar, Sam Bush explaining his mandolin techniques – the list of famous musician who have created instructional material for Homespun is long and of course also includes Happy Traum himself, an accomplished acoustic fingerstyle guitar player and instructor.
I had the great pleasure to talk to Happy Traum via Zoom. Read the full interview below.
I'd like to start off talking about your childhood and youth in the Bronx. What brought you to music in the first place – and how was your musical upbringing?
When I was growing up in the Bronx, there wasn't much music in my life. I think my father played ukulele for a little while. I remember something about that. The music that we listened to primarily was what was going on on the radio, the hit music of the day. It wasn't until I got to this special high school in Manhattan called High School of Music and Art. New York has maybe around eight specialty high schools for gifted children of various kinds. There's one called Bronx High School of Science which is obviously for smart people. And there was a couple of ones for artistic kids, the High School of Music and Art was one of those. I was actually an art student. My mother was a pretty good artist and I liked to paint and draw. I applied to the school as an art student. That's how I went into the school. But then of course the other half of the school were musicians, a lot of them really talented. In those days the folk music scenes, in most parts of the United States but in New York especially, were based around leftist politics. Pete Seeger was the big star. I went to a Pete Seeger concert my first year in high school. Just seeing him standing on the stage, all by himself with a banjo, getting a whole audience full of people singing along with him, opened my mind to the possibilities that you can actually do this. This was just one guy playing music. He was singing these songs that had nothing to do with what I was hearing about on the radio. He had songs about civil rights, workers, labour unions, miners, cowboys. On the radio they sang things that didn't have much relevance to me. Songs about "how much is that doggie in the window". Silly love songs. That opened my mind. I had to buy a guitar, so I asked my parents to buy me one. They did. I took some lessons – and then I started to go to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. I started meeting people in the folk music world, understanding that there was a big world of this music out there that I knew nothing about. It was very varied. There was bluegrass, there was calypso music, blues, jug band music. That was back in the mid 50s. That's how I got involved in all this.
So you got your first guitar. How did you proceed? Did you learn it by yourself or did you take lessons?
I took a few lessons with a guitar teacher. When I went to school, sometimes I'd bring my guitar – and all the other kids also played music. You pick up things by watching. You ask people "What's that chord" and then they teach it to you. Going to Washington Square Park was like going to a university. There were people like Tom Paley, Mike Seeger, a whole bunch of people that could really play well. You could meet people in the park, play a little, then go to a party in somebody's apartment. You could sit and watch or you could play yourself. Get tips, pointers of how to do things. How you play this chord, how to fingerpick. Then I went to college. Around 1958 I started taking lessons with Brownie McGhee, a great blues artist. That was really my foundation, what gave me my style that I play to this day. Not that I play like Brownie, but whatever he has taught me is part of my musical style really. Of course listening to a lot of records, mostly the finger style Piedmont Blues musicians, that was my development as a guitar player.
What was Brownie McGhee like as a teacher?
It was interesting. He actually knew how to teach. A lot of my friends studied with Reverend Gary Davis, who is also hugely influential on a whole generation of guitar players. I'm not sure how he taught, but I don't think he was as much of a communicative teacher as Brownie was. Mostly we just started playing, blues songs and things like that. He'd stop me and say something like: "Wait a minute, you've got to keep your thumb going steady!" Or: "You've got to tap your foot, your rhythm's not good". Or I would stop him and say: "Wait a minute, what was that lick you were playing, I couldn't get that". And he'd stop and slow it down. The lessons would sometimes go on for two hours – for five hours, that was pretty good value for the money. On one occasion Sonny Terry dropped in and he was playing his harmonica while we were doing our guitar lesson. So I got to play with both of them. Later on I did gigs with them, opened shows for them. Brownie stayed a friend for many years after that.
When did you know that you wanted to become a professional musician?
I graduated from NYU and my major was English literature. That means that I was probably gonna be a teacher. I mean what else was I going to do? I wasn't much of a writer at that point. But almost from the time I started playing the guitar and getting halfway good at it, I started teaching at summer camps. Teaching kids younger than me how to play. I was 18, they were 15. I sort of had in mind to be a guitar teacher for a long time. When I graduated from college, I was already spending most of my time in The Village playing music and teaching guitar. I'd finish my college day and go off to teach lessons. I graduated in 1960. The same year, I also got married. I didn't even think of finding a job. I just said I'm going to keep teaching guitar and making pretty good money doing that. I was a guitar teacher for the first two years we were married. Then I got into a folk music group, my first professional one. I had been doing little concerts around New York. I did various shows in small theaters, local colleges and universities. I made enough money to pay for rent and for food for me and my wife, she was still in college in the first year of marriage. It just continued that way – so I never had a real job after all.
We're talking about The New World Singers already, aren't we? Right. joined them at the end of 1962. They were a trio and became a quartet when I joined. We did a lot of work for civil rights, a lot of benefits for the whole growing civil rights movements. We were very involved in that scene. Then we made this record for Broadsides, which was a Folkways recording studio. It was a benefit for Broadside Magazine, which was printing and distributing those topical songs. Songs of protest, whatever you want to call it. People like Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, lots of the early folk music were getting their songs published there. Pete Seeger as well. They would also print Woody Guthrie songs and even older songs, but mostly it was contemporary writers. Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan were kind of the leaders of that pack. The New World Singers were singing all their songs. Phil Ochs would write a song and bring it to us. Bob Dylan would write a song and bring it to us and we'd sing it. We did a lot of shows in the coffeehouses around Greenwich Village, also toured Canada and the midwest. But we never got nationwide. We got a record deal with Atlantic Records and did an album with that. I spent three years with them, from 1962 to 1965, I think.
The New World singers recorded the first version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” – even before Dylan himself did.
Yeah. Gil Turner, who was the lead singer and pretty much the leader of The New World Singers, was a friend of Bob’s since Bob showed up in New York in 1961. We got to know him at that time. Bob kind of also had a crush on the woman singer in our group, Delores Dixon. In his Chronicles book, Bob says he kind of based "Blowin' In The Wind" on her version of an old slave era song called "No More Auction Block For Me". He says somewhere in the book that she was his girlfriend of some sorts, but she does not remember that at all. He used to come to all our shows that we played in The Village. Sometimes late at night. In those days you play for a week or two weeks every night, up to four shows per night. Sometimes the last show would start at one in the morning. Very often Bob would show up, either with us or by himself. There might have been a dozen people in the audience. Bob was a big fan. He taught Gil Turner "Blowin’ In The Wind". Gil taught it to the group, he thought it would be a great song for us to play. And it was. We started doing it on some of the gigs. Then we went into the studio. It was the first time I had been in a professional studio. In that little studio, a big room and control room with glass in front, was Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, The Freedom Singers from Albany, Georgia and some other artists. It was a pretty big deal. Here I was in the studio with Pete Seeger, my hero, who started me off on the whole music thing. And Bob Dylan who I knew was a sensational musician. It was before "The Freewheelin'", before he did "Blowing In The Wind", ours came out. And then of course hundreds of people did it after that.
Were you already living in Greenwich Village?
I actually never lived in The Village. We lived in Uptown Manhattan after Jane and I had left the Bronx. I would take the subway down to The Village. I also had a little teaching studio there.
"We might have been on stage when the first moon landing took place."
Looking back at this era in Greenwich Village, it was such a historic time. Were you aware back then that something huge was happening? Was there a special feeling in the air?
We were definitely aware of it. It was like being in the middle of a renaissance. From the Washington Square scene, where it was all for the fun of it slowly to playing in the coffee houses: There were not too many commercial big name acts. As it became more commercial, coffee houses started saying: "Oh, we've got to put a folk singer in the window. They can play and the tourists come into the coffee shop and the folksingers can pass the basket". Didn't cost the coffee shop owner anything. That's the way it started. By 1961, 62, places like Gerde's Folk City started opening up. The Bitter End, The Gaslight Cafe, The Village Gate, The Café-A-Go-Go. Suddenly there was all this life in The Village. People were crowding in from all over the city, the suburbs, coming to see who was the hot new singer. We were very aware of the growing artistry of the people coming up in this world. We'd go to an open mic night and we'd hear Richie Havens, Ian and Sylvia or Judy Collins, The Clancy Brothers, Dave Van Ronk. It was just a very lively scene. You'd make friends, you'd go from one club to the next. If you were playing in one club, during your break you'd run over to one of the other clubs. And since you knew all the club owners, they always let you in because you were part of the scene. It was exciting. Then Peter, Paul and Mary got this big record deal, they were local folkies. Bob Dylan started getting really famous. We knew that something very exciting was happening. New York was the dead center of it all. Although other cities, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and very much Boston had their own scenes as well.
With Bob Dylan getting famous quite soon thereafter, did that change the situation and the vibe in The Village? Was it flooded by tourists?
Well, at a certain point he wasn't playing there anymore. It's amazing how fast it all went when you think back at it. We made our recording of "Blowin' In The Wind" in what I believe was January of 1963. By 1964, Bob was playing at Carnegie Hall. He was all over the country, he went to Europe, England. He kind of left the scene by this point. By 1965, he had "Like A Rolling Stone''. And that was earthshaking for everybody, but we didn't see him around The Village anymore. He was gone. Other people were trying to do the same thing, Phil Ochs was trying desperately. People were trying to get more big time. But nobody was as big as Dylan. It suddenly became a different thing. It was show business, it got on television. It went from being little coffeehouses and bars around The Village to big concert halls and later big festivals. Like the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Newport Folk Festival. Festivals often brought in some of the more traditional players, Blues players, early Rock'n'Roll players, people like John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf. But also Appalachian singers, cowboy singers, people from other parts of the country showed up. I got to hear Mississippi John Hurt and Son House in the little Gaslight Café. It was a very exciting scene, like the world was opening up for us. People from Europe came over to us too. By the mid 60s, it got more into the folk rock thing. My good friend John Sebastian put together The Lovin' Spoonful and they played on the streets.James Taylor was playing with his Flying Machine Group in a place called The Night Owl Cafe. Jimi Hendrix came on the scene with John Hammond. John brought Hendrix to play with him. The scene started to get much more blues rock, folk rock oriented – rather than pure acoustic folk music. That was a thing between the purist, acoustic players who wanted to sound like old, traditional hillbillies and folk artists – and people like Dylan, who was moving on to a band sound. Now you had to have amps, roadies, lights. That changed the whole scene too.
Did you like that development – or were you more of a folk purist in those days?
Yeah, well …In 1965, my brother and I formed a rock group called The Children Of Paradise. We had Eric Kaz, a really great songwriter and Mark Silber. We started playing around The Village, also other cities like Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, places like that. It was never my thing. I never felt comfortable doing it for whatever reason. We had fun doing it, we had some good adventures. We got signed by Columbia records, right at the same time Columbia bought Fender. So we all got Fender amps and guitars. I got a Stratocaster and a Twin Reverb. I did that two years with that group, but it was never my thing. I left and moved to Woodstock with my family. I went back to my acoustic guitars and never stopped. My brother joined me after the group broke up. I started a duo with my brother. We had a band backing us up with electric guitars and drums, but I was always playing the acoustic. We got signed to Capitol Records. Albert Grossman was our manager for a couple of years. We played a lot of festivals. We didn't stay a duo all the time, but we pretty much continued to play gigs together until my brother passed away. We played together for about 40 years as a duo.
You played the Newport Folk Festival in 1968.
Yeah, both in 1968 and 1969. That was very exciting. We might have even been on stage when the first moon landing took place. They had those TVs set up that were showing the landing and people were announcing it through the speakers. The audience was cheering and everything. I think in 69, my brother and I organized a workshop for what they called "New Folk". The people were James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson. We introduced them all. We knew they were great.
"In some odd way Woodstock was like Greenwich Village North."
I'd like to speak about your brother Artie Traum. How was working with him?
We were very, very different people and players. But we always got along very well. He was a much better guitar player than me, much more creative in terms of his outlook on music. I'm much more stuck on a certain type of music. He got into cool jazz, much more experimental Jazz styles. He did a lot of things. We weren't always a duo, sometimes we split up but we always came together again. When we did come together, he mostly played the leads, I mostly played the rhythm. We always got along, even until about two weeks before he got sick with his final illness, we did a gig together, the two of us. There was always something special when we played together. He was a very good performer. Very funny, a great sense of humour.
Why did you decide to move to Woodstock in 1967?
Well, there was already a music scene here. Two very good friends of mine from Washington Square Park, John Herald and Billy Faier, were living here. I of course knew that Dylan had moved back here after his motorcycle accident. I knew his manager Albert Grossman. I knew there was a lot going on here. It's a beautiful area. The other thing was that we had three small children at that point and we felt the city was getting too much for us. We had a car, but no place to park it. We had to carry baby carriages up the stairs to get to our apartment. All that stuff. We had never lived in an actual house in the country. We drove up here and rented a house for the summer of 1967. That's when I renewed my friendship with Dylan, who had just had his accident. We were hanging out with him. He found out that we moved up here and got in touch with us. We started a friendship again there. There were lots of other musicians and artists. There's an artist colony here that goes back to 1903. Two or three generations of older artists that we loved to meet and get involved with. We put our roots here and stayed – and we lived here ever since.
How different was life in Woodstock from Greenwich Village from an artist's point of view?
In some odd way it was like Greenwich Village North. There was the same kind of creative, artistic ambience here – although the local people were not so much in favor of the long-haired hippies coming to their town. But they did have a certain amount of respect for artistic types because they were used to it. There were venues opening up like the Cafe Espresso, which was famous because Bob Dylan hung out there a lot in the 1960s. There was a bigger theater called The Woodstock Playhouse. And then a place called The Joyous Lake opened, a fabulous restaurant/bar where you could play music. Artists from Van Morrison to Bonnie Raitt to Charlie Mingus played here. It just went on and on. And then the festival in 1969 happened. That was good and bad for the town of Woodstock.
Did you attend the Woodstock festival?
I did not go, no. I didn't want to go out and spend the weekend there.
You said it was both good and bad. What were the bad things?
It put Woodstock on the map as a tourist destination, even though the festival was 50 miles away. It wasn't even in Woodstock. The tourist thing just got out of control for a long time. The town was crowded with people looking for stars. Is Dylan here? Is Hendrix here? They would ask the locals and make pilgrimages to Dylan's house. Dylan said he moved away because people were finding him, even though he lived out of town. That was the bad side of it. The good side was that it also drew a lot of creative and interesting people. From rock'n'rollers to jazz artists to bluegrass and folk singers. Even to this day there are younger generations of players, who are fantastic. I love to play with them. If you come here, you'd think that it's just a little town in the country.
It was also here that you started Homespun Tapes.
I had just finished with The New World singers. I had already written a book called "Fingerpicking Styles For Guitar'', which came out in 1965. It's in print even to this day. I was teaching guitar again, both in Woodstock and in New York. I was becoming an editor for Sing Out Magazine, which was my bible when I started out. I was getting letters from people saying "I got your book but I don't know how it's supposed to sound. I'm living out in the midwest and I can't find those records''. If you were in New York or San Francisco, you could find those records, but not if you were in Des Moines, Iowa or some place like that. I thought: "Well, I'll make some tapes and show them how it goes. Then they can use the books''. I did a series of tapes. Jane started to put ads out in magazines. Rolling Stone and Guitar Player Magazine were starting out the same year I started Homespun. I put little classified ads in and started getting orders. People started writing from all over the country for tapes. We thought: "Well, let's also get some friends to make tapes for us". I got a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a mic. Very crude, not exactly what you would call a studio set up. People would come over to the house and we'd set up one or two mics, put the reel-to-reel on and when we'd finish one side, we'd turn the tapes over. We started sending those out, copying them on our kitchen table from the master to a small five-inch-reel. Some years later, cassettes started coming out, so we got a cassette duplicator. I started bringing people like Bill Keith, the great Banjo player or David Bennett Cohen, who had just left Country Joe & The Fish. He did a piano series for us. This was all audio, of course, not video. Then I started to get further into the field of bluegrass musicians and got Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Tony Trischka to do tapes for us. In the early 1980s video cassettes came out and it blew up. Now you could see the artists. But if we wanted to send a tape to Europe, we had to make it in PAL format, then it was Beta, then it was VHS. We had to do all these different variations of video tapes. We just kept doing it. Then DVDs came in, digital stuff came in– and then we transferred everything to digital. Now we don't even do DVDs anymore. It's all download and streaming. We have 600 and some odd lessons. Some really great artists, like Dr. John, Donald Fagen, Pete Seeger, Tony Rice, John Sebastian, Cindy Cashdollar: there are more than 250 artists that have done lessons for us.
Did you sometimes have to coach the artists? Not every great player is necessarily a great teacher too.
Right. In those instances usually I would get on camera with them and guide them as an interviewer. I know how to teach. Somebody like Tony Rice was an amazing player, but never taught anybody. I would tell him: Stop, slow down what you're doing there. Or we had Johnnie Johnson, who was Chuck Berry's piano player. There we got David Bennett Cohen to interview him. We got Jimmy Vivino to interview Hubert Sumlin. I interviewed Dr. John while we did his lessons. He never was a teacher and relied on me to get him through it. That was easy for me to do, it worked out fine.
Do you remember particularly unique recording sessions?
I'd have to think about that. One that comes to mind was a video we did with Dr. John. It was called "New Orleans Piano". He came up here to Woodstock and we went into this little studio. For some reason there was no air conditioning. Dr. John was wearing a jacket and a hat. He was used to the heat, because he came from New Orleans, but it was really hot. He was very good natured about it, very sweet. But you see on the tape he's struggling and sweating. A similar thing happened the first time we recorded Tony Rice. We went into Todd Rundgren's Utopia Studios here in Woodstock. They were just setting up their video system. We had an engineer, he reused tape for the audio. The previous tape had not been fully erased. We did this whole session with Tony Rice. Bringing him to Woodstock, taking him up, taking him to dinner, all that stuff. In the middle of it we found out we couldn't use anything we recorded because it was old tape. We didn't tell them to do that to save money, they were doing it on their own. So we had to start all over again. It was the opposite of Dr. John, it was freezing in the studio. We went on until two in the morning. Tony, I have to say, for a guy who's known to be a little prickly, he was as nice as could be. He was patient. He just rode with it and was fine the whole time. Those things come to mind.
You mentioned the lesson with Pete Seeger. You were good friends with him, right?
Right. He was my main inspiration when I started playing, but over the years I got to know him. We did many shows together, mainly benefits. He became a big fan of what we were doing at Homespun. He was very interested, because we were carrying on those traditions that he liked so much. We got to do a video with him based on his book. His book, "How to play the five string banjo" was probably the first instruction book about the banjo that had music, tablature, music, ideas, instructions, advice, all that stuff. It was the first book that I was learning from when I started playing the banjo, living in my parents' apartment in the Bronx. In 2002 Pete came to Jane and me and said: "I want you to be the publisher of this book". Now we're the publishers of the book that I learnt from when I was a teenager. He was a big fan of what we do and we stayed friends with him. He was an amazing guy. When Pete was on stage, whether there were ten or 20.000 people in the audience, he was the same guy as he was off stage. I think that's a really honorable way to live. Not all artists are like that, maybe they can't be if they get too famous. Pete always seemed to be able to put that behind him and just be Pete. That's a great way to approach life.
I'd like to talk about two legendary recording sessions that you were a part of. One was the one with Dylan for his „Greatest Hits Vol.2", the other one was with Allen Ginsberg. Bob Dylan called me one day and said: "You know, you should learn how to play the bass". I didn't know why he was saying that, but I figured, okay, I'll learn how to play the bass. So I borrowed a bass and an amp and practised for a while. Maybe a month later he called me again and said "Bring your bass to the city, because I'm doing a session with Allen Ginsberg and I want you to play on it". That was kind of strange, New York City is full of great bass players, I don't know why he wanted me. Anyway, I went into the city and I brought the bass with me. I had never met Allen Ginsberg before. It was Allen, Peter Orlovsky, his partner, David Amram, John Sholle, Bob Dylan who was organizing the whole session, Ed Sanders. It was a crazy session. We were putting music to Allen's poetry. Allen was singing and playing his harmonium, which he pumped with one hand and played with the other. It was a long, all-day session. It was crazy, there were beat poets there, Gregory Corso showed up and was causing all kinds of havoc because he wanted all the attention for himself. There was a Tibetan buddhist lama woman who was blessing everybody. It was just a really wacky scene (laughs). But Allen and I became friends afterward and I went out as his accompanist on several shows. Jane and I spent some time with him and Peter in London. Allen would often come and stay at our house. He came to Woodstock a lot, because there is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery here that he liked. It was a nice relationship. Shortly thereafter, Bob asked me to come back down again and bring a banjo, a bass and a guitar. It was just him and me and an engineer. His idea was to do songs that other people had hits with, songs that he wrote but that he had never recorded. So we did four songs. Most of it was just live. I did overdub one bass part on "You Ain't Going Nowhere". Otherwise I played banjo, guitar and sang with him. It was an easy session. I had no idea if anything would come of it or not – but three of his songs ended up on his "Greatest Hits, Vol.2" and one ended up years later on "Another Self Portrait".
For more info about Happy Traum, visit his official website.
For the legendary and ever growing archive of instructional videos see Homespun's website.