The old joke has it that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there. Happy Traum not only remembers that mercurial decade, he was smack dab in the middle of it.
He performed at the Newport Folk Festival, played guitar on Bob Dylan’s “Greatest Hits, Vol. 2,” was the first to record Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” while a member of The New World Singers, and has run, with his wife, Jane, Homespun Tapes since 1967. But while known and acclaimed by his peers, Traum has mostly stayed below the radar, living in Woodstock, N.Y., recording occasionally, offering music workshops and performing.
On Saturday, Traum, 78, will be at the Carrboro ArtsCenter for a fingerstyle guitar workshop, followed by a concert/slideshow reminiscence of the Greenwich Village days he shared with Dylan, John Sebastian, Dave Van Ronk, and others who changed music and civil rights.
Traum’s own musical instruction started in high school. Born and raised in the Bronx, he attended New York’s High School of Music and Art where his classmates included Eric Weissberg, a banjo player who would go on to record “Dueling Banjos” for the film “Deliverance,” and Peter Yarrow, a future member of Peter, Paul, and Mary. They introduced Traum to the music of banjoist and political activist Pete Seeger.
It was a life-changing moment.
“They took me to a Pete Seeger concert,” he recalled during an interview earlier this summer at Ashokan Center in New York, where he was teaching guitar classes. “It blew my mind that someone could stand there with a banjo, get everybody singing with him, and that music was more than just something you heard on the radio that had no meaning other than some silly love song. Here was somebody singing about civil rights, politics. ...
“So I got a guitar and started playing. I became totally immersed in that world. I started going to Washington Square Park (in Greenwich Village) for weekly Sunday gatherings.”
Immersing himself in the folk revival, Traum discovered the music of fingerstyle guitarist, Brownie McGhee. A native of east Tennessee, McGhee lived in Durham in the late 1930s, where he met and performed with the legendary guitarist Blind Boy Fuller and the blind harmonicist Sonny Terry. In 1942, McGhee moved to New York City and began a musical partnership with Terry that lasted nearly 40 years.
Traum heard Brownie’s music on record and was drawn to his style of Piedmont blues, so he phoned McGhee and asked if he would take him on as a guitar student. In 1958, Traum began lessons, fashioning a foundation that informs his music today.
“We became pretty good friends,” Traum said. “I ended up doing some gigs with him and Sonny – I opened a few shows for them.
“When I play any kind of blues or fingerpicking style, Brownie is very much in there, as is Merle Travis and John Hurt and other guys who play strong thumb-style playing. (Brownie’s style) is very accessible.
“But I’m a New York folkie, so I also play ballads and other kinds of songs, as well. I wouldn’t call myself a blues artist; I’m more of an eclectic folkie.”
Greenwich Village days
In 1962, Traum joined the New World Singers, a folk quartet led by banjoist Gil Turner. Turner had befriended a young Bob Dylan, who had recently arrived in Greenwich Village with a guitar full of songs and a head full of tall tales. Turner was master of ceremonies at the famous Gerdes Folk City hootenannies (or open mic nights) and introduced Happy to Dylan.
“Bob was new to the Village ... but there was an unbelievable buzz about him,” Traum said. “People were talking about him nonstop. He was intriguing to people. At that point they thought he was some Okie who had hitched rides, had worked in carnivals, rode freight trains with Woody (Guthrie). It just made him more ‘authentic’ somehow.
“When I started playing with the quartet, Bob liked what we did and started showing up at our gigs and joining us on stage.”
One night, as the New World Singers were preparing their set at Gerdes, Dylan handed Turner a sheet of paper with a song he had just completed, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The band performed the song that night, and recorded it for the 1963 compilation album, “Broadside Ballads, Vol. 1,” preceding Dylan’s and Peter, Paul, and Mary’s recordings of the song.
The New World Singers were also the first to record Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” on their 1964 self-titled Atlantic Records LP. Dylan wrote liner notes.
Those were heady days in Greenwich Village, with a who’s who of singers and songwriters. Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Peter LaFarge were among the artists writing and recording. But Dylan’s poetry was different.
“The first time I heard ‘A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall,’” Traum recalled, “was about 1 in the morning. There were six people in the audience at Gerdes. We said, ‘C’mon, Bob, do a song. Do one you wrote.’ It just blew us away. Nobody was doing anything like that.”
As the folk revival gained popularity, so did the guitar. But no one had written instructional books for folk guitar, and Traum, who supplemented his income from performing by teaching guitar, saw an opportunity. He approached Irwin Silber, editor of Sing Out! magazine and owner of Oak Publications, and the result was the immensely popular “Finger-Picking Styles for Guitar.”
Published in 1966, the book features biographical sketches of Mississippi John Hurt, Merle Travis, Pete Seeger and other notable pickers, along with transcriptions of their songs. North Carolina guitarists Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotten and Etta Baker are also featured.
In 1967, the Traums moved to Woodstock, a peaceful, artistic village north of New York City, to raise their three children. Dylan was a neighbor, and Traum was a frequent guest at the rose-tinted home that housed The Band and became famous after their first album, “Music From Big Pink.”
Traum was still touring in those days, most often with his brother Artie. To help his students when he wasn’t around, Traum started making tapes – a lesson for each student – and a business was born.
“It was so much work, I thought I’d make one series of lessons that everybody could use – a series of lessons based on my book,” he said.
“I started putting ads in Sing Out! and Guitar Player magazines and people started writing for tapes. That’s how it started. Then I thought, maybe I could get some of my friends to make tapes.”
Today, the Homespun catalog features some 500 titles from some of the world’s finest musicians and teachers.
“One of the real blessings of having done this for so many years is I got to meet so many great musicians,” Traum said. “Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Tony Trischka – all these guys became my friends. We got to make videos with Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson.
“I got to make a video with Pete Seeger, my original inspiration. What could be better than that?”
If you go
What: Happy Traum performance and fingerpicking master class
When: Sept. 26. Workshop starts at 3:30 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.; doors open at 7 p.m.
Where: Carrboro ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro
Cost: $20 advance, $17 Friends of the Arts Center; $23 day of the show. Workshop is $40; $50 for workshop and show.
About the class: The workshop is for “near-beginners” as well as experienced guitarists, and focuses on the steady-bass thumb-and-finger styles used by blues, folk and country pickers. At least one song will be taught, along with exercises and pointers. Class prerequisite: Ability to play and change chords smoothly in the basic positions.
1953: Goes to Pete Seeger concert
1958: Begins guitar lessons with legendary blues man Brownie McGhee
1962: Meets Bob Dylan
1963: His quartet, The New World Singers, makes the first recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind”
1964: Quartet releases self-titled debut LP, with first recorded version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”
1966: Authors “Finger-Picking Styles for Guitar”
1967: Moves to Woodstock, N.Y., and establishes Homespun Tapes
1967-70: Editor of Sing Out! The Folksong Magazine
1968-69: With brother Artie performs at the Newport Folk Festival
1969: Emcees Newport’s “New Folks” stage. Newbies include James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jerry Jeff Walker.
1971: Plays guitar, bass and banjo, and sang harmony on three songs Dylan re-records for his “Greatest Hits, Vol. 2”: “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Down in the Flood,” and “I Shall Be Released.”
1971: Participates in a session with poet Allen Ginsberg for the box set, “Holy Soul Jelly Roll,” with Dylan, beat poets David Amram, Ed Sanders, Gregory Corso and others
1975: Releases his first solo LP, “Relax Your Mind”
2000: Smithsonian/Folkways releases “The Best of Broadside 1962-’68.” Includes previously unreleased (1963) duet with Dylan on “Let Me Die in My Footsteps”
2008: Brother Artie Traum dies from liver cancer at age 65.
2015: Releases solo recording, “Just for the Love of It”
The instructional DVDs by Traum include “Easy Steps to Guitar Fingerpicking” and “The Blues Guitar of Brownie McGhee.” Also available are instructional DVDs by Doc Watson, Bela Fleck, David Grisman, Bill Monroe and Roger McGuinn. For more information, go to www.homespun.com.