Folk Musician and Instructor Happy Traum Returns to MerleFest
Woodstock-based guitarist and singer first came to North Carolina in the ‘50s
Happy Traum has been coming to North Carolina for over 60 years. The New York-based folk singer, writer, archivist and educator first hitchhiked to the state in 1956, when he was just out of high school. And this week will be Traum’s 29th year at MerleFest.
“I’ve done it every year except for the very first year,” says Traum of his connection to the legendary festival where the biggest names in bluegrass, folk, Americana and roots music converge every spring. Traum spoke to me by phone from his home in Woodstock.
Traum, who turns 79 next month, is an accomplished guitarist able to pivot between Piedmont blues, British fingerpicking, and bluegrass. He’s written books on a variety of acoustic guitar styles. He wrote instruction books on the blues, on flat-picking, books for children, on the music of artists as diverse as James Taylor and the Incredible String Band. Long before the age of the YouTube tutorial video, Traum started Homespun, a company devoted to taping and later videoing acoustic artists discussing their craft in addition to publishing instructional books and videos. We have Traum to thank for some key footage of bluegrass and old time giants like Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and dozens of others talking about how they thought about what they did when they played.
If you need a rundown of Traum’s folk bonafides, how about this: with his group the New World Singers, Traum made the first recording of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” and later “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” In 1971 Traum joined Dylan in the studio for sessions that included some tunes that ended up on Dylan’s second greatest hits record. Traum was a writer and editor for defining folk magazine Sing Out! And he wrote on folk guitar playing for Rolling Stone, Guitar Player and other magazines. Allen Ginsberg wrote the liner notes on the back of Traum’s 1975 record Hard Times In The Country with his brother Artie. Traum also has a sort of one-man multi-media show with recollections and music called “Coming Of Age In the Folk Revival.”
Traum’s first trip to North Carolina was sort of an unplanned folk music odyssey, a just few years after anthologist and folklorist Harry Smith (who Traum also hung out with some) put together his legendary Anthology of American Folk Music, giving fuel to the folk revival and sending many young city kids like Traum to explore largely forgotten music recorded in the ‘20s and ‘30s, music that had connections to rural parts of the country, mostly the American South, from the Mississippi Delta to Appalachia and beyond. Traum and his high school pal, guitarist Barry Kornfeld, came to North Carolina, and — like Dylan would a few years later — they tried to meet poet and song collector Carl Sandburg.
“We called Carl Sandburg up on the phone from a gas station,” says Traum. “He wouldn’t see us. We talked to him though.”
They tried to meet other North Carolina folk and old time music legends, like Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a lawyer, singer, banjo player and song collector whose iconic 1928 recording of “I Wish I Was A Mole In the Ground” was included in Smith’s Anthology (and quoted in part by Dylan in “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”)
They didn’t connect with Lunsford either, but they did get to spend some time with mountain ballad singer, professor and Folkways recording artist Artus Moser. (Traum’s traveling buddy, Kornfeld was, incidentally, the guy who once drove Dylan out to visit his idol, Woody Guthrie in the hospital.)
From early on, Traum’s experience of folk music was one that centered on community, sharing and paying homage to one’s elders. As a young folkie hanging out in Washington Square Park in New York City, learning from others on the scene, the music had a kind of educational network built into it.
“Since I started playing the guitar, I always wanted to pass on how to play to other people,” says Traum. “Having that interest or drive to teach people is what led me to start writing books — about the guitar and about music and about different artists.”
At MerleFest, Traum will be performing as an artist, but Homespun, the company he started with his wife, and which marks its 50th year in business in 2017, is also a sponsor. And Traum will be an MC of sorts on some of the stages, doing what he does so well, talking to other musicians about how they make music, about technique, theories and tradition.
“It gives the small audience a chance to both hear an artist in an intimate setting and also to ask questions,” says Traum of the indoor stage known as “The Pit.”
Traum spends a big part of his year out playing and teaching at acoustic music events around the country. He’s a regular at workshops at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio. (Kaukonen is also on the bill at MerleFest.) And with his deep catalog of stories and material involving foundational figures in the folk revival I asked Traum if he was considering writing a memoir.
“I have to convince myself that I’m interesting enough,” says Traum.
Happy Traum has six slots on Friday, April 28 and Saturday, April 30 at MerleFest.
The festival, which features the Avett Brothers, the Zac Brown Band, Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain, Bela Fleck, the Del McCoury Band, Leftover Salmon, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives,Steep Canyon Rangers, Sam Bush Band, Sarah Jarosz, Tift Merritt, Jim Lauderdale, Donna the Buffalo and dozens of other artists, runs April 27-30 and is held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro. Visit merlefest.org for more information.