Friday, February 17, 2012

Guitar Man: Happy Traum

There’s 1352 guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than
The number of ants on a Tennessee ant hill.

There’s 1352 guitar cases in Nashville
And anyone who unpacks a guitar
Can play twice as better than I will.
"Nashville Cats"--John Sebastian.

The other night I happened across a guitar player who not only plays twice as better than most, but can probably take credit for teaching many of the cats in Nashville and other cities how. The venue was Schoenberg’s Music shop (, a tiny place in the picturesque town of Tiburon, located on a point halfway between the Golden Gate Bridge and San Quentin.

The star attraction was Happy Traum, a bona-fide folk legend who began in the early sixties in New York’s Washington Square and whose guitar skills and easy manner led to teaching handbooks and videos that are still in print today. My friend, host and flat-picker John still has his Happy Traum instruction books.

Traum acknowledged his musical roots with a tune, “Betty and Dupree,” by his teacher, Brownie McGhee (with whom he did an instruction book). He then told a story on himself about performing a folk song he “discovered” that turned out to be “The River is Wide.”

Traum’s first recording was for Folkways Records, called Broadside Ballads, Vol. 1, a collection that included Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and others. Traum’s New World Singers were the first to record “Blowin’ In The Wind” and he recorded a duet with Dylan (who used the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt).

Traum paid tribute to Dylan as a song writer and bluesman repeatedly throughout the evening with “Crash on the Levee,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,“ "Buckets of Rain” and
“Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You.” After that last one, he remarked slyly,
“Whoever wrote that song is going to go far.”

Traum’s singing voice is no longer as robust as it was in the early 70’s but when he dials the lyrics back to almost a talking blues, it lets the music and his guitar virtuosity shine through, easily heard in a such a small room. Imagine Andres Segovia doing a set of Dylan covers.

Joining him for the evening was his son, Adam, who could match his father, chord for chord and they played well off each other. Adam is working on a new album with his dad and old family friend, John Sebastian (who appeared along with Roly Salley on Happy’s solo album, American Stranger done back in 1976 and now re-released.)

There was more music from Mississippi John Hurt’s “Monday Morning Blues” to Steve Earle’s “Hometown Blues.” There was also a great vibe from the aging baby boomers in the audience, half of whom raised their hands when Happy asked: “How many of you play?”

Finally, it was a beautiful visual setting to see a man and his son, both of whom had devoted their lives to making music from simple, acoustic guitars, performing in front of a wall of Gibsons and Martins built in the 1920s and 1930s. The fruits of artisans striving to create the perfect instruments and the efforts of artists to play them to the fullest measure.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Music Milestones 2011: Teen Spirit to King Tut

Advancing age, no doubt is what makes me appreciate anniversaries and the passing of those who made a difference in our lives and culture.

Let’s start with some anniversaries and reappearances. It was thirty years since the debut of a music cable channel, chronicled this year with the publication of a book, “I Want My MTV.” It was the was 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s “Never Mind” which drummer Dave Grohl observed by releasing his seventh Foo Fighters album and a documentary film, Foo Fighters Back and Forth. Another film by Cameron Crowe for PBS celebrated 20 years of Pearl Jam. DC punk rockers, Fugazi proved you can be on hiatus and on the internet by releasing the first of some 800 recorded concerts for download on a pay what you can basis. They Might Be Giants marked 25 years with a new release.

Other comebacks included The Cars after 22 years, Aretha with a CD sold exclusively at Wal-Mart and banjo player Steve Martin, whose album of original compositions with the Steep Canyon Rangers (along with Paul McCartney and The Dixie Chicks) reprised his mega-hit from 1978, King Tut. There were a number of tribute albums, including cover collections of Buddy Holley, Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings. Woody Guthrie’s family continues to mine his archives for new collections.

Most rock bands break up more frequently than they change socks but R.E.M. made it 31 years, leaving a legacy that both musicians and wordsmiths can appreciate.

The year saw the passing of many music stars. Here are some you may have missed.
• Jean Dinning, who wrote “Teen Angel” and recorded by her younger brother Mark.
• Gladys Horton, an original Marvellete whose “Please Mr. Postman,” was Motown’s first number one hit.
• Hazel Dickens, blue grass champion of the working poor who wrote “Mama’s Hand.” Her haunting voice graced the soundtracks of Harlan County, USA and Matewan.
• Gil Robbins, a member of The Highwaymen and father of Actor Tim Robbins. He began his career as drum major for the UCLA marching band, was a backup singer for Harry Belafonte and later managed the Gaslight CafĂ© in New York City.
• Don Devito, a record producer who did Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire.”
• Sylvia Robinson, who as part of a duo, Mickey and Sylvia recorded the 1957 hit, “Love is Strange” and then produced, 22 years later, the first hip-hop single, “Rappers Delight,” which sold 14 million copies for her Sugarhill Gang label.
• Tom Keith, the incomparable sound effects man for Prairie Home Companion.
• Hugh Martin who composed songs for Judy Garland to sing in Meet Me In St. Louis and penned these classic lyrics:
“Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas/ Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight.”

The year 2011 saw Tom Waits, Darlene Love, Alice Cooper, Dr. John and Neil Diamond enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Diamond was also feted by the Kennedy Center along with Sonny Rollins and YoYo Ma.

The Smithsonian announced that it has rescued the last replica of Parliament Funkadelic’s Motherhip and will put it on display at the National Museum of African American History when it opens in 2015.

Bob Dylan performed in China after agreeing not to sing several songs including, “The Times They Are a Changing” and “Chimes of Freedom.”

Finally, a fond farewell to financier and music lover Warren Hellman who, in 2001 founded the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Concerts in San Francisco’s Gold Gate Park. The free concerts showcased hall of fame talent and his philosophy about philanthropy:
“Money is like manure. If you hold on to it, it stinks. But if you spread it around, good things grow.”