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.


  1. One of my all time favorite songs by one of my all time favorite people/writers. Remember when it came out and we all went, "Wow!" So simple, so true, and what a perfect way to acknowledge the incredible players in Nashville who made it all sound so easy. Remember meeting Jack Clement there and running around Nashville with Tom Amon, an awesome label promotion guy who knew everybody. Later, I think, a similar respect for Memphis developed. "She's a Lady" will also give you goosebumps. Thanks, Frank. Big hit!.

  2. Thanks for sharing a vivid depiction of a great evening. Would have been wonderful to be there. Great post.