By Steven Rosen
SONIC BOOMERS/ 2009
It is a vow of American roots music that the circle will be unbroken – the past and present shall link up to form an ongoing, renewing folk tradition.
In an unusual way, one that tells as much about Woodstock, N.Y.’s, impact on popular music as the famous rock festival’s much-ballyhooed 40th anniversary, Levon Helm continues that circle on his new album, Electric Dirt.
Helm, the Band’s drummer and one of its three lead singers, is himself a living testament to musical renewal. After battling throat cancer that had left him unable to sing and in precarious health, he was able in 2007 to record the spunky, soulful Dirt Farmer, his first solo album in some 25 years – and it won him a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
He has already followed it up with the new Electric Dirt, featuring musicians – including producer/guitarist Larry Campbell – who play at his Midnight Ramble jam sessions at his Woodstock home. It has quickly moved to the top of Americana-music playlists.
It is a bluesy, raucously country-rockin’ record – very much like the Band – but there are exceptions. One is a chillingly mournful and folkloric mountain ballad called “Golden Bird” that features Campbell on violin. It sounds as if the 69-year-old Helm is in a séance, dredging up a song he heard as a child in his native Arkansas, where his father was a music-loving cotton farmer.
But actually it’s from a fellow Woodstock musician – 71-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist Happy Traum – and comes from a hard-to-find 1970 folk-rock album simply called Happy and Artie Traum. That record reflected the Traums’ deep admiration for fellow Woodstock residents the Band. (At that time the Band lived in nearby town of West Saugerties.)
Like the Band, the Traums were helped by Bob Dylan – a friend of Happy’s from the early-1960s folk-revival days in Greenwich Village. (The Traums had grown up in the Bronx.) Happy was in a group called the New World Singers that had first recorded Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but their label Atlantic Records reportedly found it too political. It was put out in 1963 on Folkways Records’ multi-artist Broadside, Vol. 1 album, along with a duet by Traum and Dylan on “Let Me Die in My Footsteps.” (In 1971, Happy dueted with Dylan on three songs on the latter’s 1971 Greatest Hits Vol. 2 – “Down in the Flood,” “I Shall Be Released” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”)
Happy and his wife, Jane, and their three young children had moved to Woodstock from New York City’s Upper West Side in 1967. He had already written his first instruction book, Fingerpickin’ Styles for Guitar, and the couple started Homespun Tapes, a now-thriving company selling music lessons on DVDs and CDs.
When Happy also decided to start performing with younger brother Artie – who died last year of cancer – Dylan helped book them into the Newport Folk Festival and sign with his (and The Band’s) manager, Albert Grossman. And the latter got them on Capitol Records, the Band’s label. On Dylan’s advice, they went to Nashville to record their debut album, which featured “Golden Bird” and was produced by the Traums and Charlie Tallent with session players.
Speaking by phone from his Woodstock home, just before leaving to teach a guitar workshop in Maine, Traum recalls the reasons for the move. “Columbus Avenue, the part (of Manhattan) we were living in, had lots of junkies and winos and I had the hassle of trying to park car everyday because I was going out on gigs,” he says.
“We had spent a couple summers in Woodstock, mostly at the urging of our old friend John Herald from Washington Square (music) days. And we decided, ‘Why go back?’” he continues. “There was a large migration of kids in those days from urban to rural areas, and there was a growing music community in Woodstock. So we had a lot of friends here and places to play.”
“Golden Bird” came about from Happy’s responses to that move – and to his daily view of a Woodstock mountain. The song is a fable about a man killing the thing he loves – a precious bird – because he can’t control it. It then returns to him at night as a vision of a woman, grieving over his tragic, cruel action.
“Overlook Mountain is the first peak on the easternmost side of the Catskill range, and Woodstock is nestled at the foot of the mountain,” Traum says. “At the time I wrote the song, I was in a part called Byrdcliffe, the original artists’ colony, so I was living on the side of that mountain. I had recently moved from New York City and I was still in awe that I had left that urban environment for a fairly bucolic one. And I loved old ballads and the stories they told, so I thought I’d make up my own.”
Overall, the Happy and Artie Traum album is rock-infused folk music, at times reminiscent of the Band. (Their friend Eric Kaz provides poignant harmonica throughout.) The Traums even try to sing like the Band on several songs, with their rustic harmonies and yearning, pining leads. One is a rollicking tune called “Uncle Jedd Says,” by a local songwriter named Billy Batson, which has a joyous sing-along chorus featuring Tracy Nelson.
Another is “Going Down to See Bessie,” which was indeed written by the Band’s Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson. Years later, in 1975, it was officially released on Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes, under the name “Bessie Smith.”
“We learned that directly from them,” Happy remembers. “The Basement Tapes hadn’t come out yet and they hadn’t recorded it. But they taught it to us and we made it one of our showcases. They taught it to Artie at a meeting he had with them at a local grocery store. They said, ‘We have a song we want to play for you.’ We used to imitate the way Rick would sing it.”
Despite the good feelings the Traums had for Woodstock (Artie lived in nearby Lake Hill), the album has an aching, melancholy feel – present are its own tears of rage and sorrow. As the lyrics of “Golden Bird” suggest, it has intimations of sadness.
In the liner notes, Artie explains how one of the songs he wrote, “Farmers Almanac,” was inspired by a fight between cops and street people on the Lower East Side, where his house “always smelled like decaying meat.” He also writes: “We are all, all of us, alienated and afraid of this monstrous, billowing junk heap; music thrives on our energy, draws our hope, purges and soothes us. It is our life, but not our solution. A small part, maybe.”
Happy believes two of Artie’s songs on the album are particular standouts – both minor-key, loneliness-infused takes on the West: “Rabbit’s Luck” and the eerie, foreboding “The Hungry Dogs of New Mexico.” The latter was inspired by a trip Artie took out West in the early 1960s, where he met a tired waitress near the Atomic Testing Grounds who asked, “How can you be so free to travel like this?’”
The album didn’t fare well in the marketplace despite initial red-carpet treatment from Capitol. “We went out to L.A. to meet everybody – they flew us out and we went to the Capitol Tower and went from roof to basement meeting every PR person and every vice president,” Traum says.
“They treated us like the next big thing. Then we went back to Woodstock and put the thing out and found out everyone at Capitol was fired. So the next time we went out, nobody knew who we were. By the time our next album (Double-Back, also on Capitol) came out, nobody had a clue. That was our first and pretty much only experience with a major record label. After that, we went to Rounder Records and it was much better.”
By then, it was clear the Traums weren’t going to be major-label culture-defining superstars. But they became comfortable Woodstock music-makers with a sturdy, devoted folk-music following.
In 1974, the Traums put out Mud Acres: Music Among Friends on Rounder, a kind of in-the-studio hootenanny of Woodstock-area friends (including Maria Muldaur, John Herald, Jim Rooney and Bill Keith) that has developed an enduring following and several sequels. And in the 1990s, they hosted a music/variety radio show out of Albany.
Besides two subsequent releases as Happy and Artie Traum, they recorded separately as well. Artie eventually moved into guitar-based jazz. Happy even put out a new version of “Golden Bird” on an obscure 1977 album, American Stranger, for Kicking Mule Records.
So when Campbell, Helm’s producer, was looking for material for Electric Dirt, he thought to ask Traum – who sees Helm in Woodstock and has played with him occasionally. The latter suggested mostly Artie’s compositions. The only submission from their two long-forgotten Capitol Records releases was his own “Golden Bird.”
“I just thought it was one he might respond to,” Traum says. “He heard it and went right into the studio and started arranging it way they did. He got the mythology, all of the stuff he likes – I think it just rang a bell for him. I was completely thrilled.”
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: firstname.lastname@example.org