The Dylan Review met with Happy Traum in person, June 4, 2023, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the day after his rousing keynote address at the 2023 World of Bob Dylan conference.
Dylan Review: You went to the Woody Guthrie center yesterday and Bob Dylan center today. What are your impressions?
Happy Traum: Oh, I love them both. Woody has a lot of resonance for me, because I grew up on Woody. After hearing Pete Seeger, and Pete Seeger was kind of a natural channel straight to Woody. So I dove into those Dust Bowl ballads, and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya’,” “Hard travelin’.” I learned them all – most of them are three chord songs anyway, so they’re not that hard. But I love his voice and everything else about him, even though it was more than a world away from where I grew up. It was all an education for me to hear Woody. Part of that exhibit was in New York last year, at the Morgan library of all places. That’s something to think about too: Woody Guthrie in J.P. Morgan’s library. It’s a weird world, isn’t it? Because Woody was as far away from J.P. Morgan as you can imagine. And I know the Guthrie family, I know Nora quite well, I know Arlo somewhat. So that was moving to me in the sense that I knew the story well, and the Dylan Center was even more impressive in its size. It’s a bigger place, and just the depth of stuff. A lot of it was nostalgic for me, because the sections I knew best were his 60s stuff. They didn’t have a whole lot from Woodstock. It’s probably a revolving exhibit. I know they have tons of stuff in their archives, but I find it very moving, especially the depth of stuff he’s done since his teenage years. And I saw some pictures that brought me back in time. I enjoyed both immensely.
DR: Were there any Dylan artifacts that especially stood out for you?
HT: There was one thing that I was very surprised about, which I had never seen. There was a little part of the exhibit about the interview I did with John Cohen and Sing Out! Magazine in ‘68. They had the magazine there, and then they had a letter from John Cohen to Bob, next to the magazine, talking to Bob about how there was a line in the ending that Bob had taken out, but John thought it should go in, and he mentioned something like “I spoke to Happy about this.” I hadn’t seen that letter, I didn’t know it existed. One thing that struck me was the photographer Ted Russell took these early pictures of Dylan, like ‘62, in his apartment on West Fourth Street. And also, there were a few photos of Gerde’s Folk City. Wonderful photographs. The very first picture was of Dylan and Mark Spoelstra, who was a terrific songwriter, a twelve-string guitar player, and a good friend of mine. They’re playing together in this little space in the basement of Gerde’s, which euphemistically was called the dressing room, but it was really a horrible basement down these rickety stairs. There was nothing nice about it at all. But where that picture was taken was the very spot where Gil Turner taught The New World Singers – Bob Cohen, Delores Dixon, me – “Blowin’ in the Wind” from a sheet of paper that Bob had given to him. And I think my memory is right, we then went upstairs to the stage of Gerde’s and sang the song for the first time. It was in our repertoire from then on, and that picture just rang that memory for me.
DR: You mentioned yesterday in your keynote address that you were first to record both “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” What’s it like to be the first one to put the songs down?
HT: We didn’t know at the time. We were the first ones to do “Blowin’ in the Wind” because Bob gave us the song for us to sing. He liked our group a lot. He used to follow us to different gigs around the city, the Village. He’d show up late night, one in the morning, when there were twelve people in the audience and we’d need to do some songs, some we’d do together. So we knew it was a special song, but we didn’t know how special. We didn’t know, historically, that we’d still be talking about it sixty years later. But with “Don’t Think Twice,” you know, Freewheelin’ hadn’t come out yet. And he taught that song to Gil Turner, and he was the de facto leader of our band, The New World Singers. We learned it, we took it to Atlantic Records while we were making our one and only album for them, and they decided they wanted to put it out as a single. They cut it down to two verses or three verses or something because, until “Like a Rolling Stone,” nobody played on the radio anything longer than two and-a-half minutes. And so we recorded it. We did have a minor hit in the south with it. They were pushing it – Atlantic – but it never got anywhere. And then of course Freewheelin’ came out and everybody and his brother and sister recorded that song. There’s probably a thousand recordings of that song. I don’t think it says in any history books, but ours was definitely the first time it was recorded.
DR: How did you get into traditional music? And what were some of your early influences?
HT: Pete Seeger was the conduit right from the start. He was the guy who I heard play banjo, sing folk songs. And the songs he was singing had nothing to do with anything that I ever heard on the radio. Just the fact that somebody could play for himself, sing, and get a big audience – and he was very charismatic, Pete in his younger days. And he got everybody singing. He was always the big cheerleader. Everybody had to sing along with him. So that got me started, going out and buying guitar and then buying a banjo and learning how to play. And it was a process. When you get passionate about something like that, which I did – you know, I have no musical background. I took piano lessons for a few years and, total failure. To this day, I can’t play the piano. But suddenly, there was this kind of music that I could do myself, and I found a cadre of kids at my high school, and also then in Washington Square Park, who also could play three chords and sing a hundred songs. I’d go to the record stores and see what else was out there. There was a record store in New York, it was called Doubleday, part of the Doubleday bookstore on Fifth Avenue. They had listening rooms, where you could take the records, vinyl records, into the listening room and play them to decide if you wanted to buy them or not. We spent hours in there playing records.
DR: They never chased you out?
HT: I don’t think so. I don’t know how many records we scratched up. I remember hearing Lead Belly for the first time and it was a little rough for me. I wasn’t sure. There was another store called Sam Goody, and they sold “seconds,” which were records that sometimes didn’t have the covers, and they had a hole punched in the label to show that they were somehow defective or had something wrong with them. Instead of three dollars, you could get them for one dollar. And I have a bunch of records at home to this day that have the hole punched in them. And then I finally got Lead Belly’s Last Sessions and started listening to him and just got immersed, I just could not stop. I didn’t get into the more hardcore blues until a little later, but I got into Josh White, and some of the folk singers of the day. Odetta was just coming on the scene then in the mid 50s. I actually heard her in concert at the Folklore Center, forty people there, folding chairs. And she was standing there singing. Wow. Huge. And people who were down hanging out in the Village we’d run into at various coffee shops, or the Limelight where a lot of the Irish guys would hang out. Liam Clancy was often there, holding forth with some fiddle player. And I got into whaling ballads, Ewan MacColl. Everything I could get my hands on that was folky, I liked.
DR: Eventually you took guitar lessons with Brownie McGhee. How did that come about?
HT: I loved his music. I had a record of his that I just played over and over. And eventually, I looked him up. I was going to college, up at NYU’s main campus. This was in the Bronx, not Washington Square where it has now been for a long time. But it was a big open campus with a quad and the library, a beautiful place overlooking the Harlem River. My friend said Brownie lived in New York, and to look him up, so I did. I called him and went down to audition for him in a way. He said, “Let me see what you can do.” I could play a little bit at that point, and he took me on and it was probably two or three years. I went frequently – not every week, but whenever I could or when he was around. He was going on tour at that point a lot with Sonny Terry, who was getting more and more popular on the folk circuit. But Brownie was a very interesting guy. He was the only one of those blues guys that I really got to know pretty well rather than casually saying hello to. I got to know his family, I spent time in his apartment, we took some trips together.
Brownie knew how to navigate the difference between the Black community and white, liberal New York. He came to New York in the 40s, from Kingsport, Tennessee, and then he was in North Carolina, where he met Sonny Terry, and then eventually came to New York and there was a whole milieu of of leftist folkies around – Pete Seeger, the Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Josh White – it was this community, most of whom came out of the leftist communist or close to communist world. And I’m not saying that Brownie himself was politically communist at all, but he was in that world. Leadbelly was very much a part of that too, because Alan Lomax was a communist. So these guys created the New York folk scene, really, in the 40s, before my time. Brownie learned a lot from that, and he was very interesting too, because he was very smart. And he could straddle those worlds. He also played electric guitar in an R&B band in Harlem and he once took me to a ballroom where he was playing, and his brother was Stick McGhee who had a big hit called “Drinkin’ Wine Spo- Dee-O-Dee.” So Stick and Brownie, they had a band and Brownie was playing through an amp, I think he was playing his acoustic through an amp, and that was a Black scene, so he straddled those worlds very successfully. That’s why Brownie and Sonny were a big hit on the circuit, because unlike the other blues guys, they knew how to put themselves across in a way that was acceptable to the college kids.
DR: How much fusing of folk and the blues was there in that community around Washington Square?
HT: It was very much a part of it. Everybody played some blues guitar, some more than others. Dave Van Ronk, of course, was pretty steeped in blues, and also early jazz. My first year at NYU, there was a guy named Ian Buchanan, and Ian had a depth of knowledge of blues guys I never heard of, and he and I spent a lot of time in his dorm room listening to records and playing together. I learned a lot from him. And interestingly, he left NYU his sophomore year and went to Antioch, and I lost touch with him. At Antioch he met Jorma Kaukonen, and Jorma’s a big blues guy, a big fan of acoustic blues. And Ian taught Jorma a lot of stuff. But there were quite a few really good blues players around the Village in those days. Dave Van Ronk comes to mind first.
DR: Did Bob Dylan distinguish himself as a quality blues player?
HT: No, I don’t think so. He picked up from the blue stuff, he listened to a lot of that stuff. “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” all that stuff. He had a lot of that stuff in his repertoire. When he first came to New York, he only played traditional stuff. He was just playing folk stuff. Woody Guthrie songs. “House of the Rising Sun,” which he learned from Dave Van Ronk. Songs like that. If you look at his first album, he had a lot of those bluesy kinds of songs, but nobody would have mistaken him for a blues singer. But he definitely incorporated that in his early style. And then there are two original songs and I remember hearing at Gerde’s Folk City. I remember hearing him sing “Song to Woody,” the first song I ever heard that he wrote, and everybody went, “Whoa, what was that?”
DR: Did you know he had written it?
HT: No, I don’t think so. I just heard him singing it, you know “Hey Hey, Woody Guthrie,” and I thought, “wow, that was really cool.”
DR: You spoke last night about being arrested in your early days for protesting a compulsory air raid.
HT: In those days, we were very anti-nuke, anti-war, and we were doing demonstrations. I actually met Gil Turner on a peace march in Groton, Connecticut, because they have a submarine base there. And we were demonstrating – fruitlessly, of course, no impact at all – but we had a march down the streets of Groton, Connecticut to the shipyard where they had this nuclear submarine which we were trying to stop from being launched – fat chance. And Gil was on that march. So he and I and Bob Cohen, also from the New World Singers, though I was not in the group at the time: April, I think, 1961. We went to City Hall Park (in New York City), because in those days it was compulsory to take shelter when the sirens went off and there was an air raid drill. When I think about it now it was, what, fifteen, sixteen years after World War Two, so air raids were serious. It was a serious thing. But we were of the mind that these drills made it seem like it was safe to have nuclear war, and we want to make it clear that, no, you can’t talk about nuclear war and safety, you can’t just jump in a building and be safe, or dive in the subway. So we went to City Hall Park, and the police came with a bullhorn. The sirens went off and they said, “If you don’t take shelter, you’ll be under arrest.” And because we had our guitars and banjos and stuff, we were their first targets.
They grab me, they grab Gil Turner, and about fifty others out of something like a thousand people there. They took us all to the tombs which is where, when they arrested you for something like drunk and disorderly, they threw you in the tombs – downtown New York, and the courthouse was there. They broke the fifty of us up into different groups, and I was in a group with maybe ten guys, no women. We were out on bail, fifty dollars or something, and we got a lawyer, a pro bono civil rights lawyer. Nice guy. He said, “Get together fifty dollars. You’ll each pay a fifty dollar fine. It’s not a felony, it’s a misdemeanor. Don’t worry about it.” On the court date, my wife Jane comes down with me to the courthouse. It was my birthday, in May. We’re standing there, and the judge says, “Do you have anything to say?” One guy of the ten of us stands up, his name was Perlman, and he makes a statement. He says, “Yes your Honor. The reason I did this, and the reason I would do it again in the future is because this is unjust.” The judge says, “Anybody else?” So somebody else says something, and somebody else. Then I stand up, and my whole statement is, “We did this non-violently, it was out of respect, we didn’t resist, it was just to make a statement.” And the judge says to me, “And you agree with Mr. Perlman?” And I said, “Yes.” And the judge said, “Those of you who spoke up in court, thirty days. The rest of you, fifty dollar fine.”
DR: What were you feeling at the time?
HT: I was in shock. Yeah. I’m this Jewish boy from the Bronx, and my family was mortified. My mother was freaked out. My father had just died the year before. So my mother and my grandmother were like, our family doesn’t do that.
DR: There was no part of you that thought “Hey, I’m being martyred here, for a cause”?
HT: Definitely. I was also proud about it. It turned out and there was a group called The War Resisters League that we were connected with, which was a very radical pacifist group in New York. Probably nationwide too. Several members of the War Resisters League refused the fifty dollar fine, in solidarity. In subsequent trials they said, “you have to put us in jail too.” There were maybe ten other guys who ended up on Hart’s Island where I was, and they purposely separated us all out. They wouldn’t let us near each other – different areas of the facility. But we did come together at various times, and one of those guys became a lifelong friend. Wonderful, amazing guy. And those guys helped me. Some of those guys had actually gone to jail for not taking part in World War II – that I couldn’t really get into, but these guys were such strong pacifists. They just said, “I’m not fighting. I’m not killing anybody. I don’t care who they are.” For World War II? That was a little much, but they were fabulous people. They really helped the cause and made me feel pretty strong about being there. And I got letters from people. I was a guitar teacher then and a lot of my guitar students sent letters. I didn’t get them until later. It was tough. It was hard. I got sick. By the time I got out I was running a high fever. It was a serious time.
DR: And this was a workhouse on Hart’s Island?
HT: Yes, it’s not a prison anymore. But it’s a potter’s field, for indigent people, when there’s nobody to claim the body. Our job as prisoners was to move bodies around to make room for the new ones, to consolidate. I do think that Bob must’ve known about that when he chose me to sing “I will not go down under the ground / ‘Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ‘round.”
DR: You’re thinking in retrospect this may be why he gave “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” to you?
HT: That’s the only thing I can think of. Why pick me to sing that song when Pete Seeger was there, Gil Turner, who he was very close to, was there. I never asked him, but it occurred to me years later: he chose me to sing that song.
DR: How did you feel when Dylan “went electric”?
HT: I had mixed feelings about it. I was never one of those guys who would get frayed. First time I ever heard him with The Band was at Carnegie Hall. Bob did the first half solo, acoustic and then he broke these guys out – guys I became really good friends with later, but I didn’t know them at the time – but he broke these guys out and suddenly it was rock ‘n’ roll. It took a while. I didn’t love it. I mean, I didn’t hate it. I wasn’t like, “Oh, my God it’s the end of the world.” But it took me a while to see what he was doing with that. I did catch on pretty quickly. And then I met those guys and got to know them, and they turned out to be one of my all time favorite bands. Music from Big Pink was life changing, for everybody.
DR: Did you ever plug in? Were you ever tempted to do so?
HT: In ‘65, ‘66, my brother and I had an electric band, kind of Beatles influenced, called the Children of Paradise. We played around the Village, we went up to Canada, we played in Boston. And I lasted with them for not quite two years. I didn’t like it myself. I just wasn’t comfortable playing electric instruments. I didn’t think I was contributing enough. I just didn’t feel right with it. My brother, Mark Silber, who was the bass player, and Eric Kaz went on to write mammoth songs. But that was a kind of Beatles-ish – striped outfits, really wacky, British mod kind of clothing. So then I moved to Woodstock. A year later, my brother moved to Woodstock too, and we formed a band that did have some electric instruments and drums and stuff like that. We were rocking a little bit, but we were still pretty folky.
DR: When you move to Woodstock, you’re in this creative environment where Dylan was right down the street, The Band was nearby, George Harrison was filtering through…
HT: George Harrison was coming through, Paul Butterfield. John Hall and Orleans, Richie Havens. (Jimi) Hendrix’s manager was living there so he was coming through from time to time. It was this fertile ground, like Greenwich Village suddenly all moved up to Woodstock. In the early 70s a lot of folkies came too from the Boston area. Geoff Muldaur, and Maria Muldaur. A whole bunch of people who came over from Cambridge. It was just like a big mishmash of different kinds of musical styles. A lot of really great jazz players came to town.
DR: Do you have any favorite material that came out of that time?
HT: My brother was a very creative songwriter, and also a really good guitar player, much better than me. We formed a duo and then we brought around us Eric Kaz. We had a really good bass player and sometimes a drummer came and went. We would bring different people in, and eventually formed a group called the Woodstock Mountains Review, and we made four records. Eric Anderson was part of it, John Sebastian was part of it. It just revolved around great local musicians. So early on, ‘68 and ‘69, through the intercession of Bob Dylan – he put us together with Albert Grossman, as manager. Albert got us on Capitol Records. We made two albums for Capitol, which was big time. We also got to the Newport Folk Festival in ‘68 and ‘69.
DR: Was that your first time there?
HT: Yeah. And we did really well there. And then by 1970, we were recording for Capitol and we had a career together for several years after that. And that was a very primal time for me.
DR: You spoke last night about recording with Allen Ginsberg and that whole troupe of people for Jelly Roll Blues.
HT: I did get to meet Allen then, and play some of those songs. The (William) Blake songs, and “September on Jessore Road,” that poem he put to music. Also the Jimmy Berman song (“Jimmy Berman (Gay Lib Rag)”). But then Alan took a liking to me and my family. We did a bunch of gigs together. At some point, I don’t know what year, he and Peter Orlovsky went to London, and Jane and I were in London, and they called us. We went out on a kind of punk pub crawl. We went to a place called the Marquee Club, which was one of the centers of the punk rock world. We were trying to get in, it was very crowded. Nobody knew who Allen was. Finally somebody recognized him and Allen spent the next two hours we were there talking to everybody. People were like, “who is this old guy?” Kids with safety pins through their faces, and he’d talk to anybody. That was a really fun night.
DR: And then you had a lifelong friendship with Allen Ginsberg?
HT: Pretty much, yeah. I didn’t see him in his last years, and I was sad when I didn’t even know he was sick and dying, because we kind of lost touch a little bit, and we were off to other things. So I didn’t see him before he died, and I was sorry about that, but he would make our house his sort of stopping off place when he came to Woodstock.
DR: What was his orientation to Bob Dylan?
HT: He just adored Dylan. He just was in awe, which is kind of amazing when you think, “it’s Allen Ginsberg,” you know? And I think it was somewhat reciprocal, but I don’t know how much Dylan was in awe of Allen. I’m sure he was very fond of him. Allen, especially in his later years, became a very lovable guy. I didn’t know him, of course, when he was younger. I think he was much more hard-edged, from what I’ve heard. And evidently, Alan had psychotic episodes – I never saw any of that. And he never missed a chance to ask, “Have you seen Bob?”
DR: What was that special Thanksgiving you mentioned with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and The Band?
HT: One special moment, in ‘70 or ‘71, Bob invited my brother Artie and me over to his house on Ohayo Mountain and Artie and I and George and Bob spent three hours playing old folk songs together. Playing guitars and playing everything that came to mind. No rock and roll, just folk songs. And George adored Dylan. George was just in awe of Dylan, and Bob, you know, he liked that. He liked the fact that somebody like George Harrison was that enamored. But George was a lovely guy. He was very open. And I’m sorry now I was a little too intimidated – first of all, I never thought to take a picture. I never wanted to be intrusive, but now I regret it. If I had a picture of Bob and George and us and our acoustic guitars, it would’ve been great.
DR: It seemed to me last night you still love performing for people.
HT: I do. I feel like it’s the one thing I can do that brings joy to people. And I feel like at my age, I’m still playing pretty well. I can still handle the guitar. I still have my voice – whatever it was, it still is. I do other things, obviously – make instructional videos. Homespun (Music Instruction) has been a big part of our life since we started in ‘67.
One time, in ‘68, ‘69, Bob turned to me – and this is very ironic, because it could’ve been taken as encouragement or a put down; I’m not sure how to take it, because I’m a musician – Bob said, “You know, you ought to go into the mail order business.” Why would you say that to somebody? But in fact, that’s how I ended up making my living. So he was right. I never would’ve made a comfortable living by playing music. It wasn’t because he said that, that we went into the mail order business, but he was right.
Another funny story: I was one of the few people in Woodstock who had Bob’s phone number. There were a few people, but it was highly classified. Like, it’s good Trump didn’t have it. So one day, I got a call at the house from Clive Davis, and Bob was on Columbia at this point. He said, “I’ve lost Bob’s number, could you give it to me, please?” I said, “I’m sorry Clive, I’ll tell Bob you were looking for him, but I can’t give it to you.” I’ll never forget that. He said, “Okay, please tell Bob,” and I called Bob right away and I said “Clive Davis is trying to get in touch with you.” Several years later I ran into Clive and I reminded him of that and we both laughed. I mean, telling Clive Davis, “I’m sorry I can’t give Bob Dylan’s phone number.” What could I do? I don’t know whether Bob wants me to give you his phone number.
DR: You could’ve lost your privileges!
HT: I could’ve! That’s right.
DR: Do you ever talk to Bob Dylan now?
HT: For some strange reason I haven’t been able to get a hold of him. I mean, I’ve tried very much, but we saw him in 2001. He did a concert at Madison Square Garden, after 9/11, and it was a very moving concert. It was one of the best I’ve ever seen. And he only did songs that he wrote in New York. He made a statement to the audience, which he rarely does anymore. He said, “All the songs I’m doing in this concert I wrote in this city, and this is a great city,” because everybody was still in shock. Through Jeff Rosen’s office, through Bob, Jane and I got backstage passes, and we went to hang out with Bob backstage a little bit. We had a nice conversation, he asked about our kids. I said, “You should come up and see us again. Come by.” And he said “Yeah, I’m sure I could still find your house.” It was all very congenial and nice. And then he said, “Come walk with me to the car,” the underground garage where his SUV was waiting for him. And we walked him to his car, and he was totally friendly and open and said goodbye, and that was the last time I saw him.
DR: Twenty-plus years, huh?
HT: Yeah, so I’m grateful for those years that we spent a lot of time with them. There’s still this family connection, strangely enough My oldest daughter, who lives in L.A., is still in touch with his daughter-in-law, Stacy, married to his son Sam. She’s also in touch with Maria, Bob’s oldest daughter. And I’ve seen Jacob a few times. So we still have some family connection, and Jacob knows a little bit of the history, though I think he was too young to remember Woodstock at all. Back when he came to play in Woodstock, maybe ten years ago, I went to hang out with him. He said, “I don’t even know where we lived.” And I said, “I’ll be glad anytime to take you up there and show you,” but I haven’t had that chance.