Happy Traum

Woodstock's own folk music legend

Music From Home - A Life in Woodstock, NY

Woodstock, NY has always had a musical resonance to me, ever since I came to play at the old Cafe Espresso on Tinker Street one wintery night in 1963. I took the bus from New York City and was picked up by the proprietor, Bernard Paturel, French and suave with his brushed mustaches and vaguely Gallic accent. He took me to his apartment above the club to meet Marylou and their small children, and then down to the Cafe, which was warm and cozy after the long, snowy bus ride. The room was already crowded with local folk who had come more to get out of the cold than to see a young unknown folksinger from the city, but everyone was as welcoming as the room itself. That summer I was invited back to perform at a much larger venue, the first of many appearances I made over the years at the Woodstock Playhouse. As before, many Woodstockers showed a keen interest in the folk music that I loved, and I began meeting more of the colorful citizens of the art colony.

My wife Jane and I knew several folk musicians who lived in the area. On a memorable summer weekend in 1965 we swapped songs with banjoist Billy Faier in his hand-hewn Lake Hill cabin and visited folklorist Sam Eskin at his home on California Quarry Rd. John Herald, who had transplanted himself from Greenwich Village a couple of years earlier, introduced us to the magical experience of swimming in Big Deep. Hooked on the aroma of pines, the looming mountains and the presence of fellow guitar pickers, we decided that this was the place in which we wanted to raise our three kids.

At about the same time, several of our friends and acquaintances from the Village music scene were drifting into town, primarily under the aegis of Albert Grossman, the renowned music business manager who had already acheived international fame by guiding the careers of Peter, Paul & Mary, Odetta, Bob Dylan, and (later) Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, the Butterfield Blues Band, Gordon Lightfoot, and many others. Jane and I had known Bob Dylan from his earliest days in New York City. (The group I was in at the time, the New World Singers, were the first to record "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright"). Now Bob was about as big as one could get, and his presence in Woodstock was like a magnet to others in and on the fringes of the music industry. There was a buzz about the town that extended from Greenwich Village and Cambridge, Mass. to LA, San Francisco and even London. Other well-known musicians started to visit or move to town, and by the end of the sixties the sounds of folk, blues, jazz, soul, rock and bluegrass was reverberating off the surrounding hills. One could walk down Tinker Street in those days and run into Van Morrison, Tim Hardin, Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt or Joan Baez. You could shop at the Grand Union or A&P with the Band, Maria Muldaur or Dylan himself. By 1969, when the Woodstock Music and Art Fair took place, the town and its music were world famous, despite the fact that the huge music and mud-fest took place more than 50 miles away.

By the seventies Albert Grossman's Bearsville Studios were going strong, and you could hear world-class music at the Cafe Espresso, Joyous Lake, Sled Hill Cafe, Woodstock Playhouse and other venues in and around town. I teamed up with my brother Artie (who had joined us in Woodstock in '68) and we played them all, including the newly transformed Elephant Café (now Emporium) and the original Woodstock Sound-Outs on Pam Copeland's farm off the Glasco Turnpike. There was a feeling that Woodstock was the center of the musical universe -- at least folk, rock and jazz -- and it was a terrifically exciting place to be. Where else could you hear Charles Mingus, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Richie Havens and Paul Butterfield's extraordinary blues band (with Dave Sanborn on sax and Buzzy Feiten on guitar), all in the space of a week? Not to mention any number of terrific locally-known rock bands and folk singers.

Our own circle of friends and neighbors included refugees from the folk music scenes of Cambridge (Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Jim Rooney, Bill Keith) and New York (John Sebastian, Eric Andersen, Eric Weissberg, Rory Block). In addition, Roly Salley arrived from Illinois, Pat Alger from Georgia, Paul Siebel from Buffalo, and Eric Kaz from...well, Woodstock. Artie had the idea of pulling together all this musical energy into an informal recording group, and in 1972 we all got together in a studio to make an album for the fledgling Rounder Records, now the largest independent label in the country. The result, “Mud Acres: Music Among Friends,”  became a classic of sorts, and the first of four LPs that we produced with the loose aggregate of singers, instrumentalists and songwriters that we had been playing with at picnics and parties. At the heart of that group was the idea that each member could make a contribution to the whole, and that informal, home-made music (performed by a talented cast of players) had a sound and feel that differed greatly from the pop and rock music that was making all the money. Each member of the group was striving for a career of his or her own, and this was a way of letting down our hair (which was pretty long in those days) and playing music that wasn't commercially viable. Despite this, the group, which had a core of about eight players and a revolving cast of about a dozen others, lasted nearly a decade. A performing ensemble formed, called the Woodstock Mountains Revue, and we went on the road, eventually playing club dates, concerts and major folk festivals in Europe, Japan and parts of the U.S. We even made a two-CD live concert recording, produced at the Bearsville Theater, that was released only in Japan. Wherever we went we patiently explained that, no, we didn't live in a muddy field on Yasgur's Farm, but in a beautiful little town in the shadow of the Catskill Mountains that had a long history as an arts colony and gathering place for creative people of all kinds.

When Jane and I moved from New York City with our three small children, I gave up a full schedule of guitar students, our primary source of income in those days. Although Artie and I started to tour more widely with our small group (which included Woodstocker Eric Kaz and Michael Esposito, who had recently retired to the area after touring with the hit band the Blues Magoos) we needed more than weekend gigs to feed our family. So, I hit on the idea of putting some guitar lessons on tape and selling them by mail order to the students I had left behind. That modest idea has since grown into a business, Homespun Tapes, which has sent learning materials from Woodstock to hundreds of thousands of aspiring musicians throughout the US and around world.

My first instructional tapes were recorded in our living room on an inexpensive home recorder. Once they were on tape, it seemed like a natural idea to offer them to a wider audience, so we placed some classified ads in a few music magazines to see what would happen. The response took us by surprise. Not only were people ordering the lessons, but they started to request instruction in other styles and instruments. To accommodate them, I recorded a few more series myself, then enlisted the help of my brother, Artie, banjo picker Bill Keith, blues/rock pianist David Cohen and other Woodstock musicians to record courses for us. Before we knew it, we had a small but growing catalog of music instruction on tape.

The name "Homespun" was an apt one. We recorded the lessons in our living room on our inexpensive reel-to-reel tape recorder. After dinner Jane and I would clear the table, hook up a daisy chain of recorders, and start making copies. It must have been a comical sight to see us then. We'd start the master player, then race down the line to get each recording machine going. At the end of the tape we'd turn each machine off, flip the tapes over, then start the process again to record the second side. The next day, after the kids caught the school bus, Jane would wrap up the tapes we recorded the night before and take them to the Woodstock Post Office. We started converting to the brand new -- and more convenient -- cassettes a couple of years later, and by the early seventies we finally purchased a tape duplicating machine, a necessary investment for us.

By 1978, we had moved the office out of our home and into a rented space on Tinker Street, and a couple of years later we purchased and renovated a building of our own. We continued making new lessons, and when VCRs started to enter the picture in about 1983, we pioneered the concept of music lessons on video cassettes. This revolutionized the home learning process: Now a student could see and hear the teacher, right there in his or her living room, showing the details of musicianship and technique in close-up detail on the family TV set.  It was as close as we could come to putting a "live" instructor right there in the home with the learning player. This new innovation was a major turning point in the success of our company.

No longer a two-person operation, by the mid-seventies we had to start hiring area residents to help with the myriad chores it took to run a growing business. Our first full-time employee, Susan Robinson, started working in our home office nearly  thirty years ago. She has seen all the changes that went down, from the time we were hand writing our mailing list in notebooks, duplicating one reel-to-reel tape at a time, and pasting labels on boxes with rubber cement. Today, we have about a dozen dedicated staff members in-house (Susan Robinson is our office manager), plus the video technicians, audio engineers, designers, editors, printers, duplicators and other outside people in the community who help us develop and distribute our product.  

One small indication of the impact we have had in places far-flung from Woodstock was brought home to us several years ago when Jane and I were on a trip to Ireland. We went to see the Cliffs of Moher, a spectacular natural sight and tourist attraction on the west coast in County Clare. Sitting on a low stone wall at the entrance to the cliffs, playing for spare change from the tourists, was an Irish fiddler. He looked the part perfectly, with his red hair, tweed jacket and cap, and he played his fiddle tunes expertly. This was one of the things I came to Ireland for -- to hear the real Irish music played by a true traditional player! After listening a while, I requested that he play  "The Cliffs of Moher," a fairly obscure tune that fiddler Kevin Burke teaches on his "Learn To Play Irish Fiddle" series for Homespun. The fiddler obliged, and when I asked him where he learned the tune, he said, "From some cassettes by Kevin Burke that I got from America. I learned many of my tunes from those tapes."

Jane and I started Homespun after moving to Woodstock as a way to help feed our growing family, and out of the conviction that making music is a positive and beneficial activity that can be done by people at all levels.  We wanted to help struggling novices learn to play to entertain themselves, their family and friends, as well as inspire advanced players with professional aspirations. We never dreamed where this would lead us. We now have a roster of more than two hundred world-class musicians -- artist/instructors from around the country and other parts of the world. A good number of them, though, live in and around Woodstock, and are a vital part of the community. (These include Artie Traum, Jack DeJohnette, Warren Bernhardt, Donald Fagen, Bill Keith, Harvey Sorgen, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, John Sebastian, Cindy Cashdollar, Rory Block, Penny Nichols, Mike DeMicco, Vinnie Martucci, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Jim Weider, David Torn and Frederick Hand.) So, it has been, in large part, the musical and creative energy of the Woodstock community that has propelled us on our path.  It's been a long and wonderful musical adventure for us for three decades, and we intend to continue the journey, exploring it from our home base in Woodstock to wherever it leads.

-- Happy Traum