Artie Traum: Greenwich Village folk star
Tuesday 29 July 2008
He shared a manager with Bob Dylan, toured with the Band, composed the film score for a Brian de Palma movie and played on 35 albums, but Artie Traum is probably most warmly celebrated as a supreme acoustic guitar stylist. One of the first Americans to adopt and perfect the DADGAD style of tuning, he influenced generations of young musicians with his workshops and tutorial DVDs and was so intuitively gifted he could switch easily between bluegrass, folk, blues and country, while also being lauded as an improvisational jazz musician.
Raised in a middle-class neighbourhood in the Bronx, New York, he was captivated as a teenager by the music of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and, at the age of 15, was playing banjo in a bluegrass band, the B Flat Stompers. Turning to guitar, he was drawn, following in the footsteps of his elder brother Happy, to New York's vibrant Greenwich Village scene, which triggered the urban folk music boom of the early Sixties. There he listened to anything and everything and was inspired as much by the jazz icons John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Jim Hall as the folk heroes Doc Watson and the New Lost City Ramblers.
Happy and Artie Traum soon became leading lights of the burgeoning folk scene, playing the coffee houses and sitting in with occasional bands – 20-year-old Artie made his recording début in 1963 with a track called "She's Gone" alongside the blues historian Sam Charters in the True Endeavor Jug Band. The Traums also formed a Beatles-inspired band, Children of Paradise, with Eric Kaz (on electric piano) and Marc Silber (on bass). When Happy Traum moved to Woodstock, in upstate New York, he was replaced in the band by Steve Soles, and they changed their name to Bear, making one album for MGM's Verve/Forecast label.
They were also commissioned by Brian de Palma to write the score for his 1968 movie Greetings, also notable as Robert de Niro's screen début. Artie's dextrous and versatile guitar playing made him an attractive session musician and he won a lot of praise for his work on the white blues singer Judy Roderick's 1966 album Woman Blue. He even got the call to join Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in the studio for a projected album of beat poetry.
By the turn of the Seventies Artie had followed Happy to Woodstock's Hudson Valley arts colony and Dylan's manager Al Grossman, also a resident there, managed them. Their fame spread after an acclaimed headlining performance at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival, a world tour supporting the Band and two well-received country folk albums recorded in Nashville for Capitol Records, Happy & Artie Traum and Double Back, which marked Artie's development as a songwriter in the style of one of his enduring influences, James Taylor.
Throughout the next three decades the two brothers continued to play and record together sporadically, while also building solo careers. Artie ended up making 10 solo albums in a myriad different styles – instrumental virtuosity on Cayenne (1986), new age explorations on Letters From Joubee (1993), easy-listening jazz guitar on The Last Romantic (2001) and meaningful singer-songwriter material on South of Lafayette (2002). Yet he was at his best when collaborating with others, notably his brother Happy and Pat Alger, with whom he recorded one of his most successful records, From The Heart (1980).
Alger and Happy Traum both became regular members of the long-running Woodstock Mountain Revue, an informal collective of like-minded folk and country musicians living in the same area, first assembled in 1972 for an album produced by Artie, Mud Acres – Music Among Friends, also featuring Maria Muldaur, John Herald, Jim Rooney, Eric Kaz and Bill Keith. The informal warmth and looseness of what was effectively an organic community project captured the imaginations of the public and musicians alike and while the line-ups varied (John Sebastian and Paul Butterfield also became involved), the Revue went on to release five albums and became a popular attraction through the Seventies and Eighties.
The esteem in which Artie was always held by other musicians was confirmed by his 1999 album Meetings With Remarkable Friends, which was exactly what the title suggested – the remarkable friends contributing to the album including the Band, John Sebastian, Adrian Belew and bluegrass greats like the banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, the mandolinist Sam Bush and the fiddle player Jay Ungar.
Traum also became the benchmark for young acoustic guitarists. Apart from numerous tutorial books and DVDs, he was hired by Taylor Guitars to tour the US presenting guitar clinics. In later years he even turned his hand to journalism, winning the Italian Leonardo international journalism award in 2000 for an article in The New York Times on the Aeolian Islands.
In 2003 he was diagnosed with a rare ocular melanoma – cancer of the eye – but made light of the illness and continued to perform until earlier this year when it was discovered the cancer had spread to his liver.
Artie Traum, guitarist and folk singer: born New York 3 April 1943; married; died Woodstock, New York 20 July 2008.
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