Musician Happy Traum knew Dylan back in the 60s and also recorded exclusive tracks with him for the second volume of his Greatest Hits, released in 1971. Here he shares his thoughts and memories.
Do you remember the first time you met Bob Dylan?
I was first introduced to Bob in 1962 by our mutual friend, Gil Turner. I don't remember precisely, but it's possible that our first meeting was at Gil’s apartment, at a party where we were all sitting around swapping songs. Some underground tapes were made that day that have long been called The Banjo Tapes. I remember Bob singing If I Had to Go It Again I’d Do It All Over You, as well as a song that has since been covered several times, I’m A-Walking Down the Line. Please note that my chronology might be off a little. It’s been a long time…
What are some of the best memories of those early days on the folk scene, duetting with Dylan and recording his Blowin' in the Wind?
The session at which I recorded Blowin' in the Wind, with my group the New World Singers, was a memorable one for me. I was in a professional recording studio for the first time in my life and there, in the same room, were Bob Dylan (aka Blind Boy Grunt), Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, the Freedom Singers, Peter LaFarge, Mark Spoelstra and, of course, the New World Singers. This was early in 1963. Bob had taught our group Blowin' in the Wind and we were singing it at Gerdes Folk City and other venues, but very few people had heard the song at this point. It may have already been published in Broadsides Magazine, but that’s easy to document. In any case, Bob was very happy to have us do the recording, which was, to the best of my knowledge, the first time it ever appeared on record. This was also the session where Bob taught me Let Me Die in My Footsteps. He pulled out a piece of paper with the lyrics at the session, we went into the hallway and practiced it for about 10 minutes, and then we stepped in front of the microphone and played and sang it together. That was a pretty exciting day for me.
You stayed friends with Bob didn't you?
I had moved to Woodstock, NY with my family in 1966 and Bob lived right up the road from where we were staying. He was recuperating from his accident and was keeping a low profile, but he remembered us well from our NYC days so we became reacquainted and good friends. We played music together at his house and at mine, our kids played with his, and we spent quite a bit of family time together.
You ended up recording again with Bob for the Greatest Hits 2 album. How did this come about?
One day, in 1971, he called me and asked me if I would come into New York City with a banjo, a guitar and a bass. So, of course, I took the bus to New York with all my gear and met him at the Columbia Studios. As I remember, Bob and his family had recently moved to the city and he was living on MacDougal Street. It was an evening session. Bob, the sound engineer and I were the only ones in the building. We recorded four tracks, three of which later appeared on his Greatest Hits, Volume 2 album. The fourth one, Only a Hobo, came out just last year, on Bob's Another Self Portrait box set.
How can you describe playing those songs up close like that? What is it like playing with Dylan so intimately?
That studio session was very relaxed and friendly, just as it was when we played together at home. Although I was aware of the potential importance of the sessions, I was able to put that behind me and just have fun. We didn’t do more than two takes of any song, so it was very spontaneous. The only thing that wasn’t live was my bass part on You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, which I overdubbed. I had no idea whether any of those songs would ever see the light of day, so I was really delighted when they actually appeared on his Greatest Hits compilation.
One of them was I Shall be Released, which was already a classic by then because of The Band, Basement Tapes and cover versions. What are your memories of recording it?
I had known this song from The Band’s Big Pink album, as well as from the much rougher Basement Tapes, and I always loved it. Like everything else, Bob put his own stamp on the song, and when we did it in the studio it just came out in a new way. I like to think that I contributed to the feel of it with the way I played my part on the guitar and sang my vocal harmony.
You Ain't Going Nowhere; that version has been one of my favourites since I was a kid.
I have to add that this is one of my all time favourite things I have done in my career. I never get tired of hearing this version of the song and I’m extremely proud of the way it came out. To me, it has a joyous spontaneity and a great groove that just makes you want to tap your feet and sing along. I’m pretty sure Bob likes it too.
You've obviously done so much more aside working with Bob, but how do you feel he sits among the greats?
To me, Bob is on a pinnacle all his own. I can think of more accomplished guitar players, smoother singers, maybe even better pop songwriters, but I can’t think of anyone who comes close to delivering the whole package he has always given us. For me he stirs emotions, especially in his earlier work, that no one else can touch. I’d much rather hear Bob sing his songs than any of the “better” singers who have recorded them. And he’s still putting it out there all these years later!
What are some of the things that come into your mind when you think of Bob?
I still think of him as this young kid, freshly arrived in Greenwich Village, blowing everyone’s minds with his raw talent and unusual take on traditional folk and blues songs. Then, there are the songs he started writing that made his career. One night in 1963, the New World Singers were doing the late set at Gerde’s - around 1 a.m. - and Bob wandered in. There were probably a dozen people in the audience, half of them a little tipsy. We invited him to get on stage and do a couple of songs, so he pulled out his guitar and proceeded to play a new one, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Needless to say, we were all thunderstruck. No had ever written a song so poetic and meaningful, or delivered it with such power and passion. It was an unforgettable experience and I can’t hear that song, even today, without thinking of that first time he sang it for us. It rocked our world.