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Documenting the Greats, Teaching the New: Happy and Jane Traum’s Homespun Tapes and Video by Kay Cordtz

On Rte. 212, midway between Woodstock and Saugerties, stands a two-story brown house with white trim set back a bit from the road. While it is pleasant and well kept, nothing in its outward appearance hints at the musical treasure trove that lies inside. The headquarters of Homespun Tapes and Video since 1981, it houses not only the company’s business offices but also a vast library of instructional videos by some of the most accomplished musicians in American acoustic music. Homespun videos will let you take a New Orleans piano lesson from Dr. John, get bluegrass guitar tips from Doc Watson, or learn jazz drumming techniques from Jack DeJohnnette.

Homespun is the creation of Happy and Jane Traum, who started the appropriately named business in the kitchen of their New York City apartment in 1967 with only a reel-to-reel five-inch tape recorder and a microphone. Happy was giving guitar lessons at the time, but as one of the key players in the New York folk scene (with his brother Artie, please visit for more about his varied music career), was also starting to tour frequently. To keep his students on track, he made audiotapes to help them practice, eventually recording 12 hour-long tapes based on his 1965 book Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar. Small classified ads in music magazines—the brand new Guitar Player and Rolling Stone, as well as Sing Out, where Happy was an editor—quickly yielded customers.

“People started sending us $10 bills in the mail so they seemed to like them,” Happy said. “We really wanted to get out of the city, so we packed up our three kids and moved up to Woodstock, where we could do this as well as anywhere.”

Jane recalled copying the tapes one at a time at her kitchen table after the kids went to sleep, sometimes getting them to help after school. “The beauty of this was that Happy could go on the road and still give virtual lessons,” she remembers. “That’s actually why we called it Homespun Tapes because I was home spinning the tapes while he was out traveling and doing his music.”

Not long afterward, Happy hit on what would be the company’s winning formula. Acquainted with a vast crew of accomplished musicians, he persuaded a few of them to sit in front of the tape recorder. Banjo master, Bill Keith, and fiddle player, Kenny Kosek, were among the first.

“I realized that if I could do it myself, why not have others do it too? At the same time, we could document what they were doing,” Happy said. “We were all very young at the time but some of these guys were really proficient and getting well known. From there, we started branching out with more and more people. I started adding more of my own stuff and it just grew.”

The introduction of cassette tapes in the early 1970s brought Homespun’s first technical revolution, and the change was not universally embraced. Although the recording process was much easier for them, the Traums sold both cassettes and reel-to-reel for about five years. High-speed cassettes and a machine that duplicated both reel-to-reel and three cassettes at a time made the process easier still. But in those pre-computer days, it was still a time-intensive task to market their 30 to 40 series of lessons using a handwritten mailing list of a few hundred customers stored on 3x5 cards. Happy made the labels on his publisher’s copy machine on trips into the city. In the early 1980s, video came along—a quantum leap forward but, surprisingly, an even harder sell than cassettes.

“I immediately realized that if you can see what somebody’s doing as opposed to just listening to what they’re telling you they’re doing, it makes a gigantic difference,” Happy said. Through their Homespun News, they sent out a questionnaire asking customers if they had a VCR and would like to have lessons on video.

“And 98 percent said no,” Jane laughed. “They said ‘I don’t want it, I’m never going to get a video player.’ But Happy said we were going do it anyway and within two years, that was the main part of our business.”

Recognizing their need for some expertise in this new technology, they hooked up with local videographer, Cambiz Khosravi, still their technical producer today. Starting with just one camera set up in front of their living room fireplace, they made a few of their earliest videos. As they added cameras and equipment, the productions got better. “We were just kind of experimenting with this new technology that none of us had any experience with, figuring it out as we went along,” Happy said. “But we could see that it was going to work as soon as people started buying the video cassettes.”

Even with the new technology, production had its challenges. “We started out with big clunky decks and you couldn’t just edit something in,” Jane said. “If you were halfway through and decided that something was needed at the beginning, you had to start all over again.”

The Traums also moved the business to a small office in Woodstock, then to its current location. And they moved the recording sessions out of their living room. Over the years they have recorded videos at Bearsville Studio, Levon Helm’s barn/studio in Woodstock, and Todd Rundgren’s old studio in Bearsville, now the headquarters of radio station WDST. More recently they’ve been using the Cambiz’s home studio for video of one or two people and Nevessa Studios in Saugerties with engineer Chris Andersen for larger sessions.

Sometimes Happy would take the recording sessions on the road, often to Nashville. “If I wanted to get someone documented and they couldn’t come here, I would go to them,” he said. “In Nashville, I used a variety of different studios and I found a producer who helped me organize the camera people and the technology I needed. When I worked with Doc Watson, it was in North Carolina, where he lives. I also went to California and recorded some people.”

Then, just when the public had become comfortable with videocassettes, DVDs showed up.

“Almost overnight, nobody wanted VHS,” Happy said. “We still have piles of it somewhere in storage that we don’t know what to do with.” “Converting from video to DVD was a mammoth job,” Jane said. “We had some 300 projects and had to find someone to digitize them all. We thought we’d have four years or so to make the transition, but it became clear within a couple of months that we had about a year. So we were doing 15 projects a month.”

As the business changed, it also grew. “We started going further afield, especially in the folk and country and bluegrass areas, but including some rock and jazz, too,” Happy said. “We got Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, Pete Seeger, who was my main influence and hero since I was a kid, and Doc Watson, a major influence on most people playing guitars. We got young stars of the bluegrass world like Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor—the young and up-and-coming virtuosi of their instruments, still very active and popular.”

Homespun offers lessons in nearly every kind of acoustic roots music. While they have not done brass or woodwind, they have included both harmonica and pennywhistle. “When you’re teaching strings, you see where the fingers are and you have close-ups of what positions they’re playing,” Happy said. “Horns, like harmonica, are less visual. It’s more an internal mouth/throat thing.

“We always had the feeling that our mission wasn’t only to teach people to play, but also to document traditional American music,” Happy said. “To this day, there are people I pursue because I think they’re unique or have something that nobody else has done for us or some instrument or style that we need. Some musicians have never taught before, so we have to convince them to do it. Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson had done some workshops at festivals, but they never really analyzed what they were doing. Others had been teaching for years and it was no challenge to get them to say yes.”

One big advantage Homespun has always had is its location. “The Hudson Valley is such a rich environment for music, we always had a wealth of world-class artists right here,” Jane said.

“We got to work with people like Donald Fagen, Jack DeJohnnette, Levon Helm, Jim Weider and Cindy Cashdollar,” Happy said. “Some of them are good friends, which made it especially gratifying. It was a big deal for me to get Rick Danko to record a video on playing bass because I loved The Band and his playing and he was a friend. As much as teaching people to play his style, we were also able to show something about a musician’s thought processes, how he attacks the instrument, how he thinks about his music. We had a project with Paul Butterfield, which never made it to video, but we have an audio historical record of him talking about playing the harmonica, which doesn’t really exist anywhere else. John Sebastian, who’s been a friend for 30 years, has made several videos for us.”

Sebastian has worked with Homespun since the audio era, recording both an autoharp lesson and, with Paul Butterfield, a six-CD set on blues harmonica, without benefit of video. “I was not taught with a visual reference and that may have helped,” he said. “My best teachers—Sonny Terry and Doc Watson—were not sighted people.”

Sebastian has since recorded his lessons on video. He has also recorded guitar videos, including The Fingerpicking Blues of Mississippi John Hurt with Happy Traum and his late brother, Artie. Sebastian, whose only previous teaching experience was as a camp counselor, gives Happy full credit for the success of the lessons. “Part of Happy Traum’s genius is his production skills,” he said. “Many of us, myself particularly, have not had that much experience as music teachers. I have seen Happy make the difference between a good video and a great video just by asking the right questions. You see only the visible teacher, but he’s on the other side of the camera telling you what might help the student.”

Larry Campbell, who recently recorded Interpreting the Gospel Songs and Style of Rev. Gary Davis for Homespun, is an entirely self-taught multi-instrumentalist. Before working with Happy, he had some limited experience teaching guitar at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch. But he was not entirely comfortable in that role, and had never taught to a camera. Recently, he did his second stint at Fur Peace on interpreting the style of Blind Blake.

“I was a nervous wreck in there,” he laughed. “I don’t consider myself a teacher and these guys in the classroom are hungry to learn what you have to show them. Over time, I have learned that the two main requirements are caring about the people who are trying to learn and having the patience to get through to them.”

He also praised Happy’s skills in the studio. “I went in completely ignorant of how this was going to go down,” he said. “But Happy made it a really relaxed and enjoyable experience. He has great directorial skills. He asked the right questions to spur me to present something interesting and made it flow in a logical way. He’s always been a great teacher and has a real instinct for it.”

Like most musicians of his generation, Happy didn’t have this benefit of a resource like Homespun. “I learned the old fashioned way, by watching people, asking questions, taking some lessons,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have studied with traditional blues artist, Brownie McGhee, and I took some classical guitar lessons just to learn the fundamentals of music. At Homespun, we offer lessons for people who are picking up their instrument for the first time and want to know where to put their fingers and lessons that professional musicians can learn from, like Larry Campbell’s. Even if they’ve been playing all their lives, they can learn from what Larry has to show them.

“I hear from professional musicians who say they’ve gotten a lot out of our tapes,” he continued. “Skill level is a bell curve and most people are somewhere in the middle. They play a little bit, but they want to improve and learn new techniques. But we also get letters from people who didn’t play at all and now they’re out in their local jam sessions. It makes our day when we hear that.”

Jane added, “Now, kids are playing at an extraordinarily high level and I think it’s because they can just order a DVD and if they’re talented and committed, they can master the fundamentals.”

Technological changes led to the inevitable downsizing of Homespun’s office staff. At its employment peak, Homespun had a staff of 15, headed up by office manager Susan Robinson, who started working for them when the business was in their home and is still with them today.

At that time, there were several people just answering phones. But with the advent of the Internet, the phone doesn’t ring much anymore. Distribution is handled mainly by Hal Leonard, the Milwaukee company that also sells Homespun’s instructional books. Homespun also distributes overseas, mainly in the UK, Australia, New Zealand—places where English is most likely spoken—but also in Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Japan.

“We have a wonderful, small, dedicated staff that keeps everything running and supplies very good customer service, but most of our orders now come in online,” Jane said. “Susan is here most of the time, getting the orders from the website into our accounting and royalty systems, and shipping orders to customers or Hal Leonard. She knows Homespun inside and out. She’s also a musician, so she has some insights into the finished product.”

But on the business side, Jane is the key, working with the graphic artists on cover concepts and ads, organizing and designing the catalogs, coordinating the projects to make sure deadlines are met and handling the finances. “There wouldn’t be a Homespun business without Jane,” Happy said. “It definitely wouldn’t happen.”

The Traum children have also been involved with the business nearly all their lives. April, who lives in Woodstock and has played drums since childhood, has worked in the office. Merry, who is not a musician, has done work from a distance. Adam, a guitar player/teacher and photographer who lives in California, has both recorded and produced Homespun lessons. “They all know the business because they grew up with it,” Jane said.

Recently, the company underwent another big change and now offers material downloadable by computer. “People can go online and download a proprietary player where we have our entire catalog of DVDs and download whatever they want directly to their computer’s hard drive,” Happy said. “It’s become a significant part of the business.” A California company did the conversions and developed software that locks up the material, so it can’t be shared or put on YouTube. Homespun also launched a new website in January.

They intend to keep widening their musical reach, hoping to record a klezmer fiddle video with a member of The Klezmatics. “It’s a very vital music now, so we feel it will add something unique and special to our catalog,” Happy said. They also recently completed a book project with Steve Martin based on his banjo CD, The Crow. At the time of this interview, they had just returned from MerleFest where Happy performs every year.

“Happy being a performing musician has been a tremendous advantage for our business,” Jane said. “He says it wouldn’t run without me but truly, it wouldn’t run without Happy. Because they know him, other musicians trust him to make them look good. He’s not just a camera guy shooting a film; he knows how to get the best out of people.”

Please visit for more about Homespun’s continuing music instructional series, and for more about the ongoing musical career of Happy Traum.

Photos by Catherine Sebastian

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