Eric Brace & Peter Cooper,
C&O Canal
(Red Beet, 2016)

Happy Traum,
Just for the Love of It
(independent, 2015)

Happy Traum, who lives in Woodstock, New York, also has lived in the folk realm most of his long life. If never a star, he has always been a respected figure, on friendly terms with some of the revival's bigger, brighter lights, including Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, members of The Band, and others. He edited Sing Out! as popular enthusiasm for folk music was waning, and against the odds he managed to make the magazine lively and necessary. Hardly a Dylan biography fails to quote his probing SO! interview with the man.

To the more immediate point, he is a lyrical vocalist and tasteful finger-style guitar player. His mid-1970s album Relax Your Mind may be the most underrated folk recording of its era, recalled fondly (at least in my experience) by just about everybody who heard it. He remains a folk singer of the old school, not a singer-songwriter but an interpreter of traditional songs, augmented by compositions of trad-influenced contemporaries.

Or maybe "old school" isn't quite the right description, since young performers who call themselves folk singers and who sing folk songs seem to be showing up, happily, in growing numbers these days. Still, it's true that Traum is firmly in the Pete Seeger grain, particularly the Seeger of the multi-volume American Favorite Ballads (issued in the 1950s and early '60s, the series helped shape the repertoires of the era's folk performers). Traum records infrequently -- the aptly titled Just for the Love of It is his first release in a decade -- but this one has attracted more than usual attention, sometimes in unexpected places.

Produced by Traum with Larry Campbell and backed by a small, shifting band of accompanists, Just for the Love weighs in at a generous hour's length. It features 13 songs, traditional or close enough, and one instrumental, this a lovingly picked version of Pee Wee King's beautiful "Tennessee Waltz." (Yes, a little joke; it's probably the only song known to Homo sapiens whose own lyrics call it "beautiful.") There's a Seeger composition, "Sailing Down My Golden River," along with Dylan's "Crash on the Levy," known as "Down in the Flood" when Traum cut it with Dylan in 1971 on the latter's Greatest Hits Vol. 2. Inspired in part by Richard "Rabbit" Brown's "James Alley Blues" (1927), it exemplifies Dylan's genius at boring into tradition and transforming it with utter conviction. Yet it's relatively obscure, and therefore a treat to hear again. It's accomplished with Traum's grasp of both the original and the reconstructed, as the bitter romantic complaint of "Alley" takes a melodramatic turn to natural apocalypse in "Crash."

The rest of the content is devoted to songs anyone who knows old folk music will recognize -- e.g., "The Water is Wide," "Careless Love," "In the Pines," "Jay Gould's Daughter" -- without ever tiring of. Traum makes old friends feel like welcome new ones. Still, I envy anyone who's hearing them for the first time. In that case, all I can tell you is that if you possess a heart and a soul, they will never leave you.

In the early to mid-1970s Washington, D.C., and surrounding suburbs were home to another variety of roots revival, one centered on folk-based singer-songwriters and innovative bluegrass bands. That scene was graced with destined-to-be stars Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter as well as exciting 'grass outfits such as the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene. It must have been a heavenly place to be. My own equivalent was Chicago in 1971, when John Prine and Steve Goodman reigned supreme.

Eric Brace & Peter Cooper were there in the district, showing up as awed young listeners at the same clubs. The two wouldn't meet, however, for another two decades, by which time they had independently moved to Nashville. In later years, as leading figures in the East Nashville songwriting movement, they have performed alone and as a duo. (I have reviewed their various projects in this space, most recently Cooper's Depot Light on 9 January.) They also founded Red Beet Records, which has signed worthy acoustic acts who otherwise might have been overlooked.

C&O Canal celebrates the folk and bluegrass performers and writers who played the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, and other clubs catering to new music with connections to the old. As consummate professionals, Brace & Cooper have mastered the clean, melodic vocals and harmonies one associates with the Seldom Scene, whose John Starling provides the title song and "He Rode All the Way to Texas." The latter shot to the top of my personal chart when it first passed through my ears many years ago. I remember urging the late Chicago folksinger Fred Holstein to learn it. With his brothers Ed and Alan, Fred ran Holstein's, the city's foremost folk club where I was about as ubiquitous as Brace and Cooper, before they became Brace & Cooper, were at the Birchmere. Alas, Fred wasn't interested. His loss, and a tip of the hat from me to the present artists for bringing the song back into my life.

Besides Starling, C&O Canal draws on the writing talents of, most prominently, Harris ("Boulder to Birmingham"), Carpenter ("John Wilkes Booth"), Alice Gerrard ("Love was the Price") and Ralph Stanley ("If That's the Way You Feel," stunningly arranged and sung, perhaps the album's highlight). There's no actual bluegrass here, and only one folk song by strict definition, Virginia songster John Jackson's take on "Boat's up the River," known in other variants as "Way Down in North Carolina," "Waterbound" and more.

I am partial to just about any recording by Brace, Cooper, or the two in partnership, but this one exudes a special warmth. It and Traum's Just for the Love of It each attest in their way to the enduring power of folk music, however defined.

music review by
Jerome Clark

20 February 2016

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